Saturday, March 13, 2010

Pink Floyd vs. the album killers

Interesting post on the Wall Street Journal's Speakeasy blog. The upshot here is that last week Pink Floyd successfully used a clause in their relatively ancient contract to prevent their label, EMI, from selling their music on a song-by-song basis. As author Steven Kurutz notes in the post, this is almost a no-brainer for anyone who's listened to Pink Floyd. Save for a few single-worthy, radio-friendly tracks -- 'Money' immediately comes to mind -- the band is best known for its album work. "You can’t just casually put on 'The Wall,' hear a song or two and cue up something else," Kurutz writes. "Perhaps more than any other band, Pink Floyd made albums, music meant to be listened to as a cohesive whole." (Emphasis mine.)

Still, as he later notes, this is the opposite of what's going on in today's music business. Between iTunes, MP3s, mobile listening, on-demand songs, Pandora, and on and on, the single has regained its primacy, if it ever lost it in the first place. Kurutz questions whether this is a good or bad thing for music in general, and he comes down on what seems to be a firm maybe. Surely there have been releases past and present with one, two or three good songs and the rest filler. Now, people can just buy those songs. On the other hand, artists like Taylor Swift, who's quoted in the post, are packaging the best songs they can muster into one CD and calling it an album, essentially creating a single-artist mix tape, for good or ill.

But Kurutz nails it at the end, and I'll let him take it from here:
That doesn’t mean, however, that successful pop artists like Swift are making albums these days, at least not in the Pink Floyd sense of the term. Swift and other modern hitmakers are instead packaging a dozen or so individual, singles-worthy songs together and releasing them. An album is a convenient and standardized mode of distribution, not a form of expression. It’s a crucial difference. A band like Pink Floyd used the 45 or 60 minutes of music that a full-length album contains to explore a musical or lyrical theme, the way an author does in a novel. You wouldn’t buy a few chapters of “War and Peace” for your Kindle, ignore the rest and expect to come away with any real understanding of the novel. Pink Floyd seems to be making the same argument. (Again, emphasis mine.)
That's right on. And somewhat goes back to my previous post where I compare the value of buying a vinyl over a CD, even if you just want the MP3. It's a way to ensure people at least walk away with an entire album, and it's better than a little piece of plastic. But of course, that won't change the artists making the music, and I certainly don't think Taylor Swift -- or anyone else like her -- is going to get a bunch of pre-teen or teenage girls to go out and buy vinyl. And I'm not arguing that there's anything necessarily wrong with the proliferation of single-focused artists.

But I hate to think we've seen the death of the classically crafted album's album. With that in mind then, what's left to do? Well, certainly waiting for the next Pink Floyd is a bit of a waste of time, but I think a good starting point is to appreciate those groups that are making full albums that are worthy of the name. Love it or hate it, a commenter on the Kurutz post mentioned The Decemberists' 2009 release 'Hazards of Love,' it's an album's album, and I found it grossly underrated. The Flaming Lips' 'Embryonic' is another. The Yeah Yeah Yeah's 'It's Blitz' has some masterfully designed ebb and flow to it. These are albums, more than a collection of songs. There is a difference. We need more of the former, and these may not be the 21st Century version of 'Dark Side of the Moon,' but they show a dedication to true album-making, and that's something all music-lovers should support.

(H/T's Twitter feed -- which I of course recommend following here: -- for pointing out the original WSJ post.)

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