Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Cherry-picking

At some point in my teens, I decided to stay away from "greatest hits" and "best of" albums.

Doing so, I reckoned, would enhance my enjoyment of the music and honor the artists' visions. Records weren't just a random collection of tunes, after all. The good ones hung together as a coherent whole. Every song enhanced every other song.

I pondered that long-ago decision while reading an article on listening trends by Andrew Dansby.
[Eric] Garland's research suggests that people who like five or six songs from an album will ultimately acquire the whole thing, even with legal -- and illegal -- options for digital music. Short of that, they're inclined to make a $1 purchase instead of a $10 purchase.

Weak albums are pecked apart, with the carcasses of unwanted music left behind, an option that was largely unavailable on 45 rpm vinyl.

This isn't a new idea, of course. A subsequent search for "death of the album" brought me to this Christian Science Monitor article, written in 2003, the year iTunes launched. Here's the paragraph that landed the piece in my search results:

Some bands - such as Metallica and the Red Hot Chili Peppers - have said they won't participate in the online services because they don't want their albums sold as individual songs. It takes away creative control and could bring the death of the album format, they argue.

I can sympathize. When we put out Highways and Hiking Shoes, Ron the Drummer and I (and our producer) took the album concept very seriously. We spent a great deal of time thinking about which of our songs played well together, and where each one should go. We endeavored to create the best possible listening experience—to control it.

Does it annoy me that some listeners will download our songs as singles, bypassing our carefully planned collection? A little.

Are we opposed to letting them do it? No way.

After declaring my commitment to real albums back in high school, I discovered what everybody learns eventually: most albums suck. When I bought a record (or, later, a CD) because I liked a song, I'd be lucky if even one of the other tracks was any good.

I'd like to think our own album is better than that. We worked hard to make it better than that. But the fact is, some people are only going to want one or two tracks anyway. Now that the technology is available for them to buy only what they like, who are we to tell them they shouldn't?

2 comments:

kylben said...

I've always been the same way with albums. Done right, they're an art form separate from the song form (i.e. Sgt Pepper or anything Pink Floyd). Some bands obviously didn't care, and I'm happy to buy the GH collections, but I've always preferred the integrated album when I could get it.

But remember, there was the birth of the album as well, it wasn't always so. The integrated album was art filling the opportunity space created by technology and the market. It will happen again. Once the dust from the record companies' rent-seeking chaos settles, I'm confident that artists will again innovate ways to take advantage of the tremendous opportunities the new production and distribution paradigm provides them.

j_k_allard said...

I recall reading that the elpee was created as a means to package singles and reduce the amount of cash paid out for producing vinyl. I also dimly recall (recall dimly?) there was a time when the Greatest Hits was a collection of Top 10-40 hits by an extremely popular band but that a Best Of was more a collection of songs by a band that was not so popular, like a song or two that broke that 10-40, but most fell under the radar at around 100...

Be that as it may, for a time I was infatuated by collecting only the "best" elpees by certain artists. I would hang out with diehard fans (those that had to have EVERYTHING and EVERYTHING was perfect and amazing and all fanboy), and then listened to their collection as much as possible, then picked the one I liked best.

The goal was to pick out ONE elpee by any given artist... that didn't work out, as you can imagine.

This leads me to the mix tape, and the mix disc.

I enjoy making a single artist mix, culling my favorites from certain groups. This lead to a monster 4-disc retrospective of Elton John, from Empty Sky to Blue Moves (only because I pretty much stopped listening to him by then)...

Thank you for your attention.