(con)juncture was lawson fletcher's thought pile. Now blogging at soundofruins.net
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old thoughts on the album

Around a year ago, on Myspace, a young man offers some thoughts on the album which he now considers misguided...

[...] This was my first time hearing Softlightes, and after seeing them I decided to buy the album to try recapture something of that night.

[...] I have a pathological drive to buy albums. I'll buy one off the merit of a single song, or even a hazy recommendation from a friend or reputable-ish source (eg. Menomena was courtesy of Pitchfork). Some might say this is a waste of money, I disagree. In fact I cherish my inability to not buy albums.

This is because the difference between buying an album and picking and choosing via mp3s, singles, radio and/or Myspace equates to a greater schism in how one views the practice of listening to music as a whole, even music itself. Before I explain, I'd like to qualify that I'm definitly not shitting on people who choose the latter modes of accessing music, the mere fact you're into it however it gets to you is good enough and I cannot possibly hate on anyone who enjoys music, in any style and any format. Having said that, I'd like to proceed to contradict this inclusive sentiment.

The listener that prefers to pick and choose relates to music very much as yet another object in the endless array of commodities available to us. In this mode, music is viewed primarily in terms of "what can this do for me? How can I be entertained, made to dance, feel good, etc?" I remember reading an article somewhere that clearly articulated this point – in it the writer was arguing in favour of mp3 culture, as it ostensibly served the interests of the savvy and time-poor music listener. Something along the lines of "why should we fork out our hard-earned $30 for an album that only has one or two songs we like on it anyway, when we can download these for f-all?" Assuming that all the music-buying public felt exactly the same way, the writer then went on to proclaim the death of LP discs in favour of bands releasing only digital singles in response such demand.

From this one can gather a overwhelmingly consumerist approach to music – in fact at one point I remember the price of a track being mathematically calculated ($30 / 12 = …) – in which value for money is the overriding concern. Rather than willingly subject themselves to an artist's entire vision as contained within a single album, they are quite happy to pick at the surface, scratching only for a good beat, catchy hook, etc. Arguably this sort of thing has been gathering ever since the advent of recordable media – in fact, in its evolution a tendency towards fragmentation and 'you decide' can be traced. Vinyl records allowed users to manually skip over or choose a particular song; tapes also allowed this but much more clumsily (perhaps partly why I'm drawn to them); cds took it a step further with digital skipping and forwarding; mp3s completely divorce the song from a physical anchor and allow endless and effortless schizophrenic selection.

The listener who is willing to listen to, enjoy, an album in its entirety is far more involved in experience of music. Rather than moving the music themselves, they are subjecting themselves to manipulation by it. Allowing an entire album - often conceived by bands to act as a conceptual or musical narrative whole - to pass itself along their ears the cd buyer is taken by the music. Rather than simply being a matter of convenience, or a stopgap between home and uni on the train, they permit music to dictate their arrangements, in fact often passing up other experiences for it.

I'm well aware that a cd buyer is, in the final analysis, still heavily embroiled in the evil empire that is the music business, seemingly a lot more so than mp3 listeners are. The album-buyer is in thrall, and at the mercy of, the market which provides the very material for listening. They rely totally on larger corporate structures and supply chains to find what they need. In fact, they often contribute more to the pockets of corporations than the artists they're obsessing over. Whereas the mp3 listener (I hesitate to say buyer, because, well… you all know file-sharing's illegal right?) is sticking it to The Man, bypassing corporations and going straight to the source (in media studies this is gayly called 'disintermediation'). Plus they're finding the music they want, man, the most obscure and interesting shit.

This would seem to signal a contradiction – I'm arguing that cds are a more meaningful and worthwhile form of listening yet they're inextricable from the music business, traditionally seen as corruptor of music's purity and authenticity. I'm stuck in a 'top-down' relationship, dictated to by structures. Whereas mp3 listeners are going 'bottom-up' – accessing culture on their terms. Well, fuck it, I'd rather be in the clutches of the music business (which is coextensive with albums) than relate to music superficially, fleetingly and selfishly. Because whilst I may be profiting record companies more than I'd like to, I'm still perpetuating the development of artists and albums, and the structures that foster them, even if they sometimes constrain them as well. Mp3 listeners are possibly doing more harm than good, even if they are still paying for a few singles from iTunes their dismantling the prospect of musicians consolidating their development and having the opportunity of having more than simply three or four killer singles heard.

Because that's one of the best things about listening to cds – the discovery of tracks that would otherwise escape your attention.
[...] If I hadn't gone on a whim and bought Animal Collective Feels because of the cool cover, I may never have heard Purple Bottle or any other song from their back-catalogue which I have since delved into.

So fuck approaching music as another 'dead object' (Thom Yorke's word for a commodity) existing only for my immediate gratification. In short, fuck mp3s. Hail being enraptured for 50 minutes, being overtaken by sound, even just finding another good song. In short, long live the album!


  • Valorisation of the purity of old media
  • Album as a facsimile for live experience
  • Album as artifact vs. mp3 as commodity
  • Wholeness vs. fragmentation
  • Physical break instituted by mp3
  • Rock vs. pop


James said...


check it.

James said...

The last album (as opposed to CD?)I listened to was Harvest. I'm still listening to full bodies of work, regardless of the fact that its digitised.

But most people aren't music/tech nerds.

I'd argue the figures from itunes (which are heavily skewed towards hit songs and have little to no full album purchases) can't be used condemn the digital age.

People aren't going to buy full albums of heavily DRM-ed music and anyway there's always been a large segment of the population that love singles and for them albums are simply for just the three singles.

That's not to say the album isn't under attack. So true man, the ipod makes it so much easier to just listen to singles but i'd argue that that's where true music lovers come in.

If we as committed listeners abandon the concept of the album as soon as the physicality of the album dissapears, I don't think we're putting in much effort. I guess I've just got faith that music fans will invest their time in the album even if its just as a collection of digital songs placed in an order by the artist who created them. I'm happy to lose cases, liner notes, artwork (even if it's amazing) and the whole thing but i don't want to lose the musical story someone's bothered to sketch out for me.

Is the album under attack? Yes. Can it be saved. Fuck yeah!

Haha I'm so done now.