Thursday, October 31, 2013

What if the record business survived but the album didn't?

Went to the Mercury Music Prize show last night in the company of the BPI.

From the table talk it seems the business is beginning to get the upper hand against the big torrent sites, which your ISP will be legally obliged to block.

The sales cake may be worth roughly half of what it was worth fifteen years ago in terms of value but since it's increasingly a digital cake the costs are lower. Streaming is on its way to being, if not necessarily the whole market, as it is in Sweden, then certainly a significant part of that market. Speculation is that at some point in the future you'll have a service like Spotify bundled into your broadband deal.

All this will mean that for most people it won't be worth their trouble to steal things. Access to all music will be more important than ownership of particular items of recorded music.

It seems funny to be discussing this after watching twelve acts competing for the Mercury Music Prize, which was introduced in conscious emulation of the Booker Prize and is dedicated to the proposition that the 45-minute album is an artistic form as coherent and enduring as the novel, that some forms of it are more precious than others and furthermore that the public at large can still be persuaded to buy into that.

I can see why you might believe it. I can see why the acts would want to believe it. There's very little sign that the people they used to call "the record-buying public" do.


  1. Unlike an album the only way to 'get' a book is to start at the beginning and work your way through to the end. If in 2013 an album is only a ragbag collection of 10 immediately forgotten soundbytes then it will only survive if it's broken down into bite size chunks, shuffled and deposited on your MP3 player for random playback. Not the ideal environment for a Tommy or a Dark Side of the Moon.

  2. I had one of those sobering moments recently where reality slaps you hard around the face.

    I was talking to a fellow volunteer at Healthwatch. He is 19 and streams all his music from Spotify. He genuinely didn't understand why anybody would want to purchase music on a record or a CD.

    I belong to an older generation. I enjoy the ritual of putting a record on and investing some time in it. On Tuesday I bought the new Arcade Fire album which is a double CD. There is so much to take in; at the moment I couldn't tell you anything about it, other than that the songs are, for the most part, interesting and I want to hear them again.

    Part of the pleasure of listening to music in this format lies in building up a relationship with a record, allowing the patterns time to gradually come into focus, and appreciating the small details as they reveal themselves.

    For better of for worse the Arcade Fire album is mine. I can hold it in my hands. I will be able to listen to it for as I possess a working CD player and the disc remains in good condition.

    If you value something then you need to take responsibility for it. By relying purely on a streaming service you are forsaking responsibility for convenience. You are gambling on the company that streams your music not dicking you around. You are relying on your favourite artists to stay with the service and not pull their music. You are putting all your eggs in one basket.

    I am unwilling to make that gamble and will stay with the physical format for as long as is possible.

  3. Anonymous3:49 pm

    There is, too, something in the ownership of the physical artefact. Lou Reed's death caused us to roll out the old Velvets albums (although as it happened, Loaded was already on the turntable anyway) and holding that iconic banana cover I was again struck by its own artistic merit. Being such a striking image, it even looks lovely in thumbnail on my iPod, but that's not my preferred method of listening if I have the choice. The good lady wife and I have made a conscious effort of an evening to choose a vinyl album and sit patiently listening to the bugger: no faffing with shuffle or skipping tracks, the audio embodiment of Fear Of Missing Out.

    That said, some change does beckon. We're moving house soon and I think the majority of the CDs will go into boxes headed for loft or charity. There'll be some I can't bear to let go, but there's more that I have simply garnered along the way and will never play again.

    I completely understand backwards7's typically well-put point about the precarious nature of the digital realm - that reminds me: must back up the hard drive - but the simple truth is that the vast majority of music I listen to is either on iPod or turntable (with handy iPod dock). The lounge hasn't even got a CD player in it, and I can't imagine that changing soon.

  4. Anonymous3:52 pm

    One other thing, away from which I waffled. The long-form album will survive, whether artistic conceit or simply a very good collection of songs by an artist on fire. But there may well be fewer of them. I have wondered whether more thoughtful artists might lean toward the old EP concept - smaller, more frequent bursts of releases, perhaps with the idea of building up to an album set - but pop has long been more about the single than the set.

  5. Gary - Long before the advent of digital there have been so many poor albums released wherein a great EP has been trying to get out. Every album, with few exceptions, has at least one 'Ringo' track lurking at the arse end of Side 1 or midway through Side 2. If artists empowered their producers with as much influence as an author's editor we may indeed see more Extended Plays.

  6. John - Not sure you can blame the artist/producer relationship entirely for 'Ringo tracks'. There's an audience who anticipate a certain length for an album, and feel short-changed if it's not "long" enough. And there are members of the band who want/need a songwriting credit (with subsequent revenue) somewhere in the package.

  7. Anonymous10:22 am

    John - Oh, indeed, I completely agree. And the very promotion of the Long Player as definitive artform, rather than the three-minute single, lends itself to filler - or, as per CJ&PK's note, the buyer cries short-change.

    But back in the day, you had little choice but to pay the full whack for the full set. Or the full double set if they'd been to Rishikesh and refused to accept a scaling-down of their own solo spots. Or, only a couple of years after, a triple set...

    These days, with single-song streaming or downloading, Joe Public doesn't have to buy the filler to get the tracks they want. Generationally, this encourages an interesting shift away from must-buy-every-studiofart blind brand loyalists to a much more capricious customer base who can also try before they buy.

    Artistically, this is no bad thing: you can't package up the duff with the plum - not least because record companies (and therefore managers and artists) can measure which songs are popular and which aren't.

    And if performers' income is decided by downloads of individual tracks rather than album sets, the second flautist's thoughtful instrumental wouldn't make much money anyway, making it even more the sort of vanity project that money-men tend to eliminate. ("The second album didn't sell so well. Maybe this time we shouldn't spend a month on Steve's song.")

  8. That many people choose to stream music rather than own a CD or other format doesn't negate the album as a form. It makes sense for songs to be grouped in to collections; a playlist is exactly that and we know how popular those are. An album like Dark Side or Tommy has always been an exception rather than the norm. If a band or artist releases a set of quality songs they will still be listened to, and quite probably in the order intended. In the end, it's the quality of the material that excites - not the delivery format.