Cloud B-Sides: The End Of The Album
For most of the history of music, composers wrote long pieces of art, which were then consumed by discerning listeners in the manner in which they were intended…as one long stream of music consciousness. This is a concept that reaches back to Gregorian Chants, through Wagner’s Der Ring das Nibelungen, and as far forward as modern classics such as Radiohead’s OK Computer or Arcade Fire’s The Suburbs. The work of art is the sum of its parts, as a painting is the result of hundreds and thousands of brush strokes or a book is simply a compilation of words on pages.
The album – the piece, the work in its entirety – is nearing its extinction. With the rise of digital music, and the subsequent fall of our attention spans, listeners developed new and previously unprecedented habits: skipping tracks. iTunes libraries are notoriously difficult to keep neat…unless you’re as obsessed as I am with a tidy collection full of only complete albums. The iTunes Store also encourages the purchase of singles, as do record labels, in an interest to cater to the quickest dollar. This is compounded by the fact that commercial radio has maintained its three-decade strangle hold on most of the country’s listening habits, and is still force-feeding single after single down our throats with no regard for decency, either human or musical.
Lo and behold! The end of the album as we know it. The icing on the cake is what has become of the digital music revolution…the “cloud.” Artists and listeners alike have taken to hosting their music on the internet in an effort to satisfy the demands of a public in constant need of instant gratification. The day a single comes out, it is streaming on SoundCloud, where it remains for all to access and listen to ad nauseum free of charge. This easy and unlimited access devalues songs and desensitizes listeners to such a point that the album itself becomes virtually irrelevant. Unless an artist can pump out a dozen songs like “Call Me Maybe” or “We Are Young,” there’s no hope of listeners paying attention long enough to recall the name of the band or song they just listened to. Before they can commit it to memory, they’re on to the next track.
If I sound somewhat cynical and bitter – even nostalgic – about this topic, it’s because I enjoy experiencing entire works of art so much. There is much to be said for the value of a good pop song. But without the challenge of a long, well-crafted album, that pop song just seems to have an unfair advantage in today’s digital world of instant cloud streaming and shortening attention spans.
By Jacob Hyman