As a direct result of Marooned, a very nice lady at the L.A. Times asked me to write a guest op-ed about "the death of the album" (an idea I quite obviously don't buy). The resulting piece is in today's print edition, and here's the link.
Now, here's something else: the original text I submitted. They didn't do that much to it, but just for fun, feel free to check it out.
OBSOLETE TO WHOM?
The album’s not going anywhere – as an object, or an idea.
In order to assemble my book Marooned, a sequel to Greil Marcus’s 1979 anthology Stranded, I asked a bunch of rock critics of my acquaintance which single album they’d take to a desert island. They were all up for it, but weirdly, I kept hearing from doubtful outsiders that the album was dead, that it was all about downloads and iPod playlists, that people don’t listen to music “that way” anymore. I don’t buy that at all.
Yes, CD sales are down, and yes, the amount of music available for download on the Internet increases every second. Tower Records shut its doors, labels are laying off staff – the record industry is in a panic. But albums aren’t going anywhere. Indeed, for serious music fans, these are the best of times.
For a few years now, it’s been possible to download “leaked” copies of new releases days, if not weeks, before the official release date. That’s worrisome to pop performers and the label execs backing them, who, like the producers of big summer movies, live or die by opening-week receipts. For more indie-minded artists, though, this sort of samizdat circulation of their work has become a valuable, even crucial marketing tool, because real fans treat a download like a test drive – or like a listening booth in an old record store. Nobody’s online trawling for every single album leaked in a given week, collecting them like baseball cards. They’re seeking the latest work by favorite artists, or investigating a new band recommended by a trusted friend. There’s a pre-existing desire to buy; all that’s needed to seal the deal is for the album to reward the downloader’s curiosity by being good.
Many albums posted online aren’t brand new, though. They’re old, and out of print. Abandoned by labels that couldn’t see a profit in keeping them commercially available, they’re shared, fan to fan, among small virtual communities obsessed with ’60s avant-garde jazz, obscure ’70s hard rock or regional hip-hop from the ’80s. Ever heard an MP3 crackle like vintage vinyl? Or one where the sound wobbles like a cassette on the brink of unspooling itself? I sure have.
In Marooned, I argue that the album remains vital because musicians make it so. Shuffling, the juxtaposition of songs at a computer’s whim, offers its own pleasures; sometimes I’m convinced my iPod has moods, and wants me to listen to three Ornette Coleman songs in a row before throwing me some AC/DC. But artistic intent deserves respect. If it’s safe to assume your favorite band sequenced their latest batch of songs the way they did for a reason, then common courtesy requires that you listen “in order.” Because they’re music fans, the anonymous souls uploading albums mostly exemplify this respect; when you’re downloading a record from a blog, you’re almost always getting a zip file containing a whole CD, not an individual track. Some jazz-oriented sites even offer scanned cover art, and PDF files of the liner notes.
Furthermore, the album as physical object isn’t going anywhere. Media types frequently fixate on so-called “early adopters,” their own unacknowledged class biases allowing the actions of the ultra-hip few to overshadow the slower progress of the poorer, less tech-savvy majority. But I still see more Discmans than iPods in my neighborhood, and outside the U.S., especially in Africa and the Middle East, a whole lot of music continues to be sold on cassette. The Awesome Tapes From Africa blog specializes in uploading digitized versions of these cassettes. Turntables may have become hipster status symbols, but that means vinyl records are still being pressed, too.
Certain genres – pop, hip-hop, dance music – have always been, and will always be, about the perfect song. Albums are ultimately more contemplative, presuming and demanding both commitment and patience on the listener’s part. But for those of us who love the idea of being permitted into an artist’s world for an hour or so, these are good times indeed. Ambitious, personal music, often arriving in elaborately packaged limited editions, is reaching the diehard fans it’s meant for. Blogs and downloadable MP3s get the word out, but serious listeners still head to their favorite record stores and lay cash on the counter for something they can take home, hold in their hands, and examine as they listen. There’s more music out there than ever before. And no matter what panicked record executives say, people are still grabbing it up, eight and 10 songs at a time, exactly as the artists intended.
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