Sunday, 23 March 2014

That difficult first album: why do it at all?

OK, what's the least attractive format?
I went to a terrific show weekend before last at Ort Cafe in Birmingham. The opening act, previously the Young Runaways, now morphed to Drakelow, kicked things off. The front man, in between some rather nice songs, talked, in some detail, about plans for a forthcoming album. And that started me thinking. 

Here's the thing. I get exactly why Drakelow are working on that album. I applaud them. But in a perverse way, albums are now a terribly dated concept, at least from my aged perspective. From an artist's perspective, it's clear: doing an album means you set your stall out, you make a statement, you express yourself. You leave something more substantial in the world than the memory of a few live gigs.

Most of the acts I know want to, or are preparing to, cut an album, or a single, or some vinyl, or an EP. And yet, the concept of an album is now well over a hundred years old. It's out of time. 

Here's my point: the whole function, the whole concept of an album has turned upside down, again, in the past fifteen years or so. Despite Record Store Day next month in the UK, let's not forget that last week, sales figures came out to tell us that, once again, physical numbers are down, but online sales are up. Despite the recent and weird fetishising of vinyl, are old-style records, broadly speaking, objects of desire? No, they're not. What about downloads? Well... there's a demonstrably growing demand, but I don't really think mp3s, somehow, engender the same buzz. 

So I think there's a conflict; certainly there's a split in opinion. If anything, it's further evidence of the gulf between the established record industry and the everyday business of being an act, making your way. And that despite everyone talking the same language, going through the same motions, and dealing in the same artefacts. 

If you're a new act, most record companies couldn't give a damn about you or your album. There's a crushing piece here from industry veteran Bob Lefsetz on exactly this topic if you want to read it. I warn you, it's not pretty. But it is accurate.  

Record companies want guaranteed sales. So artists must build profile, get noticed, get big singles success, get airplay in a radio market that has never been more conservative. Record companies go for splashy and attention-grabbing in a big way. Consider Miley Cyrus. Getting naked on a pervy video works - at least for as long as that particular vein of notoriety can be usefully exploited. Once the seam of sleaze runs out, they'll want something, or someone, else to grab people's attention. All this should be preferably precision-timed for early autumn, so the years' hits can be followed by albums for the racks at Tesco's. Impulse buying during the Christmas sales rush? Can't beat that for good business.

That's where the gulf is: it's image, not content. The gulf is between what the major industry wants, and where good musicians – the ones worthy of your respect, the ones you love to watch - are.

Let's go back to that idea of an album. The word is absolutely freighted with significance and added meaning. If you ask most people, they won't know where the idea of an 'album' originated. This week. I even asked a local record label owner - Mark at Iron Man Records - exactly what the origins of the word 'album' were; he didn't know... and he issues albums. 

An album is, of course, a collection of songs. But exactly how those songs are collated, and – critically - how we can listen to them, has changed massively since albums first saw the light of day. 

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Here's a cute picture of the first album format. It goes back to 1908, when Deutsche Grammophon issued an entire opera in multiple disk format. This album is of a recording of Beethoven's 3rd symphony. That work fits nicely on a single 12" long player, or on a CD with room to spare; but in this original album, it takes up two sides each of seven disks. The disks were 78rpm records, holding four or five minutes of audio apiece on each side, and they were sold in a bound book format - an album. In fact, empty 'books' of record sleeves were marketed as record albums, in the same way as photograph or stamp albums. 

And that is how the term 'album' came to apply to a collection of songs. Archaic? Absolutely. But when the industry switched to 12” long-player vinyl formats half a century later, the expression stuck. Only now, it meant something with just two sides, each holding up to 20 minutes of audio. This brought new possibilities: a plus being the ability to sequence a set of songs - something that matters to any musician who builds a live set - and on occasion, a distinct minus: the availability of extended audio lengths (18 minute drum solos, anybody?)..

By the 60s this meant spectacular sleeve designs, built to grab the eye in record store bins. And the format allowed some truly appalling excesses to be committed to vinyl, especially in Rock and Jazz. But it was, still, an album. Sometimes a double or treble album.

Fast forward to the 80s: here comes the CD. Single-sided, much more durable, and capable of storing twice the length of conventional vinyl 33rpm records, CDs opened up further tech possibilities: even longer tracks.... and a much easier way of picking and choosing the content. Most CD players allowed users to select the tracks they wanted to listen to, and in what order. This was a HUGE change: you could skip a track without damaging the record. 

This completely blew apart the idea of sequencing content, at a stroke demolishing the artistic goal of producers and artists in crafting the order of their material for best impact. And I think that that opened the door to the commoditisation and inevitable disrespecting and devaluing of music in a big way. But, despite the massive changes, we still called this shiny little thing an album. 

Credit: William Brawley, flickr
Jumping forward another twenty years to the era of mp3 files and iPods.... even when iTunes started shifting albums, the concept stuck. You want to search out an album on Spotify? There is it. But with iTunes and Spotify, you can, again, pick and choose, and edit out the stuff you might not like. While I'm writing this, I've just pulled up a vintage Stones album from 30 years ago, and the temptation to edit the running order is very strong. That's something that must mightily piss off producers of a certain vintage. Oops: sorry, Stones, bored now, gone on to something else. Because I can, easily. 

So.... where are we now with the album, in the world of downloads and single song obsessive marketing? Well, I think we're in two places. At the big business end, it's all about how much the profile can be pumped up. After this year, any album from Pharell Williams is going to shift huge numbers – so the record companies must be planning their Christmas campaigns already. Look for him in Tesco's. That goes for anyone with a nice juicy profile. So watch out for big high jinks this summer: singles, videos, wardrobe malfunctions, gossip in the tabloids, scandals, big festival shows, guest slots anywhere where there's an audience, TV shows... even death. Spot the names making waves. Then, watch out for a flow of album product, generated to mop up the demand. I'm feeling queasy already. 

But let's come back down to where I was weekend before last: watching Drakelow, The Cadbury Sisters and Katherine Priddy, in a tiny packed room full of appreciative listeners. Here, that quaint old inherited concept of an album still makes sense. I know that, once again, Katherine Priddy shifted all her stock of handmade EPs; she does this at every gig. The Cabury Sisters also shifted a respectable amount - maybe 10 percent of the audience went away with their CD EPs - and of course, that sort of thing boosts fees. As I argued here, earnings through even a tiny number of direct sales massively outstrip what Spotify or YouTube choose to dispense. 

So it looks like there's two kinds of album going on right now. There's product... go Pharrell, go Miley, go whoever they're grooming to sell you next. And here's hoping those luminous souls, like Laura Mvula, who are now on that particular conveyor belt can survive with their heads held high and their creativity intact. 

And back down where the new music grows, the old, dated low-tech album concept looks like it's still got legs. Here's a tangible object, that lets audiences take something away to commemorate that special relationship that can be forged at live gigs. It lets artists say 'This Is Me'. It allows them to control and own the process. And it can make them money, sometimes substantial amounts. 

An old concept, repurposed in a positive way. There's something to be said for that.

More music business posts on Radio To Go


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David Sutherland said...

Long may artists continue to produce 'albums'. In most cases, the principle of putting a collection of songs together specifically for this purpose starts a deliberate process of producing a viable product for the listener. The thought that goes into the concept I believe starts to build the quality of the finished product from the outset. For the 'local' working musician, I believe that an album will be created with the final product in mind, rather than it being an afterthought to group their most recent recordings. In this case, all albums become arguably, 'concept' albums, which I see as a good thing. Not all concept albums need to be 'Journey To The Centre Of The Earth'. Most cd's I have bought in recent times have been from gigs and directly from the artist. I find I listen to them more than 'shop' bought ones.

Neil Spragg said...

Absolutely true that the album (or in fact any 'physical' release) still has legs when it's not as the (almost incidental) by-product of a campaign by a major corporation. So many bands self-release now, and with good reason...

Radio To Go said...

Hi David
Thanks for your comment. Funny; I do exactly the same.

Radio To Go said...

Neil, in a future blog post, I'm going to try - I may not succeed - to analyse how beneficial shifting your merch can be in relation to the gig money you get. Of course, this is a sensitive area...

PF said...

I've written a few things on this - and being the longest diatribes. We all seem willing to write off the album but the format remains quite resilient. It may be fewer sales but it's still in the multi-millions. I suspect it has a lot to do with most people's desire for 'value for money' which may continue further if MP3 pricing goes up as a result of the Chancellor's VAT changes.

Ruby Turner said...

Should this be a worry or do we roll with it ? We roll, which ever way we must keep making music.

Neil Spragg said...

Sensitive how? So few bands make any kind of money off gigging...