(Artwork care of Karen Ramsay (www.karenramsay.com), profile photo care of brianlackeyphotography.com)

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Commentary - Old and in the way

Photo credit: Gene Kirkland, via SlashOnline

Slash recently outed himself as the crotchety old guy of the neighborhood in an interview with Absolute Radio. Actually, he complained that, in a world of digital downloads, "music has lost its magic". With physical CDs falling in popularity, he misses the packaging, which used to contribute to the whole experience of a new purchase.

To some extent, Slash is right. Aside from the cover art, CDs can offer booklets full of lyrics or liner notes. Occasionally, the packaging itself is interesting, like the cool NES cartidge presentation for Beck's 8 Bit Variations.

Back in the day, record albums provided a larger canvas for much more intricate artwork. Anthony Phillips' Wise After the Event featured Peter Cross' amusing illustrations and people have spent hours identifying everyone on the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band cover.

But is all the magic gone? Björk's recent Biophilia offers a good counter argument. The album is a multimedia release with music and associated apps to accompany the songs. It may not spark a new mainstream trend, but it is a sign of a wide open universe of cool ideas that aren't tied to albums, per se.

More important than the packaging or sales model, the magic is really in the music itself. My first encounters with several bands have been hearing the music without the benefit of packaging, whether it was the first time I heard Elvis Costello on the radio or the Golden Awesome via a download.

Maybe Slash is bothered by more practical concerns. He probably doesn't like that consumers are no longer forced to buy full albums. Instead, they can select just the tracks they want. This makes recording an album's worth of songs more risky. At some level, I'm sympathetic to the old model because I am still an album oriented listener. But there are some advantages to "pick and choose" song selection.

The obvious benefit is that consumers get more power: they don't have to pay for filler songs. But it's more important that people are listening differently now. They create song lists like the old school mix tapes, but longer and easier to share. And shuffle play lets people discover interesting juxtapositions within their music collections.

Nothing stops artists from selling full albums, but they have to create the value to justify it: it might be a concept album that gains its power through the narrative flow of tracks or more fluid transitions that turn the whole album into a single musical piece where each track is a movement.

In any case, where Slash only sees what's lost, I see some interesting possibilities. Slash's pessimism hasn't forced him out of the business, though. His new solo album, Apocalyptic Love, is due out in May. In the meantime, stay off his lawn.

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