running away / uh-huh uh-huh

It seems the much moot­ed death of the album is being talked about again (I guess the dis­cus­sion nev­er real­ly stopped). I’ve been there sev­er­al times in recent months and here I seem to be again. There doesn’t seem to be much more to say, except when I talk to record com­pa­nies, as I do from day to day, it seems the mes­sage is still not sim­ply get­ting through: you release three sin­gles to radio, do a MySpace site and talk nice­ly to retail, no no … not any more!

What trig­gered this was an email from Bob Lef­stez the oth­er week, enti­tled sim­ply Album Last Rites where­in he said:

We’ve got to kill the album.

Actu­al­ly, it’s already dead. It’s just that the artists and labels don’t know it.

And he’s right – well almost.

In pop terms the album is past creaky, it’s on its last legs. To my daugh­ter, aged almost 13, the album is a non-event. It almost doesn’t exist, in the way that it didn’t exist before The Bea­t­les released With The Bea­t­les and in one swoop, invent­ed the rock and pop album (with­out telling EMI what they were actu­al­ly doing of course). Capi­tol USA didn’t quite get it for some years, as is evi­dent from the way they treat­ed every Bea­t­les album up to Revolver, and The Beach Boys. Indeed the audi­ence knew about the album there for years before mori­bund record com­pa­ny execs twigged to the change – shades of the last few years.

Before that, pop albums didn’t mat­ter at all. Nobody knows the name of any of Fabian’s albums I assume he released at least one, (I’m not sure if that thing on the left is an album or a sin­gle), or for that mat­ter, rais­ing the cred­i­bil­i­ty stakes a tad, Chuck Berry’s or even, out­side the hard­core fans, Elvis’ long­play­ers. They were sim­ply places to col­late hit songs with the odd filler. And here we go, full cir­cle, back to an artist and the hit song. The mp3 play­er (can we stop say­ing iPod, because glob­al­ly they don’t dom­i­nate, it’s a myth) or the Walk­man phone is the new album. It has already replaced the long play­ing com­pact disc as the pop and rock deliv­ery medi­um of choice, of con­ve­nience.

But before pop, and George Mar­tin, and his young band, almost unknow­ing­ly (it was instinct rather than intent) invent­ed the long play­er, there were still, of course, albums in oth­er gen­res, just as there will still be albums, in hard for­mats after dig­i­tal has wiped the pop, and rock album off the radar. And I don’t just mean the likes of those awful show tunes film and stage sound­tracks that Amer­i­cans were so fond of. I’m talk­ing instead of then con­tem­po­rary, and releas­es such as ser­viced the whole jazz mar­ket – and let’s be real, Kind of Blue was essen­tial­ly the Blood on The Tracks of its age, it tar­get­ed and was bought by a sim­i­lar demo­graph­ic.

The album, either in a small vinyl run, or, more impor­tant­ly, a much larg­er CD or DVD press­ing, is going to be here for a long, long time. Sim­ply because there are cer­tain demo­graph­ics that will nev­er feel sat­is­fied with an mp3 and a sheet of print­ed lin­er notes, or even a fac­sim­i­le of the sleeve. I think of the peo­ple that bought the first Arcade Fire album, with the defin­ably groovy sleeve, which was a part of the excite­ment that greet­ed, and sur­round­ed the artist. It was inte­gral. The sec­ond album no longer so, as they’re not so hip any­more, the ear­li­er adopters have moved on and Arcade Fire, sell­ing to now to mid­dle Amer­i­ca are per­ceiv­ably no longer cool.

That’s a phys­i­cal mar­ket that will need to be ser­viced for decades, or at least until we have the tech­nol­o­gy to deliv­er exact repli­cas, includ­ing the card stock, and exact print qual­i­ty of the groovy pack­age to the ear­ly adopters. Who, inci­den­tal­ly, also want the hard to track down mp3s doing the rounds of the blogs, as well.

Then there is the so-called “Long Tail”, a strange, half thought out notion to be sure, for the over­whelm­ing bulk of those on the end of the tail, it means lit­tle – but lit­tle is bet­ter than noth­ing. There is val­ue in the online cat­a­logue – it vast­ly increas­es the amount of music avail­able to the con­sumer, and it should allow an artist to have all their cat­a­logue avail­able at all times, to all curi­ous com­ers. I find the notion that Edgar Bronf­man has the right to play polit­i­cal foot­ball with an artist’s career and income, how­ev­er small it may be, as dis­cussed here, by Rus­sell Brown vague­ly obscene. But that’s the indus­try we are in …

Nev­er mind Edgar will buy EMI and it will all be ok.

But the real val­ue in a back cat­a­logue does not come from mp3s, from the odd track found on Emu­sic or the like – that is the bonus, the cream. The val­ue in the cat­a­logue, espe­cial­ly the more obscure stuff, is sourced by keep­ing that cat­a­logue excit­ing, just like an artist – keep em excit­ing and they sell. And right now the best way to exploit cat­a­logue remains the phys­i­cal disc, and the pack­ag­ing of cat­a­logue. Two exam­ples: first­ly the Fly­ing Nun Box set from last year. The con­cept caused an awful lot of excite­ment in New Zealand and fur­ther abroad. It was excit­ing, and it was the con­cept itself that was the cat­a­lyst. It was con­sid­er­ably more, you could say, than the sum of its parts. You have to be bru­tal­ly hon­est and say that, over­whelm­ing­ly most of the tracks on the box didn’t sell that well on release and would not have elicit­ed much response if placed on an online shop, the odd fan, the odd com­pletist but that’s it real­ly, as is the expe­ri­ence of almost every­one in the long tail out­side the top sell­ing cou­ple of per­cent. The Fly­ing Nun Box set exist­ed as a box set, in that pack­ag­ing (why are everybody’s jew­el cas­es falling to pieces, and what was with the inap­pro­pri­ate punk stylings of the box and CDs … beside the point I know) and sold because of what it was: it was rein­vig­o­rat­ed cat­a­logue – and the FN cat­a­logue is scream­ing out for more.

Exam­ple num­ber two is the recent remas­tered dou­ble pack­age of the best Style Coun­cil album, Our Favourite Shop, com­plete with a whole disc of demos, live bits and pieces. Now, I want this bad­ly. I want the pack­age, the dou­ble CD, with notes, gor­geous fold­out sleeve and out­er slip­case. I don’t want the tracks per se, I’m a sil­ly col­lec­tor, I want the pack­age, as I did with the All Mod Cons dou­ble from last year.

I am not alone: the sales of some of these cat­a­logue revis­its tell us that, but they don’t, regard­less of how much one can down­load with them, work dig­i­tal­ly.

There is life in the old plas­tic disc yet.

The again, forty years ago, out of the blue, came an album that com­plete­ly blew every pre-con­cep­tion, every pre-estab­lished notion about what was and what would be, out of the water – and noth­ing was ever the same. This could all change tomor­row.…

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