Tuesday, October 19, 2004

Right To Reply #3: Part One

The return, a mere two months after its previous appearance, of the feature in which an assortment of friends / associates / bloggers get together to offer their thoughts and opinions on a disconcertingly nebulous subject. This one's mammoth, folks, so it'll be coming in four separate installments (the first of which is by far the biggest), one a day for the rest of the week. Join in the debate by leaving your own comments - the more the merrier.

The subject: The future of recorded music

The participants:
Ben - your host
Nick - Contributing Editor for Stylus and author of Auspicious Fish
Simon - the one and only Mr No Rock & Roll Fun
Leon - Portsmouth's very own musical renegade
Kenny - the man behind the hand and the brains behind ace popcult blog Parallax View
Jez - Stereolab afficionado instrumental in introducing me to the delights of The Smiths and The Wedding Present
He Who Cannot Be Named - the shadowy figure behind Excuse Me For Laughing

Does the advent of downloading herald the demise of the album format as we know it – a tangible sequence of songs selected, ordered and packaged according to the intentions of the artist? Is this a good thing?

Leon: (Bear in mind all I say is partly through conviction, and partly through a half imagined utopia… kind of halfway between how I think things are, and how I think things should be.) For me, a great album is the pinnacle of musical achievement. Yes, a perfectly realised single can be as thrilling as a cocaine rush. But I’ve always preferred getting drunk – and an album can intoxicate over time, slowly seeping through you. Far from killing off the album I think downloading will save it.

He Who Cannot Be Named: Why should it be a bad thing? I am sick of fillers.

Leon: Those ‘commercial’ acts that currently release an album full of singles and filler won’t get to release albums. It’ll be single after single; endless product to promote. Independent or alternative acts won’t be forced to release singles coz they won’t be able to compete in the commercial onslaught. Instead they’ll concentrate on realising grand album statements.

Kenny: Of course, in 2004 we've been reminded that the concept album WILL NOT DIE. EVER. For better or worse.

He Who Cannot Be Named: Instead [downloading] should focus the artist's energies into creating song cycles that are worthy of the listener's whole attention. I like the fact The Fiery Furnaces, Sufjian Stevens and The Streets have produced concept albums.

Simon: As artists only need to grub up a bit of studio time in order to get music in a form to take to a new market, they also no longer need to comply with the physical demands of CDs. CDs, 12" albums and 7" singles have only evolved from the physical constraint of the format – artists won't need to deliver a set of seventy-four minutes worth of music any more. Some bands may choose to stick up songs as and when they write them; others may still work on a body of songs, but they'll be able to make the body as large or as small as they wish: no more writing a couple of fillers, no more having to leave off a potential classic. Instead of albums, we'll probably see songs grouped according to sessions – the time they were recorded rather than the point of the marketing campaign's big hit.

Leon: Instead of album artwork to look through you’ll have an interactive website to explore while listening to the album. There will be no limit on artwork or liner notes. Every album will be an all-encompassing experience. There is no reason why the artist can’t have as much control over a downloaded album as a commercially released album. The album could be downloaded as a ZIP file with a track listing. As long as the filenames of the tracks are named properly, they would play in the correct order in your media player. Sure, the listener can rearrange the album at will, but you can do that with any CD album anyway.

Ben: I only wish I could be so optimistic and look forward with such relish! I feel laughably mired in the past, such is my enduring predilection for the physical artefact – the picture on the disc, the smell of the inlay booklet, the space occupied on the CD rack… The advent of downloading has made me horribly sentimental and wistful – and prematurely so, given that the CD album is something that is still very much with us.

Nick: The album as a medium for the delivery of music, as a conceptual cohesive whole, has for far too long been held up as a rockist straw man by downloaders and poppist revolutionaries, when really all it is, is a way of putting songs together. There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with sitting down and listening to a 45-minute record all at once, anymore than there’s anything intrinsically wrong with cycling through iTunes on random. You only have to look at the furore surrounding the release of the re-recorded SMiLE to realise that the album as a format or medium is far from dead. Even if the poppist revolutionaries preach the death of the album and the triumph of the single, they all salivate when a Kish Kash comes along. Contextualisation isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

Kenny: Things that have proved intrinsically popular for a substantial period of time tend not to become obsolete anywhere near as quickly as certain futurologists are wont to predict. People have been saying that 'the single' is dead for over 25 years now, but people still buy them in numbers. And good old 7" vinyl, although now very much a specialist market, is still with us. Why? Because people like it, and there are still sufficient numbers of people who resist the seductions of so-called tastemakers to make a viable market for it. Which is my roundabout way of saying that the album format will still be with us, in some shape or form, within my lifetime.

Jez: This depends how the companies work their systems once the dust has settled and people are regularly buying music from the internet. Unless a radical and unforeseen transformation takes place in the way people want to listen to music (which is highly unlikely) then the companies will direct consumers towards their methods of sale with the largest return (as always). The companies may be poor at recognising and adapting to change, but they are masters at maximising their profits. The synergic possibilities will now increase greatly. If an artist has a single that is linked to a film it will also be linked with a soft drink, a cereal, a computer game and so on. This has often been the case but now everything is available from one visit to the internet (cornflakes and Dido from Ocado anyone?). So things will change greatly in that respect, but it depends whether smaller companies will still have demand for albums. I reckon they will, just to be different. I don’t really care what Madonna, or Britney or Xtina do. I can’t even listen to 3 minutes let alone 63. What will matter though is how the more interesting artists react and position themselves to the synergic monsters. Action – reaction.

He Who Cannot Be Named: It depends on how people in the long term will listen to music whether on computer or your MP3 player. Dropping the latter was a good thing in my case because I actually listened to the albums I bought. Then again it also depends on the prevalence of ADHD in future generations.

Kenny: Today's student with plenty of time on his / her hands will soon enough become tomorrow's stressed-out professional who will just about have enough time to press 'play' on their hi-fi. So the 'attention deficit' generation will all calm down and become lazy, boring tossers, the appeal of downloading and compiling playlists will wane and there'll still be a need for artists to present their tunes in an interesting and creative fashion, because generally they're better at doing so than your average punter if for no other reason than they have the time.

He Who Cannot Be Named: I am no seer when it comes to predicting the effect of downloading. I only know that easing access to the music that people want is the crux of the issue. But there is such a huge weight of history behind the album that it will surely survive for the time being.

Will downloading affect the way music is produced, and if so, how?

Jez: That depends on how people listen to their music. When the car radio freed people from the family crystal set it gave birth to pop music. Entertainment systems are changing and even more people will listen to music as a mainly solitary pastime. This may ultimately change the way people listen to music when they gather together.

Leon: Personally I feel the future of recorded music is brighter than ever. The rise in home recording has given all musicians the ability to record and release their own CDs, with better production values than ever before. Now, big recording studios will try and play this down through fear for their own business. They will say that you can't get good results at home. Although, with their big ranges of equipment, the big studios still have a part to play, they are increasingly obsolete, especially to the musician on a budget. Put a half decent soundcard in your PC, download some free software, and you can get better results than that crappy old 4-track cassette machine ever could. This is liberating, but also means anyone searching for new music has to wade through a fair amount of shite in any given genre. As the labels are spending less on promoting new independent music it is ever more important to stand out from the crowd in order to claim a slice of their financial pie.

Ben: Should artists even be bothered with striving to get signed?

Simon: For all the talk of nurturing talent, the real value the music industry provides to the artist is access to shops and underwriting manufacture and distribution. Record companies currently invest in studio time, that's true: but the bulk of their investment is in the actual product itself – pressing up records, stacking them in warehouses, sending spindly legged guys out to record shops to persuade them to stock the titles, designing point of sale material, collecting, distributing, managing stock, collecting unsold CDs, taking them back, grinding them to make wellingtons or whatever else it is they're doing with unwanted records. Set against that, the cost of hiring a studio for a week and a couple of producers is chicken feed. Anyone with a bit of confidence could make a record; you sign with a label to get the records out there.

Ben: The internet, of course, gives artists the opportunity to distribute their own material direct to the consumer and therefore to bypass labels altogether.

Simon: In a world of downloads, the disappearance of physical records reduces the requirement for a record label. Sure, the labels have greatly skilled marketing departments, but their talents aren't as important in the new world: they can get a record on daytime radio? Or CD:UK? In a 300 channel, listen again, on demand world, who cares? Mass marketing of music isn't that great a tool.

Ben: So, from the perspective of the artist, the opportunities for making a good quality recording on the cheap may have improved, as have the means of distributing music and getting it heard. But what about touring? Even on a modest scale, it’s expensive and generally dependent upon decent financial backing, usually provided by a label, to underwrite any potential losses (of course, they’re also there to collect a fat share of the profits when they come rolling in). If the relationship between artists and labels changes radically, as seems likely, might small-scale tours not come under threat? Another consideration is the issue of professionalism. Kenny suggested that artists are “generally better” at what they do than the average punter primarily because “they have the time”. But what if they don’t have the time? What if, without the support of a label, they’re just “average punters” with day jobs themselves, rather than professional musicians?

Leon: The bigge[st] issue facing musicians, I feel, is the context in which the public wish to consume music, and the circumstances in which the musician can be creative. Increasingly, I feel, bands and musicians will have to reconcile themselves to music playing a different part in their lives. Less and less bands will be able to make a living from music. Now, you may think that this is negative and that music will simply become a ‘hobby’. But this is to undermine the efforts of those artists who face this reality now.

Ben: It’s not to belittle such artists in any way, though, to argue – as I would – that money and time facilitate creative freedom. Of course it can also be a constraining factor, but I think there are undeniable advantages to having the support of a label, even if it is only grudging and half-hearted.

Leon: How many bands can you name who had an amazing debut but then seemingly lost their creative spark? Hundreds! It’s coz they have nothing to kick against; they become comfortable. On the other hand, I’ve lost count of the number of bands I’ve seen blatantly aping the sound of the moment. If artists face up to the fact that being signed is not the be-all-and-end-all – or even a reality – they might concentrate on making the music that is true to themselves. Yes, this means music may not be a career option. But is that such bad thing?

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