The death of the LP

In an era of pick’n’mix iPodding, who needs a 45-minute player?

Donald Winchester

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Ever since the mid-Sixities creative boom in long-playing records spearheaded by the Beatles and Beach Boys, the album has been the model by which any musical artist is measured. That may be about to change.

The album has endured changes in format (vinyl to cassette to CD), length (40 minutes on vinyl, today many extend to 70 minutes) and sound quality (mono to stereo to digital). Throughout, its concept has remained much the same. The ‘digital revolution’ – mp3 players, iTunes, song-swapping – is set to alter all that. And, as we have seen in virtually every recent musical revolution (Napster, The Grey Album, internet CD sales and so on) the music industry is slow to react.

The key change is in the way consumers listen to the music. At the primary level of exposure, the listener no longer relies solely on commercial radio or on the blind shelling out of a tenner for the latest LP. Digital downloads from iTunes, Napster and their competitors offer singles, album tracks, live recordings and other tracks side-by-side, available for the consumer to cherry pick.

The public has embraced this concept wholeheartedly. The latest fashion among listeners is to proclaim one’s ‘eclectic’ music taste, to claim ‘favourites’ among as many disparate styles as possible. Those listeners advanced in the digital revolution (a rapidly growing number with the burst in popularity of the iPod) will choose a few tracks from an album, rejecting the ‘dud’ tracks. Musical innovator David Bowie embraces this trend, telling USA Today: ‘It is rare that I play an album through from beginning to end.… I choose my favourites from it very quickly, and these get to be part of my (compilation).’

Increasingly, the listener, not the artist, creates the album. Listeners create their own compilations, proclaiming their eclectic tastes. The loss of creative control for the artist has been a muted concern thus far. Many have rejected a future without the album as we know it. Peter Lowe, director of marketing for iTunes, said: ‘[Our customers] have demonstrated that, like with vinyl singles before and with CD singles most recently, the availability of individual tracks…does not destroy the album as an art form, or as a business form.’

Surely, though, Lowe’s comment is no more than marketing speak, which, rather than debunking the demise of the album, effectively confirms it by acknowledging that such concerns exist?

The musical market, already a fragmented palette of sometimes bewildering variety, is likely to become more so. The possibilities for new or lesser-known bands and singers to promote their music more cheaply across the internet has already led to success for some current acts. Sheffield indie rockers Arctic Monkeys this year flooded the net with over 20 demo recordings, attracting a vast following. This produced an otherwise unlikely No.1 in their first full single release, ‘I Bet That You Look Good on the Dancefloor’.

There are more musical artists than ever available to the consumer. For the listener, there is simply no room for a full-length album from every artist. This is, of course, a sign of cultural as well as technological change. In our ‘instant culture’, the consumer skips from one artist to another on an apparent whim. The old-style album length now exceeds our attention span.

This evolution will undoubtedly bring some form of artistic loss – but exactly what kind of loss depends on the future alternatives. The b-side is likely to die its final death (online single releases already discard b-sides), and will no longer offer the experimental space it once afforded. Similarly, there are concerns that the emphasis on single tracks will restrict artists from airing their experimental side. There is, of course, no reason this should happen given the seemingly infinite dimensions of the internet.

As with any evolution, some acts are likely to benefit, and some may fall by the wayside. The likes of jittery indie boys Bloc Party and popstrel Gwen Stefani have always sounded better in short bursts. The future of Kate Bush and the raft of post-rock Radioheadalikes – who create albums of high acclaim but refuse to produce the hit single – may not be so rosy, though. We are unlikely to see conceptual collections such as The Cure’s Disintegration and The Who’s Tommy again, where individual tracks lose power when separated from the album whole. Even the success of an act like this year’s Arcade Fire, celebrated on the back of acclaimed LP Funeral (which follows a vague ‘neighbourhood’ concept) is likely to be very different in future.

Some in the music industry have begun to initiate new methods to utilise the new mediums. The Arctic Monkeys’ success is almost certainly a very clever marketing plan. Recording giant Warner announced in August that it is to introduce an ‘e-label’, which will require artists to periodically release a handful of tracks at a time on the internet. Artists will thus remain in media exposure more consistently, bringing an obvious boon to the recording label. This parallels Radiohead’s recent proposed scheme to release smaller EP collections every few months rather than a full-length album every few years.

Warner’s innovation is a lone spark in a slow-to-ignite industry reaction. The album is likely to remain for a few years yet, if only because of this and the resistance of those technophobes. It is with the artists, who have always been quicker to the pulse, that the charge lies. Considering the emphasis on fewer tracks, will artists eschew the less immediate and more experimental and concentrate on producing hit singles? It may signal a return to the singles-driven industry of the early 1960s, though the three-minute limit (as imposed by commercial radio) is likely to disappear.

These are exciting times for the musician and the consumer. An industry hitherto content to attempt to reproduce the heady days of the innovation of the 1960s is about to experience an innovation of its own.

Donald Winchester is an intern at spiked.

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