Friday, 1 March 2013

The album is dead. Long live the album

Has the rise of digital really killed off the 'album' or do we need to separate our sadness at the loss of a medium from our frustration at a lack of innovation?

There's been a tumult of recent commentary revolving around (no doubt at 33⅓ rpm) the potential decline of what was once the 'LP' and now is the 'album'. The BBC has been the main culprit with admittedly excellent documentaries such as "The Golden Age of the Album" and "The Great Album Showdown" all indulging in a warm and fuzzy nostalgia for a time when vinyl ruled the world.

The love of vinyl is no bad thing, all that's associated with the physical means of 'putting on a record' makes sense to me despite my growing up in a predominantly post-LP era. The tangible nature of the format, the opportunities to indulge in extensive artwork and the obvious emotional investment required in taking time to care for the object itself are all facets of the black disc's appeal I can readily recognise.

Unfortunately, the underlining implication in all this retrospective affection is an erroneous assumption that the artistic validity of the album format itself (i.e. a collection of songs over approximately 45 mins) died along with the drop in vinyl production at the turn of the 1980's.

This patently isn't true; the subtext exemplar of an albeit understandable, rose-tinted fondness for the past, a rejection of the musical validity of the new, easily afforded by the distinguishable 'line in the sand' that is the 'death' of a format. It's too convenient to associate this with the perceived end of an art form, a perception which is, no doubt, subjugation for a notional tide mark representing the moment a glorious youth was lost forever.

Ironically, those who never experienced the proliferation of the 12 inch such as I - more familiar with the compact disc than anything - are now, themselves, superseded by a generation who may never experience a physical format of any kind.

It's tempting for those with vast CD collections to take a similar approach to the contemporary rise of digital music.

When we remember the unfettered excitement of a midnight album release (and the associated queues around the block they created) and then see the 'pilfering' of individual tracks from across the iTunes store filling out 'On-the-go' playlists with greatest hits, it's not too much of a stretch to imagine ourselves, at fifty something, plastered, pot-bellied and pie-eyed, across our own BBC Four programme, falling into the self-same traps as our fore-bearers.

Surely, one glance at any greatest album list published in the past 30 years would be enough to assuage any doubts about the album's continuing cultural significance.

Radiohead's paranoic distillation of millennial meltdown in 'OK Computer', The Strokes cathartic destruction of bloated, arse-end Britpop in 'Is This It?' and the romantic never world of hedonistic possibility The Libertines brought to 'Up The Bracket'; just three albums that, in their own, very different ways, successfully encapsulated the impact, appeal and artistic achievement of the best 'LP's of yore.

Radiohead, of course, were responsible for a defining moment in the digital music age, releasing the elegiac 'In Rainbows' as a download at the apparent drop of a hat.

This year, too, has already seen David Bowie unexpectedly release his first single in 10 years without anyone realising he was going to do so and My Bloody Valentine causing a twitter storm with the follow up to 'Loveless' released via their website.

The ease with which established artists can now make their work available is something to be cherished (even if it is questionable whether up and coming acts benefit from such a phenomenon - see Arctic Monkeys for a potential exception to the rule).

However, all examples appear to nod towards an as yet unseen potential for artistic expression and innovation afforded by the digital format. Without the restrictions of having to print artwork, surely the possibilities and scope are endless?

Rather than just an album cover and sleeve notes, why not a separate image for each track? Digital booklets are already a done thing but it feels like the tip of the iceberg and it doesn't just stop with artwork.

Perhaps - just as when LP's were first used solely for movie soundtracks, before artists like Dylan realised their full potential to be something much more - we too are in the fledgling era of today's digital format, waiting for somebody to utilise its possibilities, to create something that will in itself generate another paradigm shift in the development of the album, one as radical as that the LP catalysed some 60 years prior.

The only question is when and who?

We're waiting...

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