August 30, 2009

Does it really make any sense to release an "Album" anymore?

Really, in this day and age when more songs are purchased on the Internet as "singles" and record stores are closing in record numbers, does creating an "album" really make any creative sense? When artists put all their creative energy into a record, only to have one or two songs purchased on the Internet are the days of the album numbered?

Take Estelle, her single "American Boy" was last year's summer success story selling millions of singles on itunes. However she was still unable to move copies of her debut album. This became so worrisome for her record label, that the company even withdrew her first single from music downloading sites in the hopes that it would motivate people to go to record stores to purchase the entire thing. This actually led more people buying the new version of "American Boy" off of itunes sung by an Estelle and Kanye West impersonator. People didn't care about Estelle's album, they just wanted her single.

Furthermore, The Smashing Pumpkins were recently interviewed on The Hour, a Canadian pop culture and news talk show hosted by ex 102.1 radio DJ George Stroumboulopoulos. They mentioned something quite interesting. Billy Corgan (one half of the remaining members) said they were finished with albums, there was no point anymore: no one was sitting down and listening to an entire record. So what was the point of sitting down taking up hours of studio time and creating a bunch of songs no one would listen to. It makes much more sense to release a few songs at a time, instead of a huge artistic opus the masses will not appreciate, or purchase.

Maybe that's Radiohead's idea as well. It's widely known by now that the band has announced they are not creating a follow up to In Rainbows, and yet new singles continue to be leaked on the Internet. Maybe its the new era of empowerment for musicians: if they are not tied down with studio time and the daunting task of writing many songs for an album, they can release material whenever they want. This also saves money on promotion campaigns for records, as well as lengthy and costly touring time. It gives artists a flexibility they never had before: to release music whenever they want. This also eliminates the middlemen: the large record companies, the promotion campaigns and so forth.

However, does this also mean that experimentation and creativity have also died with the album? Some of the greatest songs of all time were B sides, or songs that were never meant to become singles. The Smiths song "How Soon Is Now?" was a B Side the band was thinking of throwing away, but in a last minute change was added to an album and became one of their biggest hits, and one of the greatest alternative rock anthems of the eighties. Albums for me have always been like books, tangible items with intangible meaning that you can flip through and revisit again and again. Album art has already taken a hit from the digital transition, no longer can you page through drawings and album covers, something being an artistic person myself I really miss. Album art was usually the concept of the music put on paper, it was music without the notes and now its just a tiny icon on the screen on Windows Media Player.

The economics of the album are also controversial. Does the elimination of an album really make artists more experimental or will there be a drive to become more marketable; make songs for the public that will sell and break away from making cutting edge music that would have been placed on a record. I have mentioned ring tone rap in a post I did about Spencer Pratt, but what about indie bands and alternative acts, will there be a drive to sell singles or experiment more? The record industry has been hit hard by the recession (although it was suffering before the recession) will moving singles on itunes take precedence over making great music? And if it does what will the next generation of artists sound like? Every generation has their "generic pop bands" but usually there is a movement of performers who push the envelope, and who test boundaries and those individuals are usually the ones who define the music of a decade or era. However with the elimination of the album, will those artists still exist, or will they be pushed out of the market, by the cutthroat ring tone and singles industry? Or will there be a new "do it yourself" generation of musicians who sell their music through social networking sites like myspace and youtube? Creating a musical niche and avoiding the claws of the record label? Is musical experimentation dead or just beginning? You tell me.

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