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I am So Bored of the Album

J.D. Swerzenski
Contributing Writer
j.d.swerzenski [at] trinity.edu

Editor’s Note: This piece is a companion to last week’s ”Why We Still Need the Album”. It’s sort of a point/counterpoint thing. Feel free to go back and read to get both sides of this argument.

First, a ridiculous generalization: the internet has changed everything. I’m considering this right now only because I’m currently grappling with a similarly clichéd question: how would I have survived had I grown up 15 years ago? Now no cell phone or laptop I could have lived without. What’s troubling me is the question of how I would have gotten music. Would I have been a regular record buyer? How much money would I have blown to this end? How would I have kept up on what’s happening with music? MTV? ‘Zines? And if I really dug Men at Work’s “The Land Down Under,” would I have purchased an entire record for that one tune?

As a child of the internet, it’s tough for me to think in these terms, having never lived in a time when “A Land Down Under” wasn’t instantly and freely available to me. It’s also fascinating to consider the institutions that defined what it meant to be a music fan only a decade or two ago: record stores, record companies, MTV, print music publications, are largely irrelevant today. No other media industry has been so forcibly revolutionized.

And yet, there is the album, a bizarre relic that despite the complete upheaval of the way we consume and engage with music, remains the primary means of conceiving and distributing it. This is crazy. Now I’m not denying the romantic idea of ‘the album’ and all the history that goes with it, all I’m saying is that there is nothing writ in stone stating that music must be released in 40-minute clumps of 10-15 songs. At a purely technical level, the traditional album format is an out-of-date restriction, a hold-over from an age when the 33 rpm vinyl format represented the pinnacle of recording technology. Back then the 40-minute record made sense: It was the most music an artist could fit on a single release, and, more importantly, the most profitable way for record producers to make money. But now, a musical work of any length can be distributed instantly without the need to consideration of physical distance or medium.

Consider the last time recorded music underwent a major change of format, pre-CDs and cassettes, all the way back in the 50’s and 60’s when 33 rpm vinyl started catching on. For roughly half a century before that the predominant means of releasing music was the 78 rpm Long-Play disc, which allowed the musician to get about 3-4 minutes of music per side. Accordingly, all recorded music, with the exception of classical, was constructed to adhere to these restrictions. Unsurprisingly, the 3-4 minute song standard was set. The 33 rpm disc, which allowed for a vast 15-20 minutes per side, tossed this all out.

Granted it took awhile for musicians to figure out what to do with all that extra space; however once they did start thinking in terms of 10-minute tracks, song-suites, and releases with over-arching concepts and themes, the results were remarkable. Just look at the progression of artists like Miles Davis, jumping from Birth of the Cool in 1949-50 to Sketches of Spain ten years later, or the Beatles from their first release to Abbey Road seven years down the line. In both cases early releases were released as a collection on singles, the latter conceived as part of a greater whole, the album.

So now here we are, with a new format that allows for unlimited possibilities, wondering what the hell to do with it. The move from CDs and traditional releases to online music sources, be it legally or otherwise, has already happened with the majority of listeners, so why keep packaging music in a way that only makes sense for the CD format? A change of approach is clearly needed. A couple artists, Radiohead and Sufjan Stevens among them, seem to be hinting at new possibilities, but hopefully a larger breakthrough is soon to come.

My feeling is that it will involve a re-working of what we define as a ‘release,’ with live footage, video content and other exclusive supplementary material bundled in with traditional studio tracks, all of which can be delivered instantly to your inbox for a nominal fee. Perhaps it will involve throwing away the notion of releasing batches of songs all at once, with artists releasing a track a day or week for an extended period of time. Tough to tell at this point, but I hoping things start shaking up soon. Because seriously, it’s time we stop listening in the past.

J.D. Swerzenski is the operations manager of KRTU San Antonio.