Ok, not really. The album has been and probably will be a viable and vibrant means of artful expression for the foreseeable future. But like the vinyl medium, I think it’s halcyon days are over. All because of this little bastard:
An album is, at least, a loose collection of related songs. Typically the recordings contained within are from one band or artist, from a similar time period, and contain sonic cues to relate the songs to one another. In short, they sound like they belong together. But now if you were to open up your music player of choice, I’d put even money on you having some kind of playlist or aggregate view that contains works from multiple artists, times, genres, and so forth. And you probably (gasp!) mix these together to organize them into ad hoc compilations that suit some purpose or setting.
As a music consumer, being able to make playlists is an endlessly fun and fruitful way to explore connections between my life and music. I find new ways to connect and relate to artists and music when I have free reign to build playlists. Was Friendly Rich‘s “Mr. Skin’s Hymn” meant to be put in conversation with Scott Walker’s “30th Century Man?” I don’t know, but now that I’ve put them on a playlist together, I quite enjoy it.
I’m sure you have your own similar experiences with making playlists. Even the simple act of putting music of a similar tempo together for the purpose of a workout playlist is destructive to the concept of the album. So why, then, this disconnect between the way people listen to music and the way music is released?
Putting on my musician hat, something I’ve grappled with a long time is “should I record an album?” Aside from my legions of adoring fans demanding such a release, why should I? My music listening habits inform my music creation habits. I don’t have the material for an album per se because my collection of recordings is more like a playlist. There is some kind of implicit thread through them all but an album implies a genre, a mood, a production sense… something. And I don’t have it.
I don’t think it’s a matter of discipline, either. This is a pointed effort: I want each song to exist in what I think is its best and truest form. I want to celebrate diverse inspirations. I want my music to reflect the way I listen to music. That means sacrificing the obvious sonic cues that these recordings belong together. And I know I’m not alone. In fact, composers have been playing with this idea for a long time. The likes Stockhausen and Cage challenged us to question what sounds belong together in music. Moving up a level, what songs belong together on an album?
There’s something coming over the horizon – a new way to think about a collection of recordings that belong together – and it isn’t an album as we know it. It’ll be some new way to approach the underlying logic of how and why songs belong together, and what it means for them to exist in one release. I’m excited to find out what it is.