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.

1 comment:

chris.alexander said...

Interesting perspective. Yeah, the album as a craft is fading. Now, we typically get 'collections of songs' and cohesion is rare. The album is sometimes named after one song and there is no real sense of flow to the projects. It's sad. I used to own that cassette and remember playing it HEAVILY.

I think one of the most cohesive projects in my recent memory is Janelle Monae's "The ArchAndroid." Favorite album of 2010. a masterpiece!