The download is a passing phase
By ProgBlog, Sep 7 2014 06:40PM
I read an article in The Guardian at the beginning of last month about the ‘death of the album’ http://www.theguardian.com/music/2014/jul/29/album-music-format-streaming-playlists-extinction due to the rise of digitised music and the rise of the playlist. The article was titled “Album spins closer towards its final track as a viable format” with the subtitle “Sales continue to fall and streamed playlists dominate. But like vinyl, talk of LP's extinction may be premature.” Musicians and industry insiders cited by the author, Hannah Ellis-Petersen, seemed to regard an ‘album’ as a collection of songs released at one particular time. There are classic progressive rock albums that contain collections of unrelated songs (Rain Dances by Camel, Going for the One by Yes, for example) though the 1981 incarnation of King Crimson released their first album of songs that were thematically disparate but stylistically linked by new technologies and interwoven guitar technique; prog was, and to a great extent, still is the genre of the concept album. Ellis-Petersen is also making a distinction between vinyl and LPs, two things I class as synonymous (though I prefer to call an LP an album.) I was never into singles and I was certainly not into bands that produced an album that contained tracks that were released as a series of singles, with the possible exception of Kate Bush – I’ve been listening to Hounds of Love as I write this article. I’m interested in concepts and serious art, not something that’s throwaway; something that provokes thought or reflection, not something that is desirable because it is in vogue. By this admission, I may be opening myself up to the charge of elitism, a criticism that was thrown at prog in the mid 70s, eschewing the simplicity of pop for something that the musicians created with care and imbued with value. Before you think I’ve gone all reactionary, the idea of craftsmanship was embraced by William Morris and the early socialists and the compression of music into digital information, firstly onto CD and then as purely digital files, is the product (and I use that word aware of all its meanings) of an industry that doesn’t care about music as an art form but as something that can be packaged and sold, a commodity to make money. This cynical approach promotes the mass marketing of artists who want to be famous, rather than those who have any creative ability. That’s not to say there are no current artists without credibility, it’s just that fashion wins out in the short-term. The old 7” single has been transformed into the download and the download is as ephemeral as prevailing trends. Streaming services do give the buyer the choice of what to download, so if I didn’t want all of Anderson Bruford Wakeman Howe because I don’t like Teakbois (I really don’t like Teakbois!) I wouldn’t have to download that particular track. This impression of consumer choice is still managed by large corporations; it’s handy for them to get their artists to produce a series of one-off songs because there’s no musician-controlled creative pause as they gather enough new material to fill an album, during which time prevailing trends may have changed and therefore profitability might suffer. Think of the gap between Dark Side of the Moon and Wish You Were Here, which for a 15 year old seemed interminable! Another charge thrown at prog was the length of time some of the bands spent in the recording studio but why should that be a valid criticism? I accept that from Bill Bruford’s point of view, decision by (group) committee during the production of Close to the Edge was very frustrating but, from a listener’s perspective, the results were worth the aggravation of the recording process. I think the decision of iTunes to diversify into the headphones market was fairly astute because of increasing competition within the streaming business, though if you take any journey using public transport you still hear streamed music played through the pathetic speakers of mobile phones and the high frequency-rich beats escaping from the ears of individuals who have the volume of their portable device turned up way too high. It’s laughable to think that any of these people should dare to consider themselves music lovers. Maybe I should get a life and accept this is the current established way to experience music but I still find it galling that a large proportion of the population don’t understand the term ‘personal’ as in ‘personal stereo’.
My recent experience in record shops in Tuscany, where they also sell component hi-fi equipment, shows that the vinyl album is doing very well, thank you. The Genova-based record label BTF has a Vinyl Magic division and Burning Shed, the online label and store established in 2001 by artists Tim Bowness, Peter Chilvers and Pete Morgan for singer-songwriter, progressive, ambient and art rock music artists, does sterling work releasing heavyweight and 200g super heavyweight vinyl editions of albums. In Lucca’s Sky Stone and Songs there was a very impressive range of vinyl releases from metal bands, something that would have put Barrow’s Kelly’s to shame, even in the mid-70s. The march trip to Prog Résiste also revealed a thriving LP market, where for a few Euros more I could have bought the vinyl version of Elysian Pleasures by Carpet instead of the CD.
It’s not that I don’t buy vinyl. Last month I picked up a copy of The Kick Inside, in very good condition for £2, from a stall in Lewes flea market. I should get my Rega RP2 serviced – it’s a couple of years shy of 30 years old but it’s been well looked after, so that when I last did get it serviced by Billy Vee of Lewisham, they thought it was only a couple of years old. Perhaps age is the key. Middle aged and relatively comfortable with decidedly settled musical tastes, I can afford to side with the audiophiles and their turntables. I can also appreciate that some of the finest musical moments of the last 45 years have come as an album, a well-presented conceptual whole, requiring attention and making you think. The pop download is the antithesis of prog, classic or modern, and though there is a whole swathe of the world that either thinks the album format is dead or didn’t even know it existed in the first place, the album, the LP, is not going away because it’s not simply about how a song tells you of passing feelings, it’s an immersive experience.
I don’t really believe the download is going away anytime soon but I think the management of music formats is key to appropriately rewarding artists. I’ve just read that HMV is close to regaining the title of UK's biggest music and DVD retailer back from Amazon as Britons rediscover the charm of actually going into a shop and buying a CD or a record, even though I’d envisaged HMV’s salvation as being linked to a streaming service for EMI associated artists. On a purely practical note, bands that didn’t release 7” singles because of the constraints of the format and its inability to cope with long-form compositions could benefit from a well-managed download store.
The download debate heated up when U2's new album was added to every iTunes subscriber's account, free of charge. I personally resent takeaway menus, double glazing promotions and local estate agent material coming unsolicited through my letterbox. I see this move by iTunes/U2 as no different