'bum deal

Just as I was ready to read the last rites on the passing of ‘the album’ Auntie Beeb decides to launch a resurrection job and bow down in its honour. Over the last three nights they’ve been hosting a discussion of sorts into the greatest albums in three wide-reaching genres, rock, pop and r ‘n’ b.

Despite being hosted by the great Danny Baker the debate on offer was a little sterile, no real arguments or disagreements to be had. It’s as if they’ve all agreed to be respectful of each other’s choices, where’s the fun in that? In a way it’s exactly the kind of thing you’d be expecting if they were in mourning for the format.

It’s fair enough to be reverential about a bygone age; perhaps that’s how they feel about it. Indeed now that pretty much all album tracks can be downloaded individually the concept of what constitutes an album (or a single) is debatable.  This may be why the ‘album’ is undergoing something of an identity crisis – what is it but a collection of single tracks, individual songs that can and may well be measured on their own merits?
In the past and in general it could be said of most albums that there were songs contained therein that would (by impartial observers) be widely regarded as ‘filler’, certainly not strong enough to stand alone in the commercial market and not good enough to appeal to anyone but fans. Even on the best-selling and most critically-acclaimed albums there are songs that won’t make it onto people’s playlists, they’re there to make up the numbers or to fill the time/disc. They’re also there because they’re not singles; they may be the act’s way of demonstrating their versatility beyond the commercial remit.

Now that we can stream and there are so many acts and other distractions demanding of our attention, does anyone listen to an album in full in the concurrent order as intended (maybe long deliberated upon) by the artistes? As Baker pointed out, the likes of Springsteen were keen to start each ‘side’ of a vinyl LP with an upbeat track and end it on a slower number. Now that we can all skip around (without having to leave our seat and lift a needle from a disc) does the order even matter?
It may be interesting to note that one of my favourite releases of 2013 so far is from a band that clearly still holds the format dear to their hearts. Biffy Clyro may be the kind of act that could conceivably rescue rock music in general; I’d hope (perhaps forlornly) that they’re on the way to being the next U2. They believe in the album though, so much so that they’ve released a double.

Not content with being so retro that they’ve put out a double album, it’s also a concept of sorts – themed with a title to each side. You’d think that it’d almost be like commercial suicide in this climate, instead it is number one on the album chart. Perhaps all is not lost for the album after all.
Biffy has built a following already of course. They are established enough to be allowed to experiment. I’d also suggest that they’re very strong song-writers, ‘Many of Horror’ being clear proof of that, so they can thrive in either singles or wider environments. This versatility may be key to longevity, they’re also quite plainly a rock band and if the album format is to survive you guess that it’s in this genre that it will thrive.

As far as everyone else is concerned what does the future hold? The road to success for most new r ’n’ b acts appears to be in a template of mix tape (usually released free of charge) followed by an EP with very strong songs and eventually a debut album as long as people haven’t forgotten about them (the artist that is) by then. It could be a generational and genre-based issue, where my generation still thinks of the long player being of great import and is still buying ‘rock’ albums, the current pop-based, younger audience is predominantly singles-focused.

So do artists need to think in single track form or do they already? I assume that songwriters just write songs and when they’re called upon to go and record them professionally they pick the ones they consider to be the best or that stand the best chance commercially or critically (of gaining acclaim). As Danny Baker said ‘a great album should always be more than the sum of its parts or just a collection of songs’.
I’ve long advocated that those who are prolific and have a willing/receptive audience should be releasing songs as soon as they’re available, Radiohead don’t seem to have bought into this theory but Prince finally has.

The notion of what constitutes an album (itself a terminology coined in order to indicate a collection of things) or long-player may soon be forgotten. I always assumed that the genesis of the album began with ‘artists’ who wanted the longer length of tracks and two sides to explore their creative tendencies. A book published recently suggests the origin may be due to a dispute between labels and musicians. I suppose it had to be that way, commercial imperative seems to have always ruled the music industry.

Growing up and listening to music on vinyl my understanding was always that the single (be it 7 or 12 inch) was a loss-leader, a sort of advert for the album, something for radio stations to play to draw people’s attention to the presence of an album by that particular artist. Perhaps it was so for smaller-selling singles but you’d have to assume that the likes of Bohemian Rhapsody will have recouped their costs by now (and even then).
Now that we’ve also moved beyond the ‘physical’ perhaps the absence of production/distribution costs has levelled the playing field and it can be more financially rewarding to have a major single than a relatively successful album. Some 188.6 million singles were sold in the UK last year against 100.5 million albums (physical and digital combined) on which basis – given the relative pricing – you’d perhaps assume that albums continue to be at least as profitable for the industry as a whole?

Of course some of those 188 million singles will inevitably have featured on some of the 100 million albums so it’s not an easy calculation to make, consequently we continue with the traditional formats and await the next development – recorded music is not quite dead yet.
To conclude without a definitive answer, there will be those that buy albums and those that buy singles and even some that do both. Whether people will pay to see you live on the strength of one song is another matter, if we’re agreed that live is where the money is (for heritage acts at least) then acts will have to create a body of work whatever way it is issued.