Sunday, October 19, 2014

Songs of ambivalence

I began this month’s blogging escapades inspired by U2, Prince and Thom Yorke to try and answer the question ‘why are artists still releasing albums?’’

The truth is that I still listen to a lot of new albums but fear I’m in a rapidly decreasing minority. My listening habits cannot be applied to the greater music-loving community and if I ever play a full album in earshot of my 16 year-old son I’m liable to hear the complaint that it’s all ‘too samey’, even if he likes the artist concerned. His habits could also be incompatible with the wider general public but they may be a lot closer than mine. His generation are itinerant browsers, easily-bored, frequently flitting between one trend and the next and usually engaging with music via YouTube, one track at a time.

Even though I am semi-committed to the longer format, I frequently only listen to a full album once or twice, skipping tracks on subsequent plays. If I’ve bought them at all it will only be as a result of price-efficiency (never at full price), in a physical format and in the knowledge that there is a chance I will have the desire to play the bulk of the songs again at some point.

In the age of streaming might it possibly be the case that albums are created for four primary reasons:
a)      As artists are still enamoured with long-format recording processes.
b)      The commercial imperative – something to fill shop shelves.
c)       A theory that a greater number of songs on a streaming service will enable them to disproportionately ratchet up the number of plays they receive. A secondary commercial imperative if you like.
d)      An attempt to create value for money. The belief that you can increase the desire to invest money by leveraging a larger number of songs against the fan’s funds. This may be a misplaced hunch that demand is directly related to supply.

What does value for money look like in musical terms? Thom may feel justified charging £3.68 for eight songs where he would’ve been reluctant to charge £2 for one. I’m still a little mystified by the choice to offer one song (& video) free of charge, particularly when that track was commonly regarded to be the best one on the album – or at least the one likely to have the widest appeal. In previous years that would’ve been the lead single acting as an ad for the album, I can only presume they were initially thinking in similar terms otherwise why make a video for just that song?

If we are confused – although it’s possible that it’s just me – perhaps the artist community is more so. A large number of them will have grown-up with the album and feel an artistic or spiritual connection to its form. All of the current generation can claim this but while they bleat about the mode of distribution they miss the point that some of them have the power to break the mould, to re-invent. That they fail to do so is indicative of either a wider malaise or some grudging belief in the status quo. Not The Status Quo though, that would be something else entirely.


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