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 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….

Share your thoughts