Is the Album Extinct?
Is the popularity of music downloads making finding hidden gems in an album a thing of the past?
I recently read an interview where Richard Thompson said, “Songs like to be together." It got me thinking about our current single-driven music industry and how much I miss albums. Albums like Fleetwood Mac's Rumours, the Eagles' Hotel California, Elton John's Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, Pink Floyd's The Wall, Prince's Purple Rain, Bruce Springsteen's Born in the USA, U2's The Joshua Tree, the Beatles' Abbey Road, Dire Straits' Making Movies, and Cat Stevens' Tea for the Tillerman were a journey, a movie, a grand experience. Like a novel, they had a pacing to their flow that took the listener through a series of emotions. Regrettably, that's all but gone from popular culture today. Young music buyers tend to download the songs they know either from radio or music videos, building their own very limited playlist like a child planning his diet based entirely on commercials he's seen—Skittles with a side of Oreos, washed down with a Monster Energy drink. Gone are the sweet surprises of finding those unexpected, wonderful, weird songs that fly under the radar of hit radio.
When I was a kid, “Refugee" made me buy Tom Petty's Damn the Torpedoes, but it was “Even the Losers"—the track sandwiched between the hits—that changed my life. That song was a sonic vision of the tortured life my middle-class teenage self yearned to live. Even now, I just want to spend some nights outside with my girl smoking cigarettes and staring at the moon—even though I swore off those little death sticks years ago—because this song made it all feel so ineffably cool. Those songs that speak to us on such a perfectly personal level rarely become singles, because they're the songs that won't relate to everybody. Conversely, the songs pushed for mass consumption are not necessarily terrible songs, but they are, for the most part safe, unoriginal, simplistic, devoid of metaphor or simile. They are boring, forgettable, and basically interchangeable. They will not be here in two years, much less 30 years, like some of the cuts from the albums listed above. Yes, this is a sweeping generalization and, yes, you will find many, many exceptions without looking too hard.
I'm not going to join the fray and argue that current singles are crap compared to the music of old; there have always been both diamonds and lumps of coal on our airwaves. Our modern problem is that fantastic songs whose only sin is that they are subtle, cerebral, or longer than 3:57 are heard by very few people. Record companies, desperate for hits in this competitive market, are reluctant to support any song that is not a potential single. That alone gives a homogeneous feel to most CDs today. Back in the day, labels hoped for a single or two and let the artist do what they wanted to with the rest of the album—which made for incredibly creative and risky recordings. And those risks were rewarded by the AOR (album-oriented rock) radio format.
Back in the days of AOR, DJs listened to everything they could find and gleaned the hidden gems to share with their listeners. That was when radio must have been one of the greatest jobs in the world. Today, most DJs have a tiny playlist dictated by somebody they've never met in a city far away from their listeners. I have a lot of friends in radio that got into it because they loved music. Sadly, the best part of their gig has been stripped away. Consequently, radio numbers are down across the board. The solution seems so simple: give jocks back their gig. Let them spin what they love. Then maybe labels will let artists take a few more chances and the classic, great album will come back.
Some of you may have tried “Dark Side of the Rainbow" or “Wizard of Floyd." (For the uninitiated, start Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon on the third roar of the MGM Lion at the beginning of The Wizard of Oz and marvel at the synchronicity...a little glaucoma medicine may help.) Personally, I don't see this as a supernatural experience, but rather as testimony to a well-crafted album. Listen to any great album with your eyes closed and you will experience a journey sans chemical aids. Downloads and iPod shuffle have bestowed upon us complete listening control, but in doing so we have cheated ourselves out of the full musical experience that the recording artist developed for us.
My wife, Megan Mullins, completed an honest-to-God great album full of varied and wonderful songs last year with Buddy Cannon, who has produced Willie Nelson and Kenny Chesney, among others. Her label, stacked with cash from Jason Aldean's gigantic success, was generous and adventurous enough to let her make it. Given radio's rigid adherence to tiny playlists and the consumer trend of downloading singles as opposed to buying CDs, the question is whether Megan's killer songs that are stacked between the singles be heard? Come to a concert sometime for a live version.
John Bohlinger is a Nashville guitar slinger who works primarily in television, and has recorded and toured with over 30 major label artists. His songs and playing can be heard in major motion pictures, major label releases and literally hundreds of television drops. Visit him at: youtube.com/user/johnbohlinger or facebook.com/johnbohlinger