Tuesday, 26 January 2010

The Disposability Of Music & How I Learned To Love The Album Again

The music industry’s never-ending quest to provide more convenient media has, it can be argued, made music more disposable, more forgettable. Think about it. In the days of vinyl, you sat through a record all the way through. Partly, it must be said, due to the fact that changing the track (with all the faff of lifting the needle and putting it back down in the wrong place without scratching the surface of the LP) was such effort. It almost meant you had to buy the singles when they came out, and pray that your favourite songs off an album got released as a single.

The cassette tape, in commercial pre-recorded guise at least, as bad if not worse. How many of you wrecked your tapes by spending afternoons furiously fast-forwarding and rewinding them to hear favourite songs? I did, countless times. However, the advent of blank cassettes meant people could suddenly make mixtapes off their vinyl collections. Don’t want to sit through records to hear your favourite tracks? Easy! Make a personal greatest hits collection instead. When twin deck tape players and recorders came along you could even do it off your cassette collections. Winner. If you were really cheap (as I was at the turn of the millennium), you could spend Sunday afternoons listening to the top 40 and recording your favourite songs off that. Getting it just right so you didn’t get any talking at the start or end of the song, while not missing a note either, was an art form. I failed dismally. I ended up with as much of Marc Goodier’s voice on mine as I did the music. It could be argued that cassettes were really the start of the whole piracy issue that’s dogged the industry ever since, but that’s not an issue for here and now. Back to the history.

The CD was a godsend for the impatient music buyer and listener. You could skip tracks with the push of a button, and when CD burners came down in price you could make digital equivalents of mixtapes, or merely even burn the tracks you wanted onto your computer. It was the precursor to the current ‘pick ‘n’ mix’ culture that seems to be prevalent amongst the download only brigade.

The danger in all of this is between that and scan listening on streaming services such as Spotify is that it’s all to easy to live your life in shuffle mode. I know, I’ve been there. Now, I’m no downloader, so you might be wondering how this is so. Well, when my old CD player broke, I didn’t replace it because, as I reasoned, all I ever did was put it on the MP3 player and put the CD on the shelf and that was that. So I relied on Spotify, Windows Media Player (which I always cherry picked tracks on, never listening to full albums), and my MP3 player (which for reasons I don’t really understand, ALWAYS gets left on shuffle, unless I’m on a train). The concept of an album, therefore, appeared to be dead to me. Given my propensity for buying CD albums, this seemed a ridiculous situation. So, I finally got round to buying a new player. I then set aside 2 days to re-discover my love for the album, and got down to celebrating being able to listen to physical formats again.

I accept that maybe 18 albums was probably a bit much in such a short space of time. Cambridge University did research suggesting that the brain can only compute and engage fully in any one activity for an hour before it needs to be stimulated via other methods. This probably applied here too – towards the end of my ‘experiment’ I was pretty much waiting for albums to finish. However, it did open my eyes to the joys of listening to an album again. The way it lets you see the ideas and thoughts of an artist in that one period of time. The way that some albums are autobiographical, and let you see the artists’ mindset or experiences. Plus, with a physical format you can kick back and read the sleeve-notes and ogle the artwork while the album is playing. Sometimes this can be just as exciting as the record itself (see The Ramones’ Sire re-issues, or the Undertones or Echo & the Bunnymen equivalents for great examples of absorbing, enlightening sleevenotes). I also found that listening to full albums meant I could catch up with other things (mainly reading), which the constant stop/start of living on shuffle, and the constant track changing, rendered all but impossible in the past. I’ve also enjoyed the level of thought involved in deciding on an album to fit a particular mood or activity, rather than choosing a song or two to fit the moment and (metaphorically) sticking them on repeat.

Don’t get me wrong, though. This isn’t me preaching from some gargantuan ivory tower about the perils of listening to individual tracks or downloading or whatever else you could misjudge this piece to be about. Differences are to be celebrated, and if you prefer to listen to individual tracks over albums, then who am I to judge. This is really nothing more than a document of one man and his rediscovery of the concept of the album (and a rather verbose and highly edited history of how music has in my opinion become so disposable). Though I will say this: in the day where the album is increasingly being seen as an obsolete format, perhaps it’s time to give it a re-appraisal. Give it a whirl, you might enjoy the journey. I know I have.

During my ‘experiment’ I listened to:

Jamie T: Kings & Queens
The Clash: Give Them Enough Rope
Television Personalities: Don’t The Kids Just Love It
Camera Obscura: Let’s Get Out of This Country
Noah & The Whale: The First Days Of Spring
Billy Bragg: Life’s A Riot With Spy Vs Spy and Slow Club: Christmas Thanks For Nothing EP
(As these were both mini albums each totalling under 15mins I classed them as one entry)
The Pains of Being Pure Of Heart: S/T
The Manhattan Love Suicides: S/T
The Undertones: S/T
The Jesus And Mary Chain: Darklands
Richard Hawley: Lady’s Bridge
REM: Reckoning
The Pogues: If I Should Fall From Grace With God
Beach House: Devotion
The Field Mice: Snowball
Eels: Hombre Lobo
The Vapors: New Clear Days
Bruce Springsteen: Nebraska


  1. How did you find the Jamie T album?

    I never went through the logical evolution of music carriers. For geographical reasons really, growing up in Estonia. It's still unthinkable to buy albums in Estonia. Not that there aren't any available. There are a few shops with surprisingly good selections. But CDs and vinyls are just so ridiculously expensive you'd go crazy trying to decide which one is worth your money. If it isn't going to be your favourite album ever it just isn't worth the money. That's psychologically so wrong it's ridiculous. If you're to buy a physical CD online there's still postage, which is not a very minor sum since it's going all the way to the edge of civilization, or so it feels like. Which leaves buying music digitally, but I imagine for copyright it isn't possible to buy music from many sites. If you live in Estonia, that is. I don't even know, to be honest. There just is no way of buying affordable music so piracy is rife.

    I started with recording onto tapes from radio. And got damn good at it too :)

    Anyway, what I wanted to say is: against odds I'm moving towards albums. Singles and lone mp3s work a treat drawing a person in. If that one song is good you'll want to hear more, and end up listening to the complete album, complete body of work.

    On the other hand, I do agree about listening to music on the computer. It's not easy to listen to an album on a computer. It'd have to be a conscious effort. But look at that! We're now considering it an effort to click on a mouse a few times!

    Though to me music has never been disposable and I resent the notion that mp3s and Internet have somehow made music more disposable. It is more available and for that easier to take for granted.

  2. Hey, firstly thanks for your comment - it's always nice to know that what I write gets read and stimulates minds :) You address quite a few points in your comment, so I'll try and address each one in turn.

    I'm presuming you're asking whether I enjoyed the Jamie T album as opposed to where I got it from haha! I really enjoyed it, and have done since it first came out (September time I think?). I like both albums but I find Kings & Queens is much more immediate and more accessible than Panic Prevention.

    Why are physical music formats so expensive in Estonia then? Is it due to taxes or are they seen as some kind of luxury purchase or what? I can imagine it to be a nightmare on a day to day basis, especially with what you've said about having to carefully pick your albums as opposed to taking a chance on some of them.

    Two points though: Firstly, the postage can't be that bad, unless Estonia has import taxes and the like on music? For instance Amazon only charges 2-3 euros a CD for continental postage on their marketplace. While I appreciate that's still quite a lot, the cheap CD's etc offered by UK, French, German (etc.) sellers would balance it out, no?

    Secondly, with all the issues you've described, is it possible to stream music before you buy. Many continental countries have streaming services such as Spotify or We7. If you don't already have any yet then hopefully you'll get one/some soon. i've found them to be a godsend for evaluating records before I part with cash for them.

    Glad to hear of your experiences of moving towards the album. You raise a great point about the single as to me it should be to an album what a greatest hits album is to an artist's back catalogue - to introduce and entice. I think this gets forgotten by some artists.

    I'm going to have to think about your last point. Perhaps taking it for granted is a better way of putting it. I think the increased exposure and accessibility definitely has led to complacency amongst music listeners to some degree or other, though.

    Once again, thanks for reading :)

  3. Better late than never. My musical education started off with a few cassette albums, but my formative years were spent in the car driving around Ireland listening to my Dad's mix-tapes. I remember my favourite - a dark, opaque cassette with a yellow label that read MIX 1989/90.

    Some awful songs on that, but it all sticks in the memory.

    I must admit, I love a good playlist/mix tape/mix CD but there's a certain joy in listening to an album from start to finish. Some tracks only make sense on an album and would seem obtuse as stand-alone songs.

    Crafting a playlist is a delicate process - everything that I have to say on the matter could be typed here, but I'd be plagerising Nick Hornby.

    Another note - The First Days of Spring is a wonderful album to listen through from start to finish. It should come as one track that you have to play through with no option to skip.

    Finally, I'm off to an indie night on Friday (4 June 2010) where they are playing Meat is Murder from start to finish. If they can do it in a club, you can do it on the bus.