- 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.