Saturday, August 20, 2011

Saving the Album Format: More Than the Sum of its Parts

Note: This is part of a series of blog posts. Read the first one here.

At the age of 40, I own well over 2000 albums on vinyl and CD.

I downloaded 4.

What you get most of the time when you download an album is, frankly, pathetic. You get the songs of the album and – if you're lucky – a small image file that displays on your MP3-Player or iPod. You might be able to figure out the composers of the song by going into the „information“ menu on iTunes. It's possible that the „song lyrics“ feature is used to some extend, it is not on any of the 4 albums I downloaded from iTunes.

The production value of the average downloaded album is the equivalent of those discount “Music for Pleasure” vinyl albums that repackaged previously issued music with cheap cover artwork and plain white inner sleeves.

And a lot of current CDs aren't much better. I still have excellent eyesight according to a recent exam, but when I try to read the information in many CD booklets lately, I have to walk up to a window and squint really hard to read the tiny font, that is sometimes printed with ink on paper choices that cause very unfortunate color contrasts.

I know not ever music fan cares about who played the congas, sang backing vocals and arranged the string section as much as I do. But a lot of music fans always have, and it's been getting harder and harder to get that information.

So why doesn't every downloaded album and CD come with a code that allows you access to a section on the artist's or record company's web site with exclusive content for buyers of the album? Song lyrics, production notes, video clips of interviews, behind-the-scenes looks at recording sessions, live performances, etc? Or even games, contests (win a date with Meatloaf! - OK, maybe not).

We'll never get back to the age of beautiful large album covers that allow for gimmicks like Velvet Underground's banana peel or the zipper on the cover of the Rolling Stones: “Sticky Fingers” - but with the Internet, we have so many new options that cardboard never gave us.

To survive, the album needs to be more than the sum of its songs. The Internet could provide for countless possibilities to make it so.

Meanwhile, to show that not everything was great during the vinyl album age, either, here is the very funny Ellen Degeneres looking at some not-so-great album covers.

I own that Millie Jackson album, too!

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Marcus Bachmann: Protesting Way Too Much

We interrupt our regular scheduled series about saving the album format in music for this announcement:

Completely straight curer of the gay and wannabe first husband, Marcus Bachmann, once again went to extreme lengths to prove his heterosexuality:

He gay-bashed CNN's Don Lemon.

Stay classy, Marcus.

Monday, August 08, 2011

Can the Album Format be Saved?

A few days ago, the movie title Jason's Lyric was trending on Twitter. It made me realize two things:
A. I had never watched the movie and should look for the DVD.
B. The picture's soundtrack CD had hardly ever left my CD player in 1994 and we don't really get albums like that anymore.

That soundtrack was epic. Composed of all new recordings, it featured an incredible range of talented African-American musicians from several generations. From blues veteran Buddy Guy to gospel songstress Oleta Adams, from the cream of 90s r&b and New Jack Swing like Tony! Toni! Toné! and K-Ci Hayley to talented Hip Hop artists like LL Cool J and Warren G. And the cherry on the top was an all-star, all male choir labeled "Black Men United" that combined more vocal firepower than a military platoon of opera singers. Listen to it and "u will know" what I mean.

Jason's Lyric was not the only movie with a soundtrack like that in the 90s. Films like White Men Can't Jump, Boyz n the Hood, Love Jones and Set it Off all combined Hip Hop, soul and gospel in ways that made the soundtrack albums must-haves for several generations of fans: The kids would buy them to get their hands on that new Ice-T track and ended up being impressed by immensely talented music legends over 40, while older fans could not miss out on the new Aretha Franklin ballad you could not get anyplace else - and in turn realized that Queen Latifah was a force to be reckoned with.

Alas, the days of those soundtrack albums, all albums, actually, seem to have come to an end. Downloads, both illegal and legal, are the way most people listen to music these days, and that means a focus on individual tracks, not albums.

The music industry is trying to adapt to survive. A hit song is more likely to make a profit if it makes a good ring-tone. Concert tickets now cost a small fortune, as artists went from touring to promote their new recordings to recording new music to promote their tours.

The album, it seems, is considered expendable.

Concept albums, a format that once rode high on the charts thanks to artists like Marvin Gaye and Pink Floyd, are now a niche phenomenon for the Björks and Kate Bushs of this world. I will never forget the intensity of experiencing "What's Going On" on my old Walkman for the first time, in the dark, on a night train to Vienna. It was a life-transforming experience you just don't get from a ring-tone you downloaded for your new smartphone.

Mick Jagger and Keith Richards got to know each other because one of them noticed the stack of vinyl albums the other one was carrying, and the result was one of the greatest rock 'n' roll bands of all time. Is leaning over somebody to see what is playing on their iPod too stalkerish?

Also, no more cross-pollination between different generations of fans via soundtracks and compilations as I described above. Nor first exposure for new artists that way.

This is what we are losing. This is what the future will be missing. It's hurting the culture of music, and it is hurting the bottom line of the music industry in the long run.

Well, I will not let the album go down without a fight. I'm rolling up my sleeves. I'm taking off my rings (get me some vaseline!)

Over the next few blog posts, I will make suggestions on how to make people excited about albums again. And nobody will care. But at least I can say I tried.