Memento Mori

Album sales have been in decline since 2009. Total album sales are CD sales combined with album downloads (misnomered as digital sales) and LPs. Despite the continued growth in album downloads, they’re not making up for the drop in CD sales. And don’t even think about LPs. At less than 3% of the market, LP sales would have to increase exponentially just to matter. Last year’s report indicated a 17.7% increase in LP sales—piddlysquat.

It’s a shame, not the demise of the LP or CD, but the demise of the album. The LP made the album a contender. In case you’re not old enough to know, LP stands for Long Play. The 33.3 rpm high fidelity record, along with the microgroove, lengthened listening time to an average of about 20 minutes per side. Before that, the limit was little more than 4 minutes. Generations since have never experienced the earlier time constraints, and don’t realize how revolutionary that was. It opened a new world to the recording industry, and a surge in creative possibilities for artists. It was the gateway to extended works and assembling a series of pieces that would flow one to the next like a concert performance.* The album concept : the concept album. The latter never existed before the LP. Compact discs extended the range to over 60 minutes without flipping, or stacking, or interruption. Although the 45 rpm single allowed the option of buying only the hit or two from the album, there were other attractions for getting the whole album. Most times there were other cuts you wanted not available on 45. Yet the big lures were cover art, inside photos, liner notes, and the concept. Those lures passed on to the CD, except for the draw of album art—the 12cm square of a CD page doesn’t hold a candle to the 12″ square of the LP. But this doesn’t completely explain the loss of interest.

Downloads started as music sharing of mpeg compressed single cuts. The industry got pissed off. They pretended to be upset with copyright piracy and loss of revenue. Loss of revenue? Not really. If you really liked something, you’d still buy the CD to get more of the artist’s music, and more importantly, for the full CD quality sound. Back then, mpeg compression compromised sound quality to keep file size small and download times short. Recording executives really only cared about controlling distribution so they could make more money. They weren’t losing anything. To broker a solution, Apple broke their agreement with the other Apple and got into the music business by legitimizing downloads through iTunes, and in the process, further emphasizing single downloads over albums. Less than a generation later, storage capacity and data transfer speed are high enough that the mpeg compromise is no longer an issue. Full CD quality, and high res for that matter, is quick and easy. Add to the scuffle the convenience of portable digital music players—no media to handle—make your own mix—no limits to single selection—a generation weaned on single downloads—and you have the recipe for doing in the album, and the CD.

Still, I buy the CD because I want liner notes, credits, the names of the other musicians, the loads of information downloads rarely, if ever, offer, and music server apps don’t accommodate. I buy it because I want hard copy. I buy the album because better artists still apply the album concept to their CDs. And I buy it because I would have never heard some of the best cuts had I not gotten the album. Plucking a single cut out of a well conceived album is like chopping out Mona Lisa’s smile. The part and the whole suffer. Admittedly, not all albums are conceptually integrated—many are hasty patchworks. But you see, here’s the flip side of the record. Much of the recording industry is giving up on the concept of the album. Picking out a piece or two, shuffling the order, mixing up the cuts makes no difference when shortsighted producers merely kludge together recording session scraps. If they want to save the album, they need to save the concept.

And here’s an example of each, one album concept, one concept album. Think of the album concept as a concert, many pieces strung together in a fluent sequence, sometimes around a single theme. Think of the concept album as a symphony, many movements joined into a single piece, each section relating to the next like the scenes of a play.

Example one opens with an easy, slow tune. Next, the pace increases with two uptempo numbers. There are never more than three up or down tunes in a row, and a nicely balanced almost 1:1 ratio of up to down tunes. Coming full circle, it ends quietly with the smooth, moderate tempo, title cut. A classic structure, one that gives us an emotional tour of land, sea, and sky appropriate for an album of standards. The theme : the hits of Nat King Cole performed by his daughter, Natalie Cole, recorded 26 years after his death. It’s a solid production, if predictable, honoring the spirit and memory of Nat and his musical era. There were times I could hear in my mind Nat’s distinctive voice as Natalie sang. The kicker of the album is the title cut, Unforgettable, where through the prestidigitation of digital processing, Nat travels in time to sing, once again, with his daughter. An unforgettable closing number. The liner notes are extensive and thorough. Every musician is credited, every soloist named. Biographical tidbits and childhood photos give a glimpse into Natalie’s relationship with her father and family. You don’t get that with a download.

Example two is Jethro Tull’s Thick as a Brick, a setting to music of a longish poem by the invented enfant terrible Gerald Bostock. One cut per side of seamless epic-ocity, except for the necessary break for the LP flip. Might it have been unbroken if produced post CD, or taken itself more seriously? The engaging liner notes are set as a mock newspaper complete with tongue-in-cheek classifieds. This album is a package, each part leaning against the others, each supporting, supplementing, strengthening the various fragments. The music can stand on its own, better than other Jethro Tull releases, yet without the St. Cleve Chronicle, the thorny liner notes, it’s only a truncated version of an entirety, and doesn’t reveal the power of the total package.

Think about what you’re missing with single downloads and liner-less albums and how it feels to be thick as a brick.

* 78s were released in bound albums holding several records, with one song per side, not unlike a photo album.

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