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Reference Library: The Death of LPs

From: (mighty recording corp.)
Subject: "How the Album Got Played Out" (great long read)
Date: Wed, 25 Feb 1998 20:41:30 -0800

How the Album Got Played Out

CD's, the Internet and computer-programmed radio have made the rock LP irrelevant. Kids these days -- they just don't listen.
Gerald Marzorati is the articles editor of The Times Magazine.


The 40th Annual Grammy Awards will be held at Radio City Music Hall Wednesday night, and among the nominees for Album of the Year is Radiohead's "OK Computer," which you've probably never heard of, much less spent a lot of time listening to. Upon its release in July by Capitol Records, one of the country's biggest labels, it was hailed by popular-music critics -- whereupon it peaked at No. 21 on the Billboard 200 album chart and then sank like a stone. Its appearance on numerous year-end "best of" lists had it climbing again last month, to No. 70.

Radiohead is from Oxford, England, and on "OK Computer," its third album, the band fluently draws on the entire history of album-oriented British rock -- the Beatles and Brian Eno, U2 and Joy Division, Pink Floyd and Queen -- to construct a cycle of songs by turns clever and bodeful about the jangly reconfiguration of the self in this moment of hypermarket capitalism and technological transformation. It's a stunning, soaring album, and it's not stretching much to think that it might have been 1997's "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band," or maybe its "Nevermind," Nirvana's 1991 melody-and-metal ode to family breakdown, or anyway one of a number of ambitious rock albums that have, over the past 30 years or so, put the moment to music and loudly and successfully insisted on being heard.

Alas, the new tendencies and habits of mind that Radiohead sings about are most readily found in young, white, relatively affluent American males, long the core audience for rock albums, and one of the things these new Digital Dudes do not seem to want to do is listen to albums like "OK Computer." At least not in the numbers or with the intensity of the young, white, relatively affluent American males who wore out albums by the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, and then the Band and the Grateful Dead and Led Zeppelin, and then the Clash and Bruce Springsteen, and then Nirvana and Pearl Jam and R.E.M. -- albums that were lovingly blasted again and again in ranch-home bedrooms and campus dorm rooms across the nation. This, I think, best explains why Radiohead failed to go big, as Beck, with his album "Odelay," failed to go big last year, though he, too, received a Grammy nomination for best album.

The recording expected to get that award this year is Bob Dylan's "Time Out of Mind." Last year Dylan was back in the news, hospitalized for a heart ailment in May and honored in Washington at year's end, and if "Time Out of Mind" is not among the greatest Dylan albums, it is remarkable in its insistence that it be comprehended as an album. Like "OK Computer," "Time Out of Mind" demands to be listened to all the way through, to be engaged, interpreted, identified with, inhabited. It has a bluesy musical cohesiveness and a thematic unity to the lyrics, as Dylan, his voice at its goutiest, ruminates Rabbit Angstrom-like about old love troubles and the diminishments and death-haunts of midlife. If you're someone who grew up with Dylan in the 60's, as I did, you've probably bought the album. (It actually managed to sneak into the Billboard Top 10 for a week last fall.)

But then, if you grew up with Dylan, you grew up with a certain understanding of how albums like the dozens he has made were to be approached, an inclination imparted not simply by the instrumental and lyrical demands of the songs but also by album-listening's basic technological underpinnings -- a large vinyl disk placed gently on a turntable and left alone to spin. It was a manner of listening reinforced and expanded by FM radio stations devoted to serious rock music, stations that would introduce the albums and years later, if they held up over time, play songs from them together with songs from new albums, thus creating for rock, and its growing audience of enthusiasts, a sense of musical history and esthetic development. At their best, these FM stations brought their loyal listeners together in a kind of long-playing republic, where rock-and-roll's founders were cherished and its most interesting young exemplars encouraged.

This relationship of listener to album was not readily unlearned, even as vinyl LP's gave way in the 1980's to tape cassettes and then to compact disks. But rather suddenly now, this kind of listening is showing every sign of being lost on more and more of the young for whom, above all, rock albums are made. The Billboard charts and that part of FM radio devoted to the latest rock music are all at once dominated by mindless pop singles, dance-party hits and novelty songs -- stuff that aspires to be little more than background music for somebody's teen years. Culturally speaking, the ambitious rock album is where it was in the early 1960's of Top 40, the "Peppermint Twist" and the Singing Nun: Nowhere.

What accounts for this, I suspect, is not some woeful lack of a new musical trend -- the most common explanation proffered by music industry executives. Twenty-five years ago this week, in what was arguably the Golden Age of the rock LP, turntables across the country were spinning with equanimity Pink Floyd's "Dark Side of the Moon," Joni Mitchell's "For the Roses" and the Band's "Rock of Ages." Name that trend.

Listening to an album is ultimately a matter of giving yourself over to somebody else's choices -- this song, then this one. The digital revolution promises precisely the opposite: what do you want, want right now?

The Big Album, the album that is the realization of an artist's or band's vision, is not so much suffering for lack of a musical trend as it is suffering under the weight of larger trends in the music industry. A Big Album cannot slowly unfold and cohere on digitally formatted compact disks that can be scanned or reprogrammed at the impatient push of a remote's button. It cannot be nurtured by record labels owned by large, publicly traded companies increasingly living quarter to fiscal quarter and basing more and more of what used to be artistic judgements on market research from the likes of Soundscan, a company that delivers instant sales figures to the record labels -- doing for music-sales statistics what Dick Morris did for polling. Nor can a Big Album reach sophisticated listeners via FM rock stations that ever more depend not only on Soundscan but also on computer software programs that crunch an array of survey data and spit out playlists heedfully purged of anything too demanding or adventurous.

The Big Album cannot, finally, hold its own in cyberspace, where rock music is headed. MTV, with its emphasis on "look" over "sound" -- and on a video director's interpretation of a song over all others -- was only the beginning. Now there are countless Web sites with instantly available "stereo sound clips" and links to more rock videos than MTV could show in a year. Already there are sites where shoppers can pay to make their own CD compilations, and technological advances in this do-it-yourself album-making could spell an end to the way rock music has been sent out into the world -- an end, perhaps, to the very notion of an album of music thoughtfully composed and assembled by a songwriter or a group.

Listening to an album by Radiohead or Bob Dylan is ultimately a matter of giving yourself over to somebody else's choices -- this song, then this one, because it was conceived to be heard that way. The digital revolution promises precisely the opposite: you get to pick and choose, quickly, effortlessly, endlessly. What do you want, want right now? It's the ability to gauge and provide just that that's killing the Big Album.

In 1988, which was just about the time it became clear that compact disks would be the dominant recording format, the Artist Formerly Known as Prince released an album titled "Lovesexy." The CD version was encoded in such a way to deprive you of all the things that your new, digital CD player allowed you to do -- skip or repeat a song at the push of a button, or use the "program" option to change the order of the songs. If you bought "Lovesexy," you could put it on and listen, period. What Prince was saying was that this was an album, and his album, not yours.

This is more or less what songwriters and groups first began saying in the mid-1960's, when the rock album emerged as something more than a compilation of hit singles -- as a medium with aspirations to esthetic and even cosmic significance. Dylan and the Beatles led the way, the Beatles luring him to plug in an electric guitar and Dylan showing them there was more to sing about than holding hands. It happened breathtakingly fast, even by pop standards, over the course of months in 1965: Dylan's "Bringing It All Back Home" and "Highway 61 Revisited," and then "Rubber Soul," the Beatles' rumination on young-love trouble. Stereos were more and more replacing suitcase-size record players in teen-agers' bedrooms, and stacks of 45's were heading for the attic. Pop was stretching, and slowing down.

By the summer of 1966, Dylan's "Blonde on Blonde" was in the Top 10 and the Beach Boys, urged on by Brian Wilson, had released their album "Pet Sounds," which ushered in an era of studio experimentation and was lauded as the first "concept" album by new, sophisticated rock critics writing in publications like The Village Voice and Crawdaddy. Meanwhile, the Beatles had announced they were completely abandoning concert appearances because they could no longer play live the music that mattered to them, music that could only be made in a studio -- a densely textured pop that, in August 1966, was unveiled on an album named, quite simply and pointedly, for the very term British youth then used for an album.

I bought "Revolver" shortly after starting the eighth grade. I stared at the cover art a lot, and thought how the titles for the group's songs had gotten pretty weird. ("Taxman"?) The first time I listened all the way through to the final song, "Tomorrow Never Knows," with its tape loops and backward-recorded guitar solo and lyrics drawn from "The Tibetan Book of the Dead," I was sure something was wrong with my hi-fi. Then I played the album again and again, getting to know the songs -- know them in terms of one another, as you'd learn lines in a poem, or elements in a landscape. And I thought about stuff I'd never thought about before.

"Revolver" demanded and rewarded close attention, but there was something about the technology that inevitably and crucially imparted the delicacy and slowness the music called for -- the whole give-yourself-over-to-it aspect that is at the heart of sensitive listening, however loud or raucous the music might be. Moving the tone arm around from one song to another, flipping the disk again and again -- making the album yours -- was just too much work. You flopped across the bed and took it in.

There were, beginning in the late 60's across America, FM radio stations that would play albums in their entireties, especially brand new ones, as anyone tuning in on June 1, 1967, the day "Sgt. Pepper's" was released, probably remembers. More commonly, though, the disk jockeys on these stations would move the needle around, but with the intention of deepening an understanding of the music -- segueing, say, from a Rolling Stones song to one by Paul Butterfield and then on to one by Eric Clapton to show the range of the electric blues. It was a jumping from song to song not to play hits but to advance the argument that Pop could be Art.

This is not what a 14-year-old is doing when he, remote in hand, skips around a CD or repeats one song again and again. He's simply getting quickly, like that, what he likes and wants. (My album.) Today's FM stations mostly encourage this kind of listening, playing only what they've painstakingly ascertained is their listeners' desire that week. The 130 or so stations devoted to modern rock, as it's known in the radio industry, are more like the old Top 40 than like FM of the late 60's, or, for that matter, of the early 90's, when more daring deejays got behind the Big Albums of Pearl Jam, Nirvana, Smashing Pumpkins and R.E.M. Deejays today do little more than provide patter between songs that they have had no hand in selecting.

Using software programs like one called Selector, music directors at those stations sequence a day's worth of songs in a minute or so. The directors themselves still choose the songs, but this is mostly a matter of reading the numbers every morning -- taking into account local sales as tracked each week by Soundscan. The typical modern-rock playlist has about three dozen new singles, or "currents"; a "hot" current will be placed in "heavy rotation," airing four or five times a day. A single that fails to catch on quickly is history, and history -- rock music from other eras -- is pretty much history, too. Albums have nothing to do with it, and songs that are neither short nor hook-driven -- songs like those on "OK Computer" -- don't have much to do with it, either. If you want to hear radio today that, for instance, might mix in several tracks from Kate Bush's seminal 1985 LP, "Hounds of Love," with newer songs by such female artists as Bjork and Beth Orton, you pretty much have to find a college station. (New Yorkers interested in the kind of rock radio that FM once provided have a choice of precisely one show: Vin Scelsa's "Idiot's Delight," which is broadcast on Sunday nights on WNEW-FM.)

In the age of modern rock, the big record companies -- already under pressure to keep quarterly profit margins as high as possible for the entertainment conglomerates that own them -- are spending increasing amounts of time and money chasing, signing and feverishly promoting one-hit wonders. One recent survey often mentioned by record people found that 40 percent of record-store shoppers in 1996, as compared with 28 just three years before, will buy a CD after hearing only one song they liked. If these are the listeners you want to sell to, and the record industry has by and large decided they are, you don't put your resources into developing and promoting the kinds of artists who might make Big Albums. You churn out singles (available on padded-out album-length CD's for $16.99) and hope a few of them become hits.

The market is flooded with product: hundreds of new pop recordings a week, when dozens were once the rule. At the same time, no top modern-rock hit of 1997 was taken from an album that could stand up to a third or fourth listening, much less find a place in a collection to be

listened to years from now. New music exists now moment to moment, in a fickle, flattened present, where to be huge is, paradoxically, to matter not at all.

You choose the song, you arrange them in the order you want, you personalize the disk with your own title and name." This is the promise of www., a Web site where you can assemble 9 or 10 songs from thousands they've got posted and they'll make a CD for you for about the same price you'd pay for a store-bought CD.

This kind of "personalized" album-making is only the beginning. The price of a computer drive capable of creating CD's has fallen drastically, as has the cost of a blank CD. A new company called N2K not only plans to open an on-line music store, of which there are already dozens, but also has the larger ambition of distributing music to be downloaded directly through buyers' personal computers onto blank CD's. One day you may be able to sit at your computer and assemble a new "album" without ever buying or even encountering an actual album that some artist or group put together.

There is no telling whether the big record labels or the artists would ever stand for this. But it is where the technology is headed -- already, artists are releasing "advance tracks" on their Web sites. And where the technology has gone, rock music has generally followed. I imagine that even if such a time should arrive, there would remain those devotees who continue to insist on purchasing an album as a songwriter or band meant it to be listened to -- an "artist's edition" or some such. Perhaps these albums would have their own modest Billboard chart, and a place in the culture akin to that of serious jazz.

The ambition of album-oriented rock has always been grander, though -- to be musically unique and great but also popular, successful, cool. It is best thought of, perhaps, like the higher aspirations of youth culture itself, as some last great manifestation of Romanticism -- mind-opening, authentic, electric, fantastic, fraternal, ecstatic. To have a great album grow on you, listen after regardful listen, is to come to know things you suspect you could not have learned in quite the same way from novels or plays, movies or paintings. Marvin Gaye's "What's Going On?" the Stones' "Exile on Main Street," Stevie Wonder's Innervisions," the Clash's "London Calling," Paul Simon's "Graceland, numerous Beatles and Dylan albums, hundreds of others: there are truths and recognitions to be gotten from these albums that can be gotten nowhere else. But they cannot be gotten quickly or piecemeal.

The promise of all that is now coming to bear on the album experience is essentially that you already know all you need to know; you just need the means to get to it, get to it fast, again and again until the pleasure stops, when you -- phtt -- move on. This is something for sure, but it is not, well, Art.

"," Radiohead's lead singer, Thom Yorke, howls repeatedly, imploringly, at the very end of the last track on "OK Computer." It's a place worth getting to, the end of that album, and something worth listening to, carefully.

Sunday, February 22, 1998
Copyright 1998 The New York Times Company

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