So the music album is dead. What a shame.
This is certainly no epiphany. There have been matter-of-fact eulogies for the Album for several years now. In many ways popular music has simply come full circle. In the earliest years of recorded music, music was packaged a small doses, at most a few very short songs. The technology of the time placed a severe limit on the amount of music that could be placed in a single package. 78 RPM records could hold only a few minutes of music on each side. Eventually companies started grouping several 78RPM discs together in an elaborate package, which was where the term “album” originated.
However, the format really blossomed when Columbia Records introduced its long play disc that played at 33 and 1/3 RPM. This allowed for somewhere in the neighborhood of twenty minutes of music on each side. Suddenly artists could explore whole programs of music, grouping songs together in sequences designed to highlight connections or provide a flow that became an important part of the music.
The album was very important too my generation. Artists started writing music specifically for the format. Would The Who’s rock opera “Tommy” exist in the same way had the format not developed? Of course not. Neither would “Dark Side of the Moon” or “Kind of Blue”. Every month Rolling Stone magazine devoted a number of its pages to pretentious reviews, dissecting the albums as “Art” with a very capital “A”. When “Thriller” came out, everybody bought a copy. Okay, “everybody” is undoubtedly an exaggeration, but I didn’t know of anyone who didn’t own a copy. There was a definite communal experience associated with albums.
But the convenience of digital distribution changed the game in recent years. Now fans no longer had to haunt their local music store and wait for the latest release by their favorite band. If they heard a song they liked, they simply went online to download it. To me, this has fostered a much more casual relationship with music for the current generation. Call me crotchety and out of touch if you must.
Of course, it could be argued that the album is far from dead. There has been a resurgence of interest in vinyl, of all things. That format was obliterated by the compact disc several decades ago, but now has made an unlikely comeback. Don’t get me wrong, I love vinyl. But it is still consigned to a niche experience. Music fanatics buy vinyl, but the world at large simply fills their phone with MP3s. The relatively small sales potential of current album sales has taken away the incentive to create album length works. Changes are very good that we simply won’t see another “Dark Side of the Moon”.
Time marches on, I guess. But for someone like me, for whom music was a vital, important part of my existence, it is hard to reconcile the shift away from epic works that we were so convinced truly meant something.
In 1987 the Dead Kennedys, a band that really didn’t sell all that many records, released an album called “Give Me Convenience of Give Me Death”. Oddly, it looks like the music industry got both.
A friend of mine swears that I select music based primarily on how much it will irritate him. That’s not true, of course. My tastes in music are very eclectic and you might find me listening to anything from techno to jazz to industrial to opera. In truth, I do have a soft spot for the unusual and gravitate to genre defying acts like Ned Sublett or Steve Tibbets. But I also have no problem with the most popular, even lightweight acts. I find that I can discuss music with most anyone, because while they may not like everything I like, chances are I like something they like. Music gives me a common ground of discussion, even if that discussion is about how “weird” my tastes are.
So lately I’ve been listening to a lot of disco.
I vaguely remember the “disco era”. Mostly what I remember about it is how much I hated disco music. Like most young males trying to come to grips with their own testosterone, I wanted to rock. I didn’t know that disco came out of the gay bar scene, but there was something about the music that seemed very un-masculine to me. So I shunned disco with a passion traditionally reserved for things you don’t understand.
As the years went by, I explored every musical genre I could find; jazz, classical, punk, country, opera, Prog rock, funk, metal, electronic… you name it, I was into it at some point. Ultimately, disco was all that was left.
I’ve heard some people describe disco as “anti-music,” and in some ways, they’re not all that far off. There is a mechanical aspect to it that is anathema to what we normally respond to in music. It’s only real purpose it to provide a beat for dancing, so it seldom deviates from a steady pulsing tempo (hence the mechanical aspect).
Does that make it bad music? Well, there was unquestionably a lot of bad disco music shoveled our way in the 70s. But in actuality, not all of it was bad. There were some genuine innovations that came out of disco production that are commonplace now and even accepted as hip in a plethora of dance genres (trance, house, acid, etc.). Even a lot of the bad stuff is now kind of fun in a kitschy trash sort of way.
So now, I couple of decades later, I don’t find disco music so threatening. Maybe I am now far more secure in my masculinity.
Or maybe I just don’t care any more.