Sunday, 12 June 2016

The album, the artist, the audience. Are we going full circle?

Grudgingly, I find myself starting to agree with vinyl freaks. Weird. 

I posted a while back about the interesting origins of what we now call an album.  This was in the context of our new, brave MP3 world of digital downloads. After all, when you can cram an entire library onto a tiny piece of plastic, who needs those ancient concepts of singles, albums, EPs and CDs? Tech developments have moved so very fast. I'm not entirely sure that's all good.  

The vinyl revival was a surprise to me. It's really not a huge slice of the market. Vinyl gets more attention than it deserves because it's a retro vintage fashion thing. Personally, I find the obsession with vinyl as a style statement slightly ridiculous. 

But there's another reason for the continued survival of the album, over and above vinyl fetishes. And it's a lot more valid than a business proposition or a badge of identity.  

Remember editing with razor blades?

For sound freaks of a certain age...
I'm ancient, so I love digital. Of course.

I do, because I've spent too much time scrabbling around with reel to real tape, editing in haste and trying to find that scrap of tape I really should not have cut just... there. And you've dropped the damn fragment on the floor, so you pick it up any old way, gluing a bit of dust to the oxide with your sweaty and greasy fingertips. So then it doesn't sound right when you stick the edit back together because you've compromised the medium that holds the audio.

See? That's why I love digital. 

I also love that I can play a six minute song, knowing it will sound every bit as good as a three minute song. Do that on 7” vinyl, and the difference is huge. The grooves are squeezed closer together, volume is reduced and it's much easier to damage as a result. Albums? You get 25 minutes per side, tops. That limited format forces the music, ordered and packaged, into arbitrary limits and patterns. 

Those are a few practical reasons. Hold those thoughts. Now reckon in the massive databases on Spotify that use algorithms to spoon-feed you stuff they want to monetise. Factor in, too, those several thousands songs you stuck on your phone, and now never listen to. Add in the way you can skip through dozens of tracks in seconds, never giving yourself enough time to let the craft and beauty of the song - if it exists - to hit you.

No wonder we've lost that album concept. 
But here's why, against all the odds, it may survive.

Who actually cares about albums?

Nowadays, Adele's record company apart, the only people who now actually care about the idea of an album are the artists themselves.

But that's actually pretty important.

Artists are the people who have songs to offer. They have a body of work. They don't have to hammer a single song at a time onto radio or MTV. That's business; it's not creativity or performance.  

Of late I've come up against this more and more while reviewing how the tiny internet station I help to programme deals with new music. The last time I did this job, at mainstream radio, singles were the thing, and albums came a long, long, way back, and then only if they were hugely successful.  There was an orthodoxy, based on charts which were blatantly fiddled by the record industry. The chart was God. Most DJs and programmers, incredibly, bought that, avoiding any idea of seriously addressing what the audience might really want. Instead the focus was, and often still is, on playing the hits and avoiding risk. 

A different landscape

Now? Micro-hyperlocal radio, as well as some of the bigger boys, really has to take a different approach. There's absolutely no point sticking to frankly iffy patterns, developed in the last century, by a music industry which was relevant to that century. We're in new and much more fluid territory.

Consider Birmingham bands like the Destroyers or Ryan And The Ranters... or Boat To Row... or newer boys like Mothers Earth Experiment or God Damn. There are dozens more, all of them punching well above their weight locally. 

They matter on our patch, and beyond. People come to see them play live, go crazy, have a good time. Audiences lap up all the repertoire. It's what the bands want to present, and what the audience hears, knows and appreciates. 

A radio station that taps into this band-audience thing should think the same way. If a band has a following, then that's the holy grail for radio: it's that vital relationship between musician and listener, that DJs and producers need to know about. If that means the station plays lots of songs by an artist rather than one, well, fine. 

And for any hardbitten radio veteran who thinks all this is bonkers and goes against clarity of image, let me remind you that numbers, levels of exposure and proportions can be managed with ease if you actually think about what you're doing. The trick is to realise when you need to adjust your supply to meet that ever-changing demand.  

A 50 year throwback?

So it's curious. We are seeing, at least at those stations which actually care about the music they programme, a return to a concept that was first launched 50 years ago: the album station. The station in question was a legendary underground rocker in San Francisco, KSAN. Of course, it no longer exists. But they kicked off the idea of album play, and strongly supported their local artists of their time - which happened to be people like Janis Joplin, The Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, Country Joe and the Fish and many more, all from the original summer of love. 

Except it's now a bit more than that. Now, we're talking about an album/EP/hot songs and anything in between kind of station station. And that in turn supports the concept of the album and a whole lot more – on vinyl, if you absolutely insist. 

So, vinyl freaks, I love you really, in spite of your ludicrous vinyl fashion/lifestyle thing. But I only love you if you actually play the albums you buy (I'm told 60 percent of you don't). Because then you are helping to push back against the atomisation of our musical world. Along with a few hardy idealistic souls at radio. And the musicians who give us their work - all of their work. 

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Lydia Glanville, Boat To Row said...

Interesting, Robin. I gave up buying singles when I was about 12! Everyone I know who is into music always talks about albums they love. I suppose it's because they generally have an aesthetic of their own that can be entirely different to other work by the same band. Take Led Zeppelin for example, each album sounds very different. I guess I think of an album as a whole rather than as individual songs.

Robin Valk said...

Thanks for this Lydia. And in passing let us note that Zeppelin were explicitly against the idea of singles, ever. Flat out would not let their record company issue any. But as far as you are concerned, Lydia, I'm sure that's because you as a musician want to present a body of work, and that presenting of your work still goes on now and always will, especially live, especially where bands and their audiences are tight, But the time and culture where albums stood up in their own right has most definitely gone. You're citing albums recorded on a different era - 40 decades ago, when albums were THE eminently marketable medium! Different times - and also a generational thing.