Heroes to Ashes

The excitement of late in the kingdom of song is that David Bowie has a new single out with an album forthcoming. The real story is probably more that he managed to keep it all under wraps during the recording process and commanded so much (excessive?) media time by doing so. We all thought he was finished but look he isn’t dead after all – and the song’s not bad either.

As with The Rolling Stones revival (that ran for a limited period last year) and the cavalcade of other re-unions, the question is often in whether any new recorded music is worthwhile. Like Bowie’s the Stones track was pretty good, even if it was one of only two new songs on their 157th compilation of hits mostly recorded over thirty years ago.

I’m prompted by two thoughts that I intend to explore at slightly longer length over the next few weeks. One is that ‘the oldies’ (as we’ll collectively call them) occupy so much media space because there’s a vacuum of star quality in the rock sphere of late, few new acts have filled the void which is leading to bigger problems than the lack of recorded music sales. For instance there are too few major acts to fill the stadiums and festivals, if the old guys don’t step up there are few options and since we’d all previously agreed that live was the only way to earn from music it will lead to further issues in the months and years to come.

The other thought is that the album is really nearing the end of its useful life. Now that digital sales are finally exceeding physical it seems clear that singles (or at least single tracks/songs) will prevail. I’ve mused on this issue in the past and others frequently point to the sales of Adele’s 21 or Mumford albums as being proof that I’m wrong. Sadly these artists are too few – and their albums already contain a significant number of individual tracks that have been big at radio or as singles. As such it becomes as cheap to buy the album as those individual songs. More likely it is those of my age-group who are still the purchasers of physical product and we are wedded to the album format for better or worse.

I’ve often wondered why it hasn’t led to more random single releases from artists with that level of artistic and commercial freedom. Radiohead may have broken the mould when it came to pricing and releases but they clearly got bored with themselves or maybe just couldn’t be bothered.

It’s great that Bowie is back, he is an icon and his legacy is magnificent. You may argue that this is a pensioner singing about public transport as I saw one wag do, but there has to be room in our life for heroes, however fallible they are.

As for the long-form and long-term I’ve no doubt that there are many who want to hear a full album from him, just as there are for Bob Dylan, Springsteen and others in progressively smaller numbers as the years roll by. I tend to think though that we’ve already got Hunky Dory, Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane, Station To Station, Scary Monsters.....we don’t actually need any more Bowie, we do need new stadium acts though. Form an orderly queue.


Adam Bowie said…
I suspect that "albums" will continue to be made by established artists rather than "singles" while the orthodoxy remains that you're not a "true" artist unless you release albums. Anyone can throw a three minute song together, but an extended body of work? That's somehow something more! You're regarded better by your peers.

A bad analogy might be made with books. If you're an aspiring fiction writer, you strive to write that first novel. It might be smarter and easier to turn out some short stories. And Kindles et al provide a way to theoretical way to prosper selling short stories. But it's an arbitrary 50,000 words - novel length - that you're expected to reach to be taken seriously.

If you want to win fame - and awards - then you're going to need a "full length" novel. Bookers and Costas go to novels and not short stories.

Similarly, Brits and Mercurys are awarded to albums and not singles (OK - there are Brits for singles, but you gain more kudos for your album). Singles do get reviewed in the press - but broadsheets and non-music magazines review albums for the most part.

Then there are arbitrary rules about what a piece can be. A 20 minute track? That's not a single. A 5 track "EP"? That's not a single either. A 30 minute short film incorporating a 4 minute musical work? Oh this is all getting too complicated.

And do record company contracts still specify "albums" from new artists?

Longer bodies of work are always considered more prestigious for whatever reason. Classical composers were often judged on their symphonies rather than shorter pieces. And look at opera!

Striving to conform to accepted durations is the same in film. We expect a "movie" to be 90 minutes or more for it to be serious. If it's only 20 minutes, then it's a short, and nobody's going to see it unless they channel surf through Film 4 at 3am. Pixar aside, nobody does shorts of B movies in the cineam any more. Television programmes have to be in set durations 2 x 60, 1 x 90, 6 x 60, or if we're American 22 x 60 etc. Commissioners would turn you away if you said that you needed 1 x 30 minutes and 2 x 90 minutes to tell your story.

Digital will inevitably free us from these shackles in due course. But not just yet...
PF said…
Good points all. I am aiming to write more on the ongoing evolution of the album at some point.

With some of this I think I was trying to suggest that artists should be giving us more than they ever have, but possibly I expect too much.