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The Confines of Time, Space, and Effort

Anthony Dean-Harris
anthony.deanharris[at]nextbop[dot]com / @retronius

I own a BlackBerry. I'm pretty sure I've mentioned this before. I reference it from time to time, especially on Twitter. I certainly don't talk about it as often as Seb talks about his iPhone, but I still talk about the quirks of my smartphone/primarily-a-portable-media-player-to-me pretty often. I'm pretty happy with my BlackBerry, even though I do feel out of place in any real smartphone discussion, I still love that my phone does all it's supposed to do. Still, I reference my BlackBerry to say that I have my phone with an 8 GB storage card to be in lieu of my saving for an iPod. Thus, while I was in my computer-less period, it has been hard for me to take the time to listen to new music. I've had problems with time and space.

When 8 GB is all you've got to work with and you can't take the time to really sort through all your music and switch things out when you get new stuff in and fight through the love affair of what music you absolutely have to keep on the drive and what needs to go, it gets hard to listen to new music. I go through picking just what songs and albums to put in a confined space like I’m figuring out what supplies to buy from the general store before going off on the Oregon Trail. I look at songs like crucial tools. What will I need to have on hand to hear in case of an emergency? What is absolutely imperative that I hear this week? What moods do I want reinforced with the perfect soundtrack for my life and commute? Essentially, what do I feel about the immediate future and what will I need about it? Suffice it to say, decisions like that make sorting through my music somewhere between a kid on Christmas morning and your typical neurotic having a panic attack.

During one of these periodic anticipation-filled crises, this time while at the radio station, I was taking some time to swap out music on my phone with some new stuff laying around in one of the production rooms (one of which is the new Cassandra Wilson album, Silver Pony, which really impressed me). I vocalized my dilemma to one of the student managers looking over my shoulder at the trod of a master decision maker. While we both knocked our heads together trying to figure out what absolutely had to go to make way for new stuff, he (admittedly said in a brainstormy tone of voice, you know, that halfway "I'm not sure about this answer" interrogatory way) suggested to get rid of the album art. Of all the ideas to have come up, that seemed by far the most preposterous. For one thing, when I'm able, I'm a completionist, but that's not what I'm talking about here. What bothered me was even the inclination that the album art isn't as important as the music itself. I'm bothered when the packaging isn't considered as important as the music itself, or at least have some thought put into it.
I'm certainly not the only person to have mentioned this. The dilemma of what to do about album art far preceeds my “what do I delete on my memory card” dilemma (but not the questioned asked at least since the history of the phonograph, “what albums should I bring on this trip?”). Yet a question like this goes hand in hand with the necessity of the album. The album art question even predates the lead sheet question (but I thought it was brilliant that Willard Jenkins asked it, it's certainly a more than valid concern).

The packaging and the information held therein are important. They bring their own appeal. They show an additional level of professionalism to the work produced. It's because of their importance that they need to adapt to this ever shifting musical industry landscape like the ongoing discussions involving new media of sale, proper use of the internet, and garnering wider appeal.

Currently, it's already easy to see how album art is still important in the physical world. As a guy who spends some time in radio, I tend to see a lot of CDs from folks I don't know. While I may not be creative enough to pick out pictures for my own work (It's Seb who picks the vast majority the pictures to attach to posts on Nextbop.), I can tell if someone put some work into their album packaging and I tend to listen to what catches my eye first. In fact, if an artist's album art is really good but the album doesn't impress me, I actually get a little upset at the squandered potential, but that's neither here nor there.

These things matter. They matter because there are still folks out there who want that 300x300 pixel box in the corner of their iTunes full. They matter because even though we're in the 21st Century, side players need props, too. Primarily so we know when to pay attention to their own bands. They matter because I'm still learning about music and I want to know who the original composer was of one of the many standards I still don't know. For the folks out there who could probably use more than just a folder full of mp3s, there needs to be more offered than just the music. For the people who still feel like there’s fanfare around an album, it helps to have more than a collection of songs to fuel that enthusiasm.

In this digital era, we still have furor over Kanye West’s latest album cover decision (which still seems crazy but the music is damn good, we’ll get into that next week) or the hilarity of Wilco’s last album cover. We still have people distributing their music with the remarkably clean, forward thinking Bandcamp website. We still have a bunch of folks who have made these strides and we’re still feeling all this stuff out and making it better. There’s still a faithful group who care about the packaging, no matter what anyone says about allotted space or the rumors of general disinterest in these trivial things. We have come to find they’re not really all that trivial.

The whole major idea behind the matter is that the work is sometimes more than its core elements. Presentation means something. Information means something. There may be an ever-shifting medium in which physical copies are moving over to digital copies, but filling in all the metadata and cobbling together a nice jpeg could go a long way. Pictures mean something to accompany the music, even if it's hard to see that sometimes.

Anthony Dean-Harris is a contributing writer for African-American Reflections and hosts the modern jazz radio show, The Line-Up, Fridays at 9pm CST on 91.7 FM KRTU San Antonio. More of his writing can be found at his blog, In Retrospect and you can also follow him on Twitter.