Physical album sales are continuing to carve out one of the most intricate and terrifying black runs in the short but rich history of the compact disc. Streaming has settled smugly into its iron throne, strongly supported by the reality that, for the first time ever, audio streaming has outpaced its visual counterpart as it continues to assert its dominance over physical and digital album sales. So what does this mean for our old mate, the LP? In an age dominated by the single, and increasingly by the EP, what value does the LP still hold to the average consumer? And what could be done to revive one of the music industry’s keystone concepts, at least as an artistic endeavour?
This year has flexed the definition of the album in ways so far unseen in music history, at least in so far as the mainstream is concerned. We’ve been witness to Kendrick’s raw, intimate sessions on untitled. unmastered., Beyonce’s visual masterpiece Lemonade, and Radiohead’s career tracking compilation, the self re-imagining A Moon Shaped Pool. One of the more interesting case studies we’ve been hit with was Kanye’s Life Of Pablo and the subsequent changes made to arrangements, mixes and production post-release. It challenges the acceptance of the album as a constant, of an immutable artistic statement, and opens the door for something far more fluid and ephemeral. In an age where streaming dictates all, where we’re not bound by physical media, should albums go with the flow and open themselves up to the prospect of change? Could they even be produced with the deliberate artistic intent of change?
It’s not the first time members of the artistic community have toyed around with the idea of impermanence in music (though West is certainly the most high profile case). John Cage, in what would probably be seen as his best known work 4’33” (at least to the general public), thoroughly explored this idea that music could and should be subject to change. His ultimate argument was that “everything is music”, but he touched on something remarkable: a piece of music will not be the same in four and a half minutes time as it is now. To this date it’s been almost exclusively the time and space that changes, but why must we assume that the physical form of the music must remain unchanged? An album is more than just sound propagated through air, it’s a story, it’s an emotion. It, like music in general is an idea, a belief and a context.
There’s a parallel line of thought in Alvin Lucier’s I Am Sitting In A Room. The work involves Lucier reciting a verse, recording his speech and then playing it back into the room, recording that, playing it back again and so on. The sound changes; it shifts into this glorious drone as the resonant frequencies of the space take over the sound. The sound changes, but the idea and the intent do not. It’s not a stretch in applying this reasoning more broadly to the modern album format. It’s admittedly a more abstract view to take on the situation, but it does act as a powerful reinforcement of Cage’s argument that music, or in our case an album, is more than just a sound or motif played back into a room, but rather the direction and intent of the artist. Impermanence is by and large terrifying, but it’s interesting, and it carries an artistic weight that could help revive the cultural relevance of the LP.
There’s further weight to be drawn from more traditionally performance based mediums, a broadway show for instance, a stage-play, a stand-up routine. This is impermanent art at it’s most entry level, arguably at it’s most equitably enjoyable, and while for the most part every effort is made to reproduce an exact experience every night, there will always be variations in the performance. This is not seen as a negative thing, or at least not by any concerning number of people. It’s cherished, it’s “once-in-a-lifetime”, and it clearly shows that people aren’t entirely hostile to change (at least when it’s expected). Furthermore, when people pay money to see their favourite acts live, they do so knowing that the sound they’re about to experience is going to differ heavily from the studio recordings. They don’t pay money to hear a replication, they pay for an experience, to be a part of something that exists outside of the sound. Why then are we as a society so hung up on the idea of an album as an untouchable, borderline sacred document?
We can establish precedent in support of the idea that an album should be subject to change, at least in the artistic sense. But what would that look like? Imagine Kendrick’s untitled. unmastered., released as it sits now. Imagine being able to track the changes in production, seeing the ideas that are played around with, the threads that are strengthened or discarded. Imagine watching untitled. physically grow into To Pimp A Butterfly instead of it existing as a kind of side note. Imagine experiencing this masterpiece build from the ground up all from the comfort of your preferred streaming service.
It’s not dissimilar to the model we find in early access games. The artist has an idea or a sound to share with the community, they put together some demo’s, track their edits and sessions and we as the audience are able to watch art literally spring to life in front of us. In an ideal situation, you could go back to previous editions of a track to get a sense for the direction and intention of the work. Whether it ends up being more of a throw together as it happens, or more of a methodically released installation, it helps engagement through interaction and pulls our attention away from the more throw-away nature of streaming. It also gives us a much greater understanding of the context of the music, something we’ve been lacking since the general death of liner notes and the disregard for metadata outside of Artist, Track, and Album. In doing so, it would naturally attribute a greater cultural value to the experience. With greater cultural value, with documented context, and renewed interest, you can help promote powerful communities of fans and consumers beyond just stock single streams, even if it’s simple editing, such as with Kanye. Following up on fan comment, coming back to ideas in tracks later on when you’re better able to actualise them, or even just fixing issues in the mastering; the ability to change, develop and hone an album post-release has so much positive potential in shaping the future music conversation.
The LP is far from being on it’s last legs, though if it remains unchanged there will come a time in the not so distant future where it will cease to be relevant. It needs change, it needs to be subject to change, and whether that change is as simple as patching, or more complex such as growing an idea from scratch, something needs to be done to shake up the monotony of the format and formula. It’s a fascinating thought experiment to view the LP as being more akin to performance art. It’s unlikely to detract from more traditional approaches, it wouldn’t impact single sales or streams for instance. And with the increase in EP releases and sales we’ve been seeing over the last year it’s improbable to impact heavily here either. It’s a bold claim, but shorter, more frequent release cycles are looking at becoming the new norm for the industry. Reviving the album in the way we’ve discussed here would allow us to continue enjoying and consuming music from the artists that we love, and to do so in a positive, creative and engaging way.