In the not-so-distant past, music fans were at the mercy of a thin black platter, encoded -- in what now seems like Pleistocene-era technology -- with songs. Each side offered a sequence of tracks, assembled with much thought by the artist. There was an arc to the album, a mysterious flow in the best of them, that demanded patient listening and many return visits.
Songs were like stanzas, memorized in relation to the one that came before and the one after. There were always fussy listeners who manually lifted the turntable arm, painstakingly trying and failing and trying and failing to lay the stylus down in the sliver preceding another track. But most people let the big disc spin, song by song, all the way through.
The idea of listening to an uninterrupted side of music has been on the wane since the advent of the compact disc in the early 1980s, when technological advances supplied listeners with scan buttons, random play features, and skip and repeat functions. We became masters of our musical domains, no longer beholden to an artist's vision of how his or her work should unfold or cohere. Skip the ballads? No problem. Program the single to repeat 20 times? Awesome. Sure, it was sometimes a pleasure to hear an album straight through without flipping it over. But the choice was ours.
Now a new generation of technology is enabling us to take even greater control over when and how we listen to music. The music consumer has, in essence, become the music programmer, rendering the very idea of a full-length album obsolete.
With the push of a few buttons on your computer keypad, songs can be sampled and compiled into customized CDs on countless Web sites, or downloaded via MP3 files directly onto computers. For a couple of hundred dollars, you can buy a CD burner and copy songs from MP3 files onto blank CDs (each costs a dollar or two) for easy Walkman or car-stereo access. In theory, the Internet could replace the record store as the prime source of the music you listen to.
And for the first time, offline music consumers have the opportunity to create custom compilations as well: Music kiosks, which have been in development for several years, are finally popping up in brick-and-mortar retail stores worldwide. At these stations, you can burn your own CD; eventually, you'll be able to download onto your portable MP3 player.
Using a touch screen, customers listen to song samples, select and sequence the tracks, and even choose titles and art for the label. With a swipe of a credit card (they accept cash, too), the CD is recorded. It takes about four minutes to burn 32 minutes' worth of music, at a cost of $6 to $20, depending on the number of songs.
RedDotNet is installing kiosks in Target stores, Sam Goody, and Wherehouse record stores. Liquid Audio just opened a string of them in major European and Asian cities. And Musicmaker.com, which is producing between 3 and 5 million custom CDs for Pepsi's "Choose Your Music" promotion, will begin deploying its own retail kiosks later this year.
The fate of music delivery is no longer a matter of conjecture: The album is on a crash course with the digital future. The recording industry has recently come to this realization; the debate about song licensing, legal parameters and financial compensation will continue for some time. This month, the Recording Industry Association of America won a copyright-infringement lawsuit against MP3.com --which has compiled a vast database of sound recordings that it delivers digitally via computer.
It's the first lob in what's certain to be a long and complicated process during which the music industry struggles to establish a new business model for the cyber-age.
But what implications does the new digital delivery have for the art form itself? As more and more music fans are able to browse titles and personalize CDs with single tracks from massive catalogs offered through the Internet or at kiosks, will the full-length album simply vanish? And at what cost to the vision and artistry that went into capturing -- and loudly proclaiming in a carefully constructed sprawl of songs -- a moment in time? Maybe we just don't have the time anymore. In the high-tech order, speed, convenience and efficiency are paramount. It's undeniably cost-effective, from a consumer standpoint, to purchase two songs you really like rather than pay for an entire CD. Moreover, the idea of sitting still through a dozen tracks when only a few songs really put you over the top simply doesn't jibe with our streamlined lives. In other words, kids aren't whiling away their adolescent years communing with a set of headphones in their bedrooms.
More and more of them are downloading songs onto multimedia portable MP3 players. We're on the go, and in the surge to tailor input and maximize the odds for instant gratification, the notion of an hour spent listening to someone else's idea of a worthwhile musical experience is sorely out of date.
Despite the enhanced techno-wizardry that has accompanied each new format, LPs, cassette tapes, 8-tracks and CDs have all served the same humble purpose. They're albums in the broadest definition of the word: collections of songs linked by time and tethered by intention, at the very least, and pointed conceits at their most ambitious. The Who's "Tommy" was the first massively popular concept album, a full-blown "rock opera" with a lengthy notional narrative and powerful songs that opened a world of new possibilities to the genre.
But the Beatles' "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band," released two years earlier, is rock's most splendid song suite. A third of a century after the album's release, and despite archival commentary serious and trivial, it's still a mystery how the band arranged for "When I'm Sixty-Four" to sound like a logical extension of "Within You Without You," and then, miraculously, become the picture-perfect portal leading to "Lovely Rita."
That's not to suggest that any one of these songs doesn't stand alone. On the contrary, it was the Beatles' particular genius (with a little help from their producer, George Martin) to have pulled such an eccentric gaggle of fearless pop-music experiments into a cohesive whole.
It's not simply a matter of generational lament for bygone times, either. In recent years, Radiohead and Beck have released twisted, epic song cycles. Radiohead's 1997 "OK Computer" was a stunning, moody ode to survival of the self in the information age, and Beck's latest, last year's "Midnight Vultures," is a shimmering satire/critique of late-century junk-culture.
Neither sold very well, though Beck commented recently (to the online music site Wall of Sound) that "there's so much downloading going on that you wonder how many million people got it that way." The fact is, this is a trend that took seed long before the technology came along to make track-by-track music delivery a reality. For nearly two decades recording careers have been made or broken almost exclusively by the success of songs on radio and MTV. Record companies won't bother to release an album if they don't "hear" a hit single. As the marketing of singles and videos has become the full extent of album campaigns, the notion of artist development at major labels is a near-extinct proposition. And the time, many would argue, is ripe for change.
If you accept the idea that an "album" is a sequence of songs chosen for a particular reason, the power to put together an album passed out of artists' hands some time ago. Radio assembles "albums" for you; the people programming your favorite music-video station put together "albums" for you. Consumers aren't revolting against artists' control, they're opting out of the system that gave control to programmers. No wonder some artists actually embrace the changes.
"It's hard to imagine artists being screwed any more than they already are by the system," says Tim Quirk, managing editor of San Francisco-based Listen.com, an Internet directory of downloadable music. Quirk, who is also lead vocalist in the alt-pop band Too Much Joy, sees the pendulum swinging toward an egalitarian system that favors less prominent artists, in sharp contrast to the current model that largely subsists on a small stable of hugely profitable stars.
A key change, Quirk says, is that "the Internet doesn't tie an artist to a business cycle," which generally runs anywhere from 12 months to two years. "Speaking as a guy in a band, once you record a song, you have this incredible impulse to share it. It kills you waiting for months to get it on record. The Internet allows you to work at your own pace. Plus, you get instant feedback. A band throws a song up, and they'll find people who are interested in them, nurture and build that audience, without the insane pressure to succeed right away."
Al Teller, the former head of MCA and CBS Records and now founder/CEO of the Internet music start-up Atomic Pop, agrees. "Artists will often bridge the gaps by doing a soundtrack song in between album projects," says Teller, whose company has an agreement with Microsoft to provide music content for WindowsMedia.com. "It will serve them well to keep the flow of new music to fans without the pressure to make a full album. I would hope that artists are freer to create music that they want to create."
Teller argues that an Internet-based music business might actually improve the quality of pop music. "The overall artistry of records that have reached commercial success levels has really diminished in the video era," Teller says. "The use of video as primary imaging allows mediocre talent to masquerade as something more, whereas previously an artist's image came from their music and from live performances, onstage, where you can't fake it."
There are scads of artists eager to enjoy the distribution opportunities and freedom of expression presented by Internet-based technology. Some, however -- mainly from the old guard -- place great value on the creative imprinting that goes into a full-length album of songs. In 1988, Prince released "Lovesexy," an exactingly sequenced song cycle that explored the intersection of the sexual and spiritual. The CD didn't have index markings to separate tracks, preventing listeners from programming songs out of sequence. It was a commercial disaster.
"These days, people download things, or they get an album, listen to one track or they mix it up," said veteran rocker Lou Reed in a recent CNN interview to promote his new CD, "Ecstasy." "If you listen to it in the order that we spent days and days -- weeks, months, possibly years -- putting together, listeners will appreciate the music more. So all those kids out there who think mix and match is really great, you don't know what you're talking about."
There is still an active, old-guard consumer base out there, as well. The misanthropic, emotionally crippled rock-star protagonist of Pink Floyd's 1979 rock opera "The Wall" is embedded in the canon for all eternity. This month "The Wall Live 1980-81: Is Anybody Out There?" entered the Billboard Top 200 album charts at No. 19.
But the tide is turning. An entire generation of rock music fans has grown up on a steady diet of quick-edit videos and movie soundtracks, computer-generated radio playlists and instant pop sensations. It's a generation well versed in virtual experience, one that has no qualms about kissing physical product goodbye. They want their MTV, their MP3 files, and their CD burners. They want three-minute songs, and they want them now.
"The thing that's really going to drive the market is kids downloading directly to portable devices," says Kevin Conroy, senior vice president for worldwide marketing and new technology at BMG Entertainment, which operates more than 200 record labels worldwide. "Certainly we want those consumers to access what they like in the form they like it. On the other hand, artists need to have a say in how their music is presented to the public. There are artists who've communicated very clearly that they don't want their music to be cherry-picked. The new technology has given us the opportunity to engage in the market differently, and that's a wonderful thing. But just because you can do something with technology, it doesn't mean you should. It's up to the artistic and business communities to come to a balance."