In Memoriam: The Album Has Gone

It’s March, 2011 and I’m calling it:
The album is officially dead.

A Music Epidemic
In New South Wales, Australia, the number of teenage pedestrians killed in traffic while wearing earphones had reached “epidemic proportions”. The police department finally paid an advertising firm to launch an awareness campaign, resulting in a series of print ads like the one above.

In reality, the percentage of these deaths in New South Wales probably wasn’t that different from comparable cities in the United States, a country in which 44% of people aged 12 and up own mp3 players. In college towns like Richmond (where I live), you hardly have to be stepping over the bodies of freshmen to notice that nearly everyone has cords dangling from their ears.

It was one particular mp3 player that signified the end of the album as an artistic concept for me, but it was watching a 7-year old play with her new iPod over the holidays that a terrible thought first occurred to me:

Children may never physically touch their music again.

Peter Saville is a legendary album cover designer. He’s best known for his Joy Division and New Order covers, but has also done work for Pulp, Suede and Roxy Music.

When Saville pronounced album cover art dead in 2008, he did not mince words:

    We have a social disaster on our hands.

    When I was 15, in the North-west of England … the record cover was like a picture window to another world. Seeing an Andy Warhol illustration on a Velvet Underground album was a revelation … It was the art of our generation … true pop art.

If his lamentations seem a bit dramatic, you have to understand the world in which Saville came up. He was in the right place at the right time – namely, in Manchester as punk was dying (or being co-opted, whichever narrative you prefer). He worked for Factory Records, a company that valued autonomy and artistic integrity so much that they often didn’t bother drawing up business contracts. (Factory Records would later be introduced to younger audiences through the 2002 film 24 Hour Party People.) When he produced a cover, one hundred thousand fans would physically hold his work in their hands, associating it forever with music that both he and the audience loved.

But album covers have always been more than just a visual tether to the music they protect. They have often been desirable works of art – both beautiful and controversial – in their own right. Which is to say that aside from the many astounding, iconic works of visual art, album covers have also been innovative as a medium in and of themselves.

The Package
Hope of the States released The Lost Riots in a cardboard envelope containing detailed biological drawings that represented each song. The drawings were tied together with string, visually and materially suggesting a cohesive connection between the album’s tracks.

Autechre’s Quaristice was made entirely with steel:

The prolific Zoviet France has used so many materials for their covers – hessian, tar paper, aluminium foil, felt, wood veneer, and decorative pins – that I don’t have space to display them here.

In what is perhaps the epitome of album cover as medium in its own right, The Return of The Durutti Column (also from Factory Records) was packaged in sandpaper so that it would literally destroy the albums that it was next to on the shelf. Here was an album that demanded something of the listener just to store it, not to mention the care necessary to keep the vinyl itself clear of the coarse edges.

But all of these are rather exotic moments. Take as a better-known example, the Beatles’ White Album. When I told a friend that I was planning to write this article, I received an email less than an hour later talking about the importance of the simple, physical elements of this well-known musical work:

    The sleeve itself was blank. The cover was all white with “The Beatles” embossed. It was a gatefold that opened up to more white, and four black and white pictures of the band in the lower left corner. Reach inside and there were two records and four 8×10 glossy photos. That right there is the personal experience we don’t get with CDs or mp3s. This album came with actual photos that we could frame and pretend like they were family members. There’s a very personal connection there, something we just dont get anymore. The plain white album cover was itself a statement in a time of bright colors and over indulgence. – Lisa Gaidanowicz

But even some CDs have managed to preserve a sense of individualism, despite their almost universal, boring plastic casings. My favorite example is the reissue of MF Doom’s Mm Food, which came in a chocolate-scented Pop Tart foil sleeve with a ‘nutrition label’.

Coil’s Moon’s Milk (in Four Phases) contained a bonus disc wrapped in individually unique, hand-painted artwork, title and polaroid snapshot.

But it’s not all pancakes and roses. As with other forms of visual and cultural art, the album cover has had its share of controversy as well. Much of this has to do with sexual norms – the infant’s penis on Nirvana’s Nevermind, the prepubescent nudity on Virgin Killer, the (actual!) zipper on Mick Jagger’s fly on Sticky Fingers, masturbation with a crucifix on the cover of Marduk’s Fuck Me Jesus and the legal trial of the band Dead Kennedys for the poster insert of a genitalia landscape that almost bankrupted Jello Biafra’s record label.

Perhaps some of these controversies seem less-shocking now. But consider, for instance, the holy grail of black metal bootlegs: Mayhem’s Dawn of the Black Hearts.

When vocalist Per Yngve Ohlin shot himself in the head, his body was found by the band’s guitarist, who promptly took a photograph. The grisly image was used as the band’s next album cover.

This cover is still as disturbing and controversial as when it was made. Consider viewing this image not as a tiny iPod thumbnail, but printed in full color on 182 square inches of cardboard.

But thumbnails are all we have now; tiny digital simulations that appear and are gone in moments.

The Goods

I wish I could say that our loss of a material medium is the only thing we have to be concerned about. But I’m not just parroting Saville’s death knell of album art, but of the entire album as a concept.

When I use the word “dead”, I’m not merely describing it as a format that has been tried and abandoned like Soviet communism, but rather asserting that modern trends and technologies – the majority of which I believe to be positive – have created a generation of youth who are increasingly without a functional concept of what the word “album” ever meant.

In order to determine how this is playing out in the world of music appreciation, let’s take a short look at a few actual concept albums. While it would be easy to start with the past – Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side of the Moon, The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper, etc – lets avoid the temptation and highlight what might be some of the last that we’ll ever see.

The Antlers’ third studio album Hospice generated rave reviews last year, and for good reasons. Over the course of 10 tracks, it tells the heart-wrenching story of a narrator who stays to the end in hospice with terminally ill patient who is often ungrateful and abusive:

“In the spring of 2007, I started writing some lyrics, and I could kind of hear this melody in my head. I was just writing lyrics to this melody, a lot of them—pages and pages—they were all about the same thing. They were divided as if they were different songs, but they all sounded the same. I started to notice that everything evolved around this one idea. It was basically telling the story of a relationship that had fallen apart. It was kind of a damaged, manipulative relationship, guilt ridden, with a heightened sense of mortality. … I think it was later that weekend that this idea of telling the story through the analogy of a hospice just seemed to fit really well.”

The album opens with a “Prologue”, ends with an “Epilogue” and contains all the stages of the patient from “Atrophy” to “Wake”.

Of course, not every concept album can be found on the rock and roll shelves. (Shelves? Remember when there were brick and mortar music stores?) Lupe Fiasco’s sophomore effort, The Cool, tells the story of Michael, a young man without parents who is taken in by a gangster couple. After a later affair with the female half of this couple, he is assassinated, only to wake 6 weeks later with a decaying body. Ever the hustler, Michael returns to the streets as a pseudo-zombie to reestablish himself. The album is full of symbolism and metaphor, and its dark features are the result of the death of Lupe’s father and a close friend, and the sentencing of his best friend and business partner to 44 years in prison… all of which took place during the recording process.

Paste Magazine gave this excellent summary of this concept album:

    In the year 2719, Platinum 9000 android Cindi Mayweather is mass-produced for the wealthy citizens of Metropolis. Bestowed with a soul, Cindi joins the cybersoul rebellion and falls in love with billionaire Sir Anthony Greendown—a major breaking of the rules. When she’s sentenced to disassembly, she escapes to the Wondergound, where her true destiny as the ArchAndroid is revealed. She’s sent back in time to put an end to The Great Divide, a covert operation which suppresses freedom and love.

It doesn’t get much more epic than that.

What do these albums and many others before them have in common? Cohesion. Narrative. These albums are not collections of songs, but bodies of work. They are not merely the sum of their parts, but contain the emergent properties of ideas too big to fit into 3 1/2 minutes. No Hannah Montana / Lady Gaga soundbytes here.

These three examples were all produced within the last 5 years, and were well-received. But even these critically acclaimed artists should be surprised to actually sell entire albums, as anyone can see by digital music sales figures:

The single is now all-powerful, and has not only changed our conceptions and expectations of music, but its technology as well.

“The Archos”

Behold the Archos 3 Cam Vision. This was the device that inspired this article, and personifies the obsolescence of the album. Finally, someone was trying to give the iPod nano a run for its money by making a touchscreen 8GB device with similar functionality, plus some neat additions at a reasonable price.

I purchased my Archos with a gift card from Tiger Direct, but not before doing some reasonable research into company and consumer reviews. PC Magazine gave it their Best of 2010 Honorable Mention, calling it a “standout” that “exceeds expectations”. gave it an 8.3 out of 10 rating. called it a “great example of the finesse Archos presents in its creations”. The word was almost all positive.

When my Archos finally arrived, I hastily loaded it up with albums that I wanted to have access to at any time. It wasn’t until I actually tried to listen to one that I came to the astounding realization that ALL of the reviewers had left out something rather important about the device:

It cannot play albums.

How is that possible? Well, all of your mp3 files have little bits of information attached to them called id3 tags, which include, most importantly, the artist, title and track number of a song. This device is incapable of reading track numbers. It plays all songs for any chosen album or artist in alphabetical order.

Why the hell should you care?
I’m not generally in the business of product reviews, and I’m not sharing this information so that you know better than to buy Archos mp3 players. The importance of this information is not that it be shared, but that (to my knowledge) it has never been shared before.

Review after review of this device was completely absent any mention of the device’s inability to perform the basic, core function of playing an album from start to finish. Keep in mind that these were not just company reviews like PCMag, but personal and consumer reviews as well! (Amazon currently has 10 customer reviews that average 4 of 5 stars, and there are many others online, none of which mention this.)

How is it possible that every single person who presumably writes electronic product reviews for a living failed to notice such an insanely obvious disfunction? How is it possible that of all people who purchased the device, none of them found the inability to play an album to even be an inconvenience?

The answer is clear: The album is dead.

We have now gone beyond a simple transition to new economic models that make the album passé. We are now literally dismantling the infrastructure that allows them to be a part of our listening experience at all. And we are praising the companies that are doing it. How can we possibly be okay with listening to The Dark Side of the Moon or Ziggy Stardust or any other concept album in alphabetical order? What sense of narrative could we possibly perceive?

Final Notes
The death of both the music industry and the album as an artistic concept have been prophesied for nearly a decade. As the big record companies lost more and more economic ground to file sharing and other methods of digital distribution, it warned consumers (and pirates) that if the new ways were not abandoned, artists would no longer be able to support themselves. This, of course, was nonsense. On average, less than $1.50 of each album sale was going to artists in the first place. It was the industry, not the artists, that was becoming less profitable, less powerful.

For me, the death of the corporate behemoth finally occurred in October of 2007 with the release of Radiohead’s In Rainbows. You know the story by now: One of the biggest bands in the world gives the recording industry a middle finger by letting consumers pay whatever they want for the album – including zero. It almost instantly hits #1 on the UK Album Chart and the U.S. Billboard 200. In one year it sells more than three million copies worldwide. The era of a new music economy officially begins.

I am now forced to reexamine that narrative. Was it the album that marked our freedom from the corporate rule of music? Or was it the album that marked a new music economy free of albums altogether?


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