I’m going to go out on a limb and say ‘no’ to this one, just as I said ‘no’ to the one about the CD being dead. That said, I think we’re going to have to redefine our notion of what constitutes an album.
There is no longer any medium-specific reason for popular songs to be a certain length (3 minutes, give or take for one side of a 78rpm shellac disc) nor for collections of songs to be able to fill two sides of a slab of vinyl (around 22 minutes per side), or for mixes to extend no further than about 80 minutes for a standard (red book) CD.
Digital means the death of scarcity in this regard, so you can have 3 hour songs if you wish, or albums with a million songs on them. I don’t think that necessarily means you should tend to those extremes – though I have to admit I’d get a perverse satisfaction if someone did (which is not a promise to actually listen to the whole thing).
But it does mean that you have the freedom to choose.
While many people are buying individual tracks on iTunes, it seems that the majority of purchases on eMusic are of albums. And I think this more accurately reflects the desires and intentions of artists. No matter what the shopping architecture ends up being, artists will tend to want to curate their works into sensible, themed and connected collections.
Because albums are more than ‘here are our best 12 songs of the last 2 years’. They are usually considered as single entities, of which the songs form a part – and whatever the intended articulation of the artists message might be in the atomic unit of the song, the album is usually constructed to be greater than the sum of its parts.
When I ran a record label, we foolishly spent large chunks of money in the mastering studio. Not on making the individual songs sound good – but we agonised over the gaps between the songs. When we were satisfied, we brought the finished product back and gave the CD to friends and family, who promptly put it in the CD player and pressed the ‘random’ button.
Nowadays, hardly anyone seems to listen to albums from start to finish. Let alone appreciate the extended breath pause… and… IN to the next track. It’s all shuffle. And you know what? That’s fine. Well-crafted albums will survive that kind of treatment.
Most people I know (myself included) have very good impressions of albums that they have never heard in the desired order – or even sequentially one track after another. Somehow we throw the music into our collections, and add the tracks together in our heads.
But this raises a whole lot of other issues and possibilities. The number of album listening parties I’ve noticed recently for launches is really interesting.
The end of filler tracks?
There’s a popular myth that a lot of bands have 4 or 5 really strong songs, and a bunch of filler material that fits in between at strategic points. Most artists like to think all of their songs are good, and in fact, most artists I know are forced to leave perfectly good songs off an album for the sake of length and thematic consistency.
But if you do only have 5 great songs – that’s 5 more than most people. Get it out there. If it’s shorter than a traditional album, call it whatever you like – but it fulfills the same function: a collected exhibition of works. If you have 20 tracks or 50 tracks – they can all work together as a single album too, if you like.
Make meaning through proximity
The point is that you’re not restricted by the capacity of the medium, so the decision you make about album length can be purely on quality and aesthetics. I know people who are putting out three song packages in rapid succession, and others that are releasing every studio session they record as a single product – whether they get through 1 track or 15.
But by and large, the simple fact is that while the album itself is no longer bound by the restraints of physical media, most people like creating and consuming music in groups. We like to make meaning from music – and individual tracks are often contextless. This is why the first thing we do when we buy them is to arrange them into playlists and compilations.
After all, if you don’t give us an album, we’ll make one of our own.