The Art of the Album
Obviously, downloading digital music encourages musical cherry picking. Back in PDD (Pre-Digital Downloading), your music purchases had more at stake. Even if you were one of the eight people buying CD singles in 1996, there were fixed costs associated with marketing and distribution which pushed the price of your music higher. The best artists were adept at two things a) putting out music which was worth the $15.99 for a CD; b) rinse, tour, repeat. However, in order for fans to pay a high price for music, it was pretty damn important to know you were going to get your money’s worth. Same with concert tickets. Your favorite bands didn’t dare leave you hanging with one single and a bunch of crap. If they did? You dumped them like that psycho girlfriend in college that kept stealing your hats (totally another story).
In the ADD (After Digital Downloading and double entendre alert!) world, the reaction has been to select and buy the one or two must-have songs off of each album. In fact, digital downloads account for nearly 50% of all music purchased, of which, less than 5% are album purchases. This doesn’t even count illegal downloading, which not only blows away these figures in terms of volume, but also supports the notion of single-song acquisition. Even when it’s stolen, people tend to nab only the one song they want. Think of how much good music is being missed or overlooked. Crazy, right? However, things could be changing as free and legal takes over the music downloading world. I’m predicting that we see an album renaissance.
Why so, you ask? Well, gone is the day of cranking out one hit and a bunch of mediocre songs music with an expectation that you can turn a profit. For people to go out and buy a CD nowadays, it better contain a body of quality music worthy of all that hard-earned cash. Sadly, the opposite was an over-used model by labels and their marketing machines. Until a few years ago, there were still enough people out there buying CDs and all it took was the momentum of one hit to sell an album. Money was made at high margins, but people got burned. Things are different now.
I like the direction that certain artists are going to promote their whole albums. A lot has been written about Radiohead and NIN giving away their albums online. Kid Rock felt that he’d make a kick-ass album and wanted his fans to invest more of their time and money in it. He opted to not allow single songs to be purchased on iTunes and subsequently he ended up selling a lot of CDs. In a quote from Rolling Stone last year:
“Rock points out a particularly ironic twist to his logic in holding out from iTunes. “It’s funny, I have a shitload of stock in Apple — I think it’s one of the greatest companies in America,” he says. “But it’s just not very American to me when Apple tells you how they want to sell your product and tell you what it’s worth.” [From Rolling Stone, Issue 1059 — August 21, 2008].”
Artists are really starting to take album making seriously again. This plays well into the hand of a free and legal music download site. You might as well grab the album and enjoy the whole thing, especially since it’s free. I’m glad there there are a number of new artists who get it. Here’s a quick list of five albums from the past couple of years that really prove my point. Oh yeah, and they are all available on Qtrax (beta users now, 1.0 users very, very soon).
Tha Carter III – Lil’Wayne. The self-professed best rapper alive is also making the best hip hop albums. It has pace, rhythm and a complete-ness unlike most hip hop albums.
Dear Science – TV on the Radio. Brooklyn funk rockers create an album that is eclectic, but bound by a unique sub-text that is honest and soulful.
Hello Hong Kong – The Kicks. Ok, this stretches us all the way back to 2004, but rarely has a pop-punk outfit delivered consistency like these Little Rockers have on this album.
The Crane Wife – The Decemberists. British folk meets 70s Prog rock with a story. What’s scary is that there is still massive upside to their potential. That’s them and their story-telling ways in the picture.
Third – Portishead. Crazy good and to be enjoyed in its entirety regardless of what else is on the agenda.