Is It Possible To Save The Full-Length Album If It Just Takes A <em>Really</em> Long Time For The Songs To Be Released?

Jan 28th, 2008 // 25 Comments

puttheneedleon.jpgThat’s an idea put forth by the Wall Street Journal, spinning off from a blog post where one Mark Cuban wondered if bands shouldn’t be “serializing” their songs, releasing them digitally one-by-one over the course of a year rather than in one 10- or 15-song chunk available in stores. Mr. Cuban doesn’t seem particularly concerned if the album itself lives or dies, especially if it can’t survive in the climate of martial law declared by the new model, but Jason Fry of the WSJ (who also outs himself a “song guy”) wonders if the “serialization” model can actually extend the life of the album just a little longer.

Album fans, take heart: Dispensing with the album as a consumer item doesn’t necessarily mean tossing it aside as an art form. Do today’s readers think less of Charles Dickens’ novels because they first appeared as serials? Radiohead is an album-oriented band, but wouldn’t its recent experiment with “In Rainbows” have generated as much or even more buzz if the songs had appeared over time? Would fans of “Sgt. Pepper’s,” “The Wall” or “American Idiot” think less of those albums if the first journey through their component songs had taken weeks or months?

It’s an interesting idea, even if the Dickens analogy doesn’t quite work–as any album-as-novel analogy never quite works–because despite the serialization, each installment was integral to understanding, let alone enjoying, the whole. Whereas even with the most Dickensian concept albums, songs can always be enjoyed in isolation, meaning once you take away the (implied) imposition that comes with the album form, the art still becomes nominal, something the listener can take part in if they so choose. The end result, then, seems to be same as pundits have been predicting for the last few years: as the audience that grew up on the album as it’s understood dies out, the format itself will become an ever-shrinking, vestigial art practiced by throwbacks and holdouts ignoring that MP3s have long-since-obliterated any sense of obligation on listeners’ parts to keep the songs they think suck, the art form doomed to a (very slow) death once playlists made it possible to self-edit an album without having to wear our your skip button or nudge the stylus ahead every few songs.

Beyond The Album [WSJ]

  1. Al Shipley

    I like the serialization idea, and had actually been thinking for a while now about putting out a record that way (although by the time it’s done, the idea will probably be old news, especially if it’s getting discussed in the Wall Street Journal already). You could look at it like all the old school indie bands who trickled songs out 2 or 3 at a time on EPs and 7″s and collected them on one disc later. Or you could compare it to the modern rap album promotional model, where half the songs on an album hit mixtapes weeks before it’s released. Either way, the market is primed to hear and digest songs individually in a way they weren’t before, and I think artists and fans alike are always going to want to collect those songs in a big chunk of a dozen or so for posterity, too; it’s just a question of whether you want to call it an “album” or just a compilation of previously (if recently) released material.

  2. Anonymous

    I think they did that serialization thing in that past.

    They would release several songs before the LP came out, on these things they called “singles”.

    That, of course, when telephones had dials, books were on paper, and our mail came by Pony Express.

  3. Michaelangelo Matos

    old-school indie bands nothing–this is precisely how dance artists have been doing it for ages. (see Metro Area, for example.)

  4. SomeSound-MostlyFury

    What happens to those songs that people think suck? If you release one song at a time, each song gets subjected to the pressure and scrutiny previously reserved for only singles. And most middle-of-the-album fare won’t stand up to that scrutiny, artists will feel obligated to make every song more single-worthy, and I see that as sending music as a whole down into the rabbit hole world of ringtones. Then you lose those songs that don’t make the radio but often are some of the artists’ favorite or best work. Then what motivation do you have to make art, to make music, when to make money all you can do is make singles? I don’t think music works like a Dicken’s serial or, more accurately, a TV serial, where each episode, although singular, is not expected to hold up as art on its own. A song released on its own is just a song, and doesn’t translate well as part of an album that we just haven’t heard the rest of yet.

  5. TheContrarian

    Artists often need to consider their individual compositional efforts together, in order to get a sense of how the work relates to itself. The idea of serializing songs for the marketplace is not one I’d personally want to embrace. We don’t ask painters to offer up their single brushstrokes. Albums, at their finest, are more than just a sequence of tracks, they’re a mood, a holistic summary of an artists’ momentary musical whims. I find the best ones akin to quality literature. It’s possible to serialize a book, but I don’t think it should be considered a replacement for the self-contained novel. Same thing goes for albums.

  6. Al Shipley

    @TheContrarian: So serialize the songs in order. Make it clear, as you release each song, that the first one you release is track 1, the second one is track 2, etc.

  7. Nately

    I don’t really disagree with anything said here, but the dirty truth is that even when vinyl LPs were fashionable, very few artists took the time to craft true full-length albums (as opposed to 3 singles + filler) and even fewer did it well. As long as there remains an outlet from those folks (and I think there will be one) then the Kelly Clarksons of the world can pump out all the singles their hearts desire and no one will fret.

  8. Anonymous

    I’m hearing about this model, and picturing one of those late-90′s No Limit Records albums with 15 phone call skits on it. Waiting 30 days, and 99 cents, to hear

    “This ain’t no muthafuckin P. Say ‘uhhhhhhh’ nigga”

    clearly shows that the idea needs some tinkering.

  9. SomeSound-MostlyFury

    @Al Shipley: Isn’t that the point, though? That “Albums, at their finest, are more than just a sequence of tracks” ?? You can’t split up the release of an album and expect any kind of listener connection to the substance of the album. I’m not going to eagerly wait for track 12 to be released in three months so I can “see how the album ends.” Instead I will say, oh look, another song from so-and-so. I wonder if its better or worse than the last one? And you end up considering the merits of each song to the others, instead of appreciating the album as a whole. That may work with some people and even with some artists who don’t necessarily consider their albums as one whole work, but a collection of songs. But all my favorite albums are ones that work far better as one piece of art than as 10 individual ones. And I also like songs a whole lot more when I can appreciate them in the context of the album they are part of.

  10. Al Shipley

    Not saying it would work for every album, and I don’t see it becoming a universal model. But I definitely think it could work for some albums really well.

  11. SuperUnison

    I personally like to hear things in 20-60 minute chunks, so I don’t think this idea is perfect. However, I’m thinking of something like “Lost” as a model. Imagine if, instead of a full album, artists put out 3 EPs a year. In my experience, it’s way easier to craft an EP and make everything conceptually dense, intertextual, and thematically unified than it is to do the same thing over 12 or 15 songs.
    The other aspect I really like about serialization is that it would make having a subscription/fan club model way more viable. I’d totally pay $20-25 a year to an artist I like in order to hear the songs as they come out + have a compilation vinyl/mechandise discount at the end of the year.

  12. Marth

    I’m sure Beatles fans would really have appreciated getting Carry That Weight a month after Golden Slumbers.

  13. noamjamski

    I think it is an interesting idea that may not work for everyone.

    You can’t give away “In the flesh?” and then expect people to wait two weeks for “The Thin Ice.”

    But if “The Wall” was broken up into four natural acts and released over the course of a year, that may work very well.

  14. Sniffle

    Albums are just glorified marketing elemenst for moneymaking tours, aren’t they? When will bands have the time to go on 26 week world tours if they have to put out a new song every month?

    PS – when I’m stealing a bands music on the internet, I much prefer to do it12 tracks at a time, not one or two, so this model really doesn’t work for me!!

  15. HUGE_Hefner

    >>PS – when I’m stealing a bands music on the internet, I much prefer to >>do it12 tracks at a time, not one or two, so this model really doesn’t >>work for me!!

    I agree.

  16. revmatty

    I’m sure serialization is one of the answers (the idea that there is a single answer to music distribution in the future is absurd). And the album will continue for a particular subset of artist that can make a cohesive collection of songs, which is rare.

    Keep in mind that for artists on a major label generally submit their collection of songs and then the label might decide to drop several of the tracks, reorder them, ask for other songs to fill up the space left by dropped tracks, etc.

    This doesn’t happen to everyone, and the bigger the artist the more control they have of course. But name a band with a hit single or several from the past 30 years and I’d bet cold hard cash that their ‘album vision’ was relentlessly tweaked by the label over their protest.

    The other cogent point is that the ‘album’ didn’t exist in any meaningful form 60 years ago. There is no reason that musicians must have a full album of material except that the business evolved to make that the most profitable format for the labels. The raison d’etre for albums has nothing to do with creative vision.

  17. revmatty

    @Sniffle: Just because they are released one at a time doesn’t mean they can’t be recorded all at once. And really there are top shelf recording studios in every major city in the world, they could work a song on the road, stop in and record it, and master it on the laptops on their off days if they want. Or even record it using their own gear while traveling. Leverage technology.

  18. Jfrankparnell

    @SomeSound-MostlyFury:
    artists will feel obligated to make every song more single-worthy,
    –And why is that bad? Many of even my favorite LPs should have been EPs. James Brown lived by every song’s single-worthiness.
    and I see that as sending music as a whole down into the rabbit hole world of ringtones
    –There’s a good reason why you can’t get (yet) a ringtone of middle-album filler like Pavement’s “Passat Dream” or Radiohead playing with voice-simulator software
    Then you lose those songs that don’t make the radio but often are some of the artists’ favorite or best work.
    They should be called, or used to be called: outtakes.
    Then what motivation do you have to make art, to make music, when to make money all you can do is make singles?
    Uh, you love to do it? You have to? Or you get laid more easily than back when you were just a bespectacled-geek and hadn’t yet changed your name to Buddy Holly? Maybe making something short and gorgeous is enough, even without money. It was for Big Star, and especially for the Ramones. “Every Song is a Single” worked a few times for GBV, and it works for Jay Reatard and LCD Soundsystem and Morrissey (and although I think he’s been subpar lately, each song is a world of its own) and even Yo la Tengo, to some extent. Sometimes Kanye, but even he’s got filler.
    “Every song is a single” can be done in concept album form, too: The Kinks.

    Remember: the album format, when it finally sank in, created a terrible side effect, known to some as ‘prog rock,’ wherein Yes and their ilk could record album-length or double-album-length “songs” of noodling wankoff posing as popular music. This was bad. It killed rock music. When the Outlaws dropped a song-length record side, cheese-creating svengalis rejoiced — There would soon be a backlash, beginning with the solo careers of Lionel Richie and Phil Collins (who may be especially responsible).

    This doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy Amon Duul or Hawkwind or Black Mountain or the Boredoms. But they all need a goddamn greatest hits comp soon. And sometimes Can bores me like a bowl of ether until I’d do anything short of beating up a gorilla in a space helmet to hear me some Shangri-Las.

  19. blobby

    @StuntKockSteeev: I think the point is that if artists release songs serially, putting shitty skits on an album will no longer be an option.

  20. Nately

    @bburl: They consume music in 40-60 minute chunks because they’ve been conditioned to by a lifetime of buying albums.

    Formats evolve with technology and so do people.

  21. revmatty

    @blobby: The demise of skits could only be seen as a side benefit to the changing model of music distribution. My one fear is that ubiquitous broadband will prolong the album and thus the skits. I hate the skits.

    @ everyone who hews to the idea that people are conditioned to consume music in 40-60 minute chunks: that may well be the case, but serialization or the return to prominence of the single/EP won’t be hindered by that. You can listen to several EP’s in a row, or create your own playlists from your collection in those block sizes, which I’m quite sure you already do.

  22. Anonymous

    @blobby: It’s tough, though, because as much as I was just kidding, I do think that (in the right doses), having 30 seconds of indie rock feedback (or the rap equivalent, which can be as classic as the Wu-Tang “torture” skit, or as useless as a Ma$e phone call) really lends something to the project as a whole. Some artists are singles artists, and some go for albums, and while I enjoy works by both, I’d like to hope that their direction is inspired by their strengths as musicians, and not by the technological model of the day.

  23. tigerpop

    @Jfrankparnell: I love you.

  24. bburl

    Most (as in the majority) of people buy albums because they consume music in 40-60 minute chunks. The album fills this nicely and I don’t see it changing. Serialized releases will just piss people off that want an album’s worth of music. Expecting a modern consumer to have the patience and attention span to buy an album in 12 monthly instalments is ludicrous. It’s more likely they’ll just move onto somebody who gives them what they want.

  25. britneyspearstears

    Great debate everyone! I have thoroughly enjoyed reading your comments.

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