Archive forJune, 2003

WHITHER THE ALBUM?

    Will a post-Napster return to singles hurt the album format and stifle musical creativity? It doesn’t have to – and anyway, the comeback of the song over the album was long overdue.

Emily forwarded me an interesting but rather alarmist Salon article yesterday about the future of music in the digital era. It’s provocative and definitely worth a read. The author, Sahar Akhtar, is an economist and philosophy PhD candidate – not a musician, an industry observer or even, as far as I can tell, a diehard music junkie. She comes at her subject from an economic-value perspective and makes some intriguing points. But her central thesis – that the cause of adventurous music will suffer when people are free to buy only the songs they want – is based on a shaky sense of music history, and some artistic assessments that are debatable or often just plain wrong.

I’ll try to summarize Akhtar’s argument. (Most Salon content is hidden behind passwords these days, although you can sign up for a free day pass.) The music industry produces art through an economic phenomenon she calls “bundled innovations.” For the lay music fan, it’s neatly summed up in this single question in her second paragraph: “How many times have you bought a band’s album for an overplayed song, only to discover that the more gratifying tunes are the ones you’ve never heard before?” As far as Akhtar is concerned, the modern music industry only hit its artistic stride with the flourishing of the long-playing album, which freed artists from the tyranny of the “brain-dead era of the 45.” The single, she says, with its short playing time and costly song-by-song promotional demands, enslaved artists to the need for instant-gratification hits, offering only a B-side on which they could flex their creative muscles. The album offered a broader canvas. Yes, easily accessible radio hits were still necessary to introduce an album to listeners, but a hit single could now be paired with far more interesting songs. But in the iTunes era, Akhtar warns, consumers will buy only the radio hit and never be exposed to an artist’s more daring, more rewarding work.

This argument seems reasonable and intuitive until you start picking it apart. First off, I stenuously disagree with Akhtar’s dismissive opinions on singles. Length does not equal quality. Yes, the 45-RPM record had a limited length, which prevented songs from stretching much past five minutes. But arguing that this limitation is responsible for the hit-song lengths we now take for granted is pretty ahistorical; last I checked, “Amazing Grace,” or most any well-loved pre-20th Century folk song, didn’t last much longer than that, to say nothing of early 20th Century recordings like Robert Johnson’s. Besides, shouldn’t we be praising well-crafted brevity, not trashing it?

Akhtar also has some strange ideas about what makes a “quality” song. She has a particular problem with covers. She offers some interesting data on song remakes: “1,055 A sides [of singles released in fall 2000] were covers of other artists’ hits.” Her assessment: “Songs chosen for covers are usually pretty simple in composition and conceptualization.” In a word, bullshit: covers of well-loved hits may suck, but often what makes a song ripe for reinterpretation in the first place is its melodic ingenuity. You can’t tell me that “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” one of the most covered songs of the last decade (surveyed most recently by a jazz combo), is “conceptually simple.” Finally, the notion that it’s impossible to be bold or risk-taking on a hit single is myopic in the extreme. Ms. Akhtar, Missy Elliott and Timbaland are waiting in your office, and they have some top 10 singles they’d like to speak with you about.

It’s easy for me to dismiss Akhtar’s rule about singles by pointing out the rare exceptions. But I simply reject the notion that a song buried toward the end of an album is empirically more interesting than a hit. Writing a song that is immediate, memorable and stands up to repetition is an enormous challenge; that’s why only a fraction of the bands on the radio are actually great at it. Besides, many of the back-of-the-album gems Akhtar prizes later became belated radio hits in their own right.

Akhtar has some funny notions about albums. Her view of rock history seems to go like this: the single, that creativity-limiting beast, dominated the industry until a big-bang moment in the mid-’60s, when the album completely replaced it and creativity skyrocketed. The truth is, the LP’s rise to prominence was gradual, and the single’s dominance has waxed and waned over the course of the last four decades. Albums only began consistently outselling singles in the ’70s, and even then, several acts were bigger singles acts than they were album acts (most disco and R&B acts and even a few rock acts, like the Eagles pre-Hotel California). As for the LP, it was on the rise for years in the ’50s and ’60s before artists figured out what to do with it, creatively; most chart-topping albums in the ’60s were hit singles surrounded by filler. The rise of the album also didn’t prevent the era’s best acts from writing great singles. The same year Brian Wilson led the Beach Boys through their greatest album, Pet Sounds, he produced the arguably even bolder single “Good Vibrations.” Anyway, as important as Pet Sounds and the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper were to establishing the album as a conceptual unit, the shitty “concept” albums of the ’60s, ’70s and beyond are a dubious legacy. The album can motivate bad creativity just as easily as it can give an artist room to stretch.

Finally, I find Akhtar’s complaints about the digital-songs model disingenuous. This may be a cheap shot, but as an economist, she seems less interested in “creativity” than in maintaining an old, conglomerate-friendly business model that forces people to consume music only one way, in expensive “bundles.” She uses the launch of Apple’s iTunes – the first viable legitimate digital music service – as the catalyst for her anti-digital theories. But that assumes that people didn’t want or need to consume songs a la carte before iTunes. Until the record industry killed it, singles on 45, “cassingle” and CD sold well for decades. Moreover, the digital-music era is actually older than the World Wide Web, dating back to the CD’s launch in the early ’80s. I’m not trying to be cute – the moment you could zap to your favorite song on a CD was the moment Akhtar’s idea of “bundled innovations” began to fall apart. And please note that the record industry is equally to blame here: the 1990s, the decade of the one-hit album, coincides perfectly with the era of the CD. It’s as if the labels and artists knew people were always zapping to the hit and stopped trying to make the rest of the album as interesting. Then, to add insult to injury, the labels killed the commercial single, making it impossible to buy anything but the full-price album.

There’s a crucial word Akhtar, perhaps intentionally, leaves out of her article: Napster. With its millions of users and rapid, viral growth, Napster was less a digital-music serve than a populist movement. I still maintain that the Napster phenomenon was fueled less by people wanting to steal music than by people wanting to consume music flexibly. Until the ’90s, consumers had a choice of single or album. During the ’90s, they were forced to buy only full-length albums. Why pay $18 for something with 12 tracks when you’re only ever going to zap to track 3? Napster made it possible once again to acquire just the song, and iTunes has made it legal and attached a price. So all iTunes does is finally match user costs to the way the product has been consumed for decades anyway. “Consumers can buy exactly what they want,” Akhtar writes, “and no more.” Gee, what a shame! Except we’ve been consuming music that way forever, even during Akhtar’s vaunted album era.

Like the record industry before her, what Akhtar refuses to accept is that the masses have spoken, and they’ve decided that the unit of measure in music is not the album; it’s the song. Hollywood will always have it easier than the record biz, because no one wants to buy one scene from Star Wars – they’ll always want it all. But a song is not just a sample of some larger, more complete product; it is itself a complete product. An album is, likewise, a complete product, but it’s made up of several discrete, complete products.

Still, there’s something intuitive and sympathetic about Akhtar’s concerns. Don’t all of us have albums we love – with their shifting moods and thematic sweep – and wouldn’t we hate to see the album go the way of the icebox? Much as we prize our economic freedom, won’t buying digital singles make us forget about albums, and the non-hit classic songs hidden in their grooves?

Time will tell, but I have reason for optimism. You’d think that artists would be grumbling about selling more songs instead of albums, but most seem excited by the launch of iTunes. Several have been quoted in Billboard saying that they looked forward to releasing music on a more flexible schedule. (Counter to Akhtar’s argument, in the ’60s, the 45 actually gave more freedom to artists like the Beatles, who released standalone singles in between their albums to keep the new music coming. Since the ’80s and ’90s, label promotion cycles have dictated not only that the album should be the dominant promotional vehicle, but that acts should preferably release no more than one piece of “product” every couple of years.) Also, as I mentioned in my first full post on iTunes, not enough noise is being made, by Apple or the record industry, about iTunes’ excellent $9.99 album pricing scheme. “Under $10″ is the price consumers have been clamoring for since CD prices starting inching up, and Apple is finally, quietly offering it. Perhaps consumers will see the value not only in 99-cent songs, but also in $10 albums, if they’re promoted more heartily. At that price, a truly good album is a bargain.

There’s the rub: the album has to be good, worthwhile. And maybe the digital-songs era will actually help that along. Once the album ceases to be the industry’s forced unit of measure, perhaps it will become special again and, utterly counter to Akhtar’s argument, more creative. I’ve always secretly suspected that the reason albums felt a little more special in the vinyl era – right down to the packaging – was because it was such a pain to search for songs on long-playing vinyl; an artist and his producers knew they’d better offer depth of quality and cool liner notes once the listener committed their time to a platter. Now that the album might become the poor cousin to the digital single, artists and producers are once again going to have to go that extra mile to make an anthology of true highlights. Meanwhile, until they’re ready to do that, they should concentrate on making each piece of music special – one song at a time.

Comments (2)

ROTATIONS: HOT HOT YEAH YEAH BOP-BOP-BOP

    This week on the CD carousel: the Yeah Yeah Yeahs beat me into submission; Hot Hot Heat go off their ritalin; New Pornographers are the superest of supergroups; and the Folksmen make a dead man come.

I need to clear the decks – most of these discs have been sitting in my changer all month, awaiting a moment when I could write something about them. I love them all (really – see below), but the backlog of new stuff is building up, and I’m off to buy Radiohead’s Hail to the Thief later today.

Anyway, at least two of the CDs in my changer right now are frontrunners for my 2003 top 10 list. Hell , the first one would be a candidate for acclaimed album of the year, if only the critics could agree on it…

 Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Fever to Tell

Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Fever to Tell – I envy people who hear an album and immediately “get” it. I generally need at least three spins to decide whether I love or loathe a CD. I call the first run-through “the head-clearing exercise” – it’s the moment when, after reading reviews and profiles and other hype, I finally say, “Oh. So this is what they sound like.” I had actually been trying not to get to know the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, New York City’s much-debated Band of the Moment: reportedly mesmerizing live, the trio has scenesters torn between praising their fearless racket and tearing down their neo-garage bandwagon-jumping. The first time I played Fever to Tell, I heard what people were complaining about: lots of attitude, lots of noise, nothing truly new. Then you spend some time with Fever to Tell, let the music grab you by the throat, and you’re addicted – it rewards the id, not the superego. Singer Karen O’s voice, a cross between the art-punk of Siouxsie Sioux and the sexy howl of PJ Harvey, is the unmistakable centerpiece of each song. But that band – what an excellent, cavernous racket! There are moments when you simply can’t believe you’re listening to a two-piece – and it’s not manifestly evident that the album is a heavily overdubbed studio creation. Appearing just a month after the White Stripes’ latest minimalist manifesto, Fever to Tell confirms that modern rock can sound full with a minimum of players. The only song on the album that captivated me from the very first listen keeps getting better: “Maps,” a kind of post-punk ballad whose centerpiece is Karen O’s mantra, “Wait – they don’t love you like I love you,” which is as tough as a romantic statement can be while still sounding vulnerable. It’s probably appeared on thousands of tortured homemade mix tapes in the last month alone.

Hot Hot Heat, Make Up the Breakdown

Hot Hot Heat, Make Up the Breakdown– Speaking of ’80s-influenced post-punk: My friend Brian recommended – nay, all but insisted – that I buy this album. “It’s rock with a Cure influence, you’ll totally love it.” Well, “love” is a strong word, and these Canadians are way, way too happy to be compared to the Cure, but Make Up the Breakdown has definitely been plaguing my brain, in a good way: its herky-jerky rock is a totally modern, poppy take on new-wave rock. (Damn, what a good year it’s been for that sound – Hoboken’s Ted Leo kicked off 2003 with his rollicking, bouncy Hearts of Oak, and I’ll be getting to the New Pornographers in a minute.) Lead singer Steve Bay may well be the love child of the Cure’s Robert Smith and Weezer’s Rivers Cuomo. His voice whizzes and careens, completely belying its fundamental mopiness. Hot Hot Heat have also been compared with XTC, insofar as they do bright-and-bouncy with a sinister edge, but that’s also not quite right – HHH have a bar-band looseness that’s miles away from XTC’s meticulousness. Try the song “Bandages.” It’s bar-room rock with ADD – repeating lyrical tics, picking up one idea before dropping the last one: “I’ve been tripping from sipping the dripping dirty water tap/I’ve been poking a voodoo doll that you do not know I made.” With their clever use of Farfisa organ and clean-but-dirty sonics (courtesy of legendary Seattle grunge producer Jack Endino), HHH actually most closely resemble a “96 Tears”-era, classic garage band. Shoot, there’s that word again.

New Pornographers, Electric Version

New Pornographers, Electric Version – The idea of a Canadian supergroup is laughable. More seriously, an indie-rock supergroup is kind of a contradiction in terms. The word “supergroup” connotes lumbering bands full of dinosaurs with heavy guitars (Asia) or heavy egos (Traveling Wilburys); how can a bunch of hipsters who haven’t sold that many records to begin with be called a supergroup? Maybe the sobriquet applies to the New Pornographers – a collective comprising members of about a half-dozen different Canuck bands – simply because their surfeit of talent can barely be contained in one group. Frothy, frilly, but never flimsy, Electric Version is hands-down the best pop album of the year, even if it never quite becomes popular. Not since the Magnetic Fields’ genius warped-pop project The Sixths have I heard so many sturdy hook-fests, in such a bold array of idioms, on a single album. Boop-boop-bopping and doot-doot-doting, the Pornographers’ songs would be easy to underestimate if the lyrics weren’t so mysterious and smart: ” Sing all hail/What’ll be revealed today/When we peer to the great unknown/From the land of the throne.” Carl Newman, formerly of power-popsters Zumpano, is the mastermind but not the star. That would be murder-ballad queen and possible Playboy model Neko Case (sigh), who tosses her aching country croon aside for the vocal stylings of a pop queen in the B52s/Go-Go’s mold. On a number of songs, Newman double-tracks Case’s voice, which is like doubling the gunpowder in an M-80; her voice is so big to begin with, Newman’s arrangements just make its kick deeper. There are a slew of effusive reviews of this album out there that praise its genius better than I could, but suffice it to say that few of the Pornographers’ other projects are this infectious, or satisfying.

Mighty Wind Soundtrack

Soundtrack, A Mighty Wind – The best movie of the spring by default, A Mighty Wind wasn’t quite up to the standard of Christopher Guest’s best mockumentary, Waiting for Guffman. (You Best in Show fans can sit down now.) What was most fascinating to me about the film, though, was Guest’s increasing willingness to be unfunny, to allow some genuine sentiment to creep into the performances. Guest and friends have been doing two-level comedy for decades – This Is Spinal Tap endures because its clichés hit so close to home – but they’re getting better at underplaying. The movie’s soundtrack mirrors this: many of the songs are clear folk-pop parodies, but some work so well on both levels that you really can enjoy the songs on their own merits. “A Kiss at the End of the Rainbow” by Mitch and Mickey (Eugene Levy and Catherine O’Hara) is cheesy and treacly, but then so was a good deal of ‘60s pop, and the tune is beautiful. What’s scary is that even the most plainly hilarious songs on the disc have real antecedents: “Loco Man,” Harry Shearer’s bit of racist pandering disguised as multiculturalism, is a direct rip on the Belafonte-era fetishization of West Indian culture so prevalent in late ‘50s pop culture. (Ask my parents: half the songs their old prayer-and-folk group used to sing have Caribbean overtones.) But the slyest inclusion on the soundtrack – little heard in the film – is the Folksmen’s cover of the Stones’ “Start Me Up.” I swear I had this disc in my player for days before I noticed that Michael McKean was singing, in his perky-folkster’s voice, “You make a dead man come” (backing vocals: “come-come!”) over and over.

Comments

2 DAYS OF PEACE, LOVE AND BUREAUCRACY

    Fingers are pointing everywhere as Field Day Fest, this week’s post-bohemian Long Island music festival, finally falls apart. But there’s just one word to explain why most outdoor festival concerts are doomed: Woodstock.

It’s hard for me not to experience a little schadenfreude as Field Day Fest, the much-hyped two-day concert on the North Fork of Long Island, gets downsized into oblivion. I admit it, I was jealous of the people going, because I couldn’t go. My 10-year college reunion in Connecticut this weekend made attending the show, in Calverton, N.Y., impossible. But it’s been hard for me to ignore the festival in recent weeks; no less than a half-dozen friends e-mailed me about it – was I going, would I like to join them, wasn’t the lineup awesome, how could I miss it?

Headlined by Radiohead and the Beastie Boys and featuring a freakish percentage of the alt- or indie-rock bands I’ve been listening to over the past decade (Liz Phair, Elliott Smith, N.E.R.D., even Ben Kweller), Field Day’s lineup was indeed amazingly cool for a big-attendance rock festival. Hearing about its brisk sales – more than 50,000 tickets sold over the course of a month – I had this weird, stupid moment of revelation: wow, maybe suburbanites in baseball caps like hipster rock, too. Popular as Radiohead and the Beasties are, you don’t get that many people coming out to one of their concerts. It felt like the epiphany I had in 1991, when Perry Farrell’s first Lollapalooza was a success. This, I thought, deserves to be some kind of cultural watershed for whatever post-rock era we’re currently living in.

Well, it could have been. That was before a months-long debate with Suffolk County councilmembers and cops finally forced the show off Long Island and into New Jersey. It’s been reduced to a single-day stadium show, essentially the alt-rock version of a top-40 schlock cavalcade like Z100’s Zootopia. Ever the troopers, the Beasties and Radiohead are committed to stay on as headliners (no shock for Radiohead, who have a new album to flog). But the original $160 tickets are not being honored, you’ve got less than 72 hours to buy new ones, and two days before the show, the reduced lineup is still being finalized. I don’t think I’m being too gloomy a gus when I predict that the downsized show will be a bust.

The guys who dreamed up Field Day, headed by an energetic fellow named Andrew Dreskin, wanted to create a European-style outdoor music festival, complete with camping and an idyllic, under-the-stars atmosphere. They also felt, quite rightly, that within the limited U.S. festival scene, New York had been particularly shortchanged. California has enjoyed several one-time-only or annual outdoor festivals in recent years, including the first Tibetan Freedom concert in the late ’90s, the well-established Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival, and the hipper, smaller All Tomorrow’s Parties series, which just recently made its U.S. debut in Cali after years in London.

Thinking historically, Dreskin & co.’s attempt to replicate on the East Coast a live-music success from the West Coast is kind of ironic, and their failure only compounds the irony. Before the 1990s, the most infamous rock concert of all time was Altamont – a failed attempt to replicate an East Coast success, Woodstock, on the West Coast. There’s a message there about rock’s center of gravity shifting to the West Coast over the last 35 years. The more obvious lesson seems to be that the DNA of a successful U.S. rock event can’t be easily replicated on the other side of the country.

But the subtler, more encompassing lesson here is that Woodstock itself – the brand and all it stood for – has tainted all festival concerts, probably forever. Woodstock cursed Altamont, it cursed the 1999 incarnation of Woodstock, and I feel its spectre was hanging over Field Day Fest from day one.

Some brief history of Woodstock: Everyone has heard the lore of how the August 1969 concert in upstate New York grew into a cultural event, in large part because of the staggering number of attendees who just showed up, sans tickets, and were let into the blissed-out gathering anyway. Less remarked upon until recent years, when several books and a VH1 special chronicled it, was how half-assed the planning of the concert was, and how close it came to getting scrapped, multiple times. The four organizers, led by a young, charismatic, somewhat egomaniacal impresario named Michael Lang, faced numerous roadblocks, including tussles with local authorities in Saugerties, N.Y. Through their clueless persistence and a good deal of luck, the concert went off. Halcyon reminscences by aging Boomers would have you believe that these pseudo-hippies succeeded over The Man because of their can-do spirit and the Age of Aquarius or something. After all, wasn’t the Woodstock be-in more important than any worries by authorities about The Element that an outdoor rock festival would bring to their backyards?

Of course, the locals were pretty much right: Woodstock may have been a great event, but it was a mess and a logistical nightmare. No amount of good-intentioned planning by the organizers or the town prepared them for the staggering crowd that showed up. Let’s give the Boomer attendees some credit – their general hippie pacifism meant that they were not wilfully destructive. But they did damage a lot of property by dint of their sheer numbers, and many locals complained of porta-potty-short concertgoers leaving “gifts” on their lawns.

Most major outdoor rock festivals since August 1969 have been planned in response to, in rebellion against, as a rethink of or in the misguided spirit of Woodstock. Chalk up the disastrous, poorly planned Altamont in the “misguided” column. Tote up Woodstock ‘99 in the overplanned-rethink category, which led to horrific rebellion by Type-A Gen-Y attendees. Some festivals have come off well – the original Isle of Wight festival in 1970, the relatively well-behaved Woodstock ‘94. As for Field Day, given the low-key vibe of most of the bands on the bill – only the Beasties, really, are mosh-worthy – it stood an excellent chance of going down in the “success” column. But planning a bucolic rock festival remains the planning and municipal-resources nightmare it was when Lang and friends found that first field in upstate New York.

Say this about the Calverton authorities: they must remember Woodstock, and they appeared determined not to let its havoc visit them in the guise of Field Day ‘03. You can sense that local police never took the concert seriously, even months earlier, when the organizers approached them about security for the event. The cops are now claiming they didn’t receive enough advance notice for their modest force to handle security for a crowd that size, and they’re probably not lying, exactly. But it’s also clear that they never really wanted the hassle, the inevitable crowd “surprises,” and the property-endangering effects a major rock festival brings. For their part, the organizers have maintained a sunny, almost hippie-like optimism throughout the weeks of Suffolk council tussles and dark police pronouncements. They declined to post any warnings about the show’s shaky status until this Wednesday. You could sense their Lang-like, can-do attitude – a belief that this be-in just, metaphysically, had to come off. No bureaucracy would stop their destiny.

Welcome to the 21st Century. There are no Star Children, and Baby Boomers in comfortable Long Island enclaves value their property more than their pop-culture legacy. Given the spotty history of festival concerts, I can’t entirely blame them. Hopefully, next year, the organizers will try again, in a more hospitable New York–area township, and Field Day will go down as a Gen-Y, post-Lollapalooza cultural touchstone. But Dreskin and his pals had better find a starry-eyed local mayor and police chief with happy memories of the summer of ‘69.

Comments