And so, it has come to pass. The Album, that perfectly packaged statement of artistic vision so beloved by musos, has been pronounced dead. Presiding over the funeral was Radio 1 head honcho George Ergatoudis who, upon lowering the casket and gleefully tossing in the first handfuls of earth, proclaimed “playlists are the future”. Never one to shy away from controversial, publicity-seeking generalisations, he added that listening to records will become “a minority sport” and, in the years ahead, “most people are going to be renting their music from a streaming service.”
Predictably, this prompted much gnashing of teeth and a wave of think pieces deconstructing what his words mean and their implications for the music industry’s future. Battle lines have been drawn: “Luddites!” yell the tech savvy kids; “Impatient philistines!” reply the traditionalists. What’s clear is that, no matter on which side you stand, we’re in the midst of a fundamental change in listening habits, one that’s been going on for at least five years – the pertinent question now being: “Music – how do you consume yours?”
Some have taken issue with the rather sneering tone deployed by those lecturing the younger generation that “they’re doing it all wrong”, while others have pointed out that for the type of music Radio 1 plays – lets not forget that the station seems obsessed with appealing purely to the under 15’s – playlists and one-off “chart hits” probably are the best way for those artists to engage with their audience. Ultimately, it’s a far more nuanced debate than most seem aware of and takes in the relationship between commerce, art and technology as well underlying generational changes in society. We asked Jude Clarke and Derek Robertson to tease out the finer points of this controversy and consider whether we should be deep in mourning or dancing on the grave.
Jude Clarke: Well firstly, I think that perhaps the point that both sides of the argument (but particularly the Keep Albums Sacred brigade, with their shiny/dusty vinyl fetish and their worshipping at the church of Record Store Day etc) are missing is that, actually: t’was ever thus. Albums only became the music packaging device of choice for the muso at some point in the 1970s. Look further back and you’ll see that as tastes – and importantly technology – have evolved, the way that human beings consume music has also constantly evolved. So the first charts were “sheet music” charts, for example, before it was commonplace to be able to purchase an actual recording. I won’t bore you with a long treatise on the evolution of music, but I do just feel that the current Shock Horror reaction to Ergatoudis’ proclamation is kind of symptomatic of the conservative outlook that many music fans quite tediously display.
For a vibrant, all-encompassing, yes important but also, goddamnit FUN art form like music, I sometimes despair of the (often older, often male) voices that refuse to accept a) the evolution of the form and b) that the way that they personally prefer to listen to music isn’t the only acceptable, valid or CORRECT way. This was encapsulated neatly in that NME column a couple of weeks ago headed “Why Radio 1 Is Wrong About The Death Of The Album”, when the author loftily sneered that those readers who preferred to listen to music via playlist – even those who had had their lives changed by a playlist (how could any music writer or fan think this was a bad thing?) – had become “a small part of what’s wrong with modern culture”. No!
Cards on table: I love the album. I’m 45 years old, my partner sells records for a living, I used to be The Line of Best Fit’s Albums Editor: of COURSE I do. But I look around me and I see people younger than myself listening to music in different ways. Downloading a track they’ve seen someone tweet about. Posting a YouTube video on their blog. Putting together a Spotify mix around a topical theme. Whatever. Music has always been dictated by the available technology – in form and content – more than any of us would probably like to believe. This is the future – it’s fine, don’t be scared, no-one’s going to take your beloved LPs away from you, just embrace the multiplicity of options.
Derek Robertson: It’s true that musical formats have changed consistently over the years, will continue to change, and that albums being 8 to 12 songs and around 60 to 80 minutes long is a historical accident due to the limitations of (the existing) technology, but I’m not sure I agree with your point about albums only becoming the format of choice in the 1970’s – Elvis sold millions of albums from his debut in 1956 up till 1963, when The Beatles appeared and started dominating the charts. So that’s nigh on 70 years we’ve had of The Album being presented in a settled way (regardless of whether it was vinyl, tape, CD, download etc), and I think that, in general, people are resistant to change.
The conservative outlook you mention exists because of this, and across the whole spectrum of media and “content”; people like the novel, films that are between 100 and 160 minutes long, and newspapers to be a certain size and organised a specific way. It’s human nature to be comforted by the familiar and scared of the new, especially when they don’t even know what the “new” might look like.
But regarding the specific issues of playlists, I think there is a deeper fear at play, something concerning the fundamental nature of the relationship people have with music and artists. You could argue – and many have – that the playlist is just the modern version of the mixtape, and I loved mixtapes; I spent hours choosing the songs and the right order, so I had a tape for every mood and occasion. But here’s the rub; my friends and I always used them as a jumping off point for discovery. “Who’s this?” we’d ask, determined to hunt down more songs by whoever had created that particular four-minute blast of aural perfection, and it’s this that commentators worry is being lost – at least that’s what I took from that NME piece.
It seems that the younger generation are happy to have that one song on a playlist, without knowing or even caring who it’s by, and are content to click every onwards to find the next “choon”. If everyone did this, it’s not hard to imagine the consequences; bands focusing on having just one or two “hits”, selling (or streaming) even less music, and people not knowing enough about an act to splash out on gig tickets. The logical conclusion would be a reliance on hook-heavy, attention-grabbing material, to the detriment of anything that relies on atmosphere, nuance, or story telling – in other words, vast swathes of music. In a playlist-dominated world, I find it hard to see how someone like Sharon Van Etten, Hookworms, or Frank Ocean would gain enough traction to make music a viable career option; what a poorer place the world would be if that was the case.
JC: Your point about the Sharon van Ettens of the future is a good one, and a valid concern, but – ever the optimist – I can also see a future where it might work the opposite way to that. So an amazing new artist comes to the public's attention by means of one playlist-compatible track (whereas in the olden days, to be honest, this would probably always have happened courtesy of a breakthrough single anyway). Its popularity then gives him/her/them the artistic clout to develop, and diversify, in much the same way as always happened.
You mention live music, and I think that will become increasingly important – as we're already seeing. As revenue from "record sales" continues to drop, shows (and related merch, etc) are still making money for artists. There's your motivation, right there (along with, y'know, the desire to create, the musical drive, etc, which we shouldn't underestimate as a big factor outside of the whole "will it make money" issue) for artists to continue writing and performing more than just the one or two attention-grabbing bangers that will make it onto everyone's playlists.
Also, look at the multiplicity of people's tastes, opinions, fashions that they identify with, etc. I truly don't think teens in future will be any more homogeneous and uniformly conformist than any other generation. Yes, you'll get big tunes sweeping the boards (again – t'was ever thus), but you'll definitely also always have the kids who want to explore further and go deeper, priding themselves on the originality and obscurity of their playlist choices, seeking out rare, unsigned new stuff, difficult sounds, unearthing old music that has not yet broken into the mainstream etc.
So yes, exciting times ahead I reckon!
DR: I’m not sure I share your optimism. I don’t know if analytics even exist to measure this, but I’d love to know how many people end up searching for a specific artist after having come across them on a website’s/radio station’s/someone’s playlist – I’d be willing to bet not many, although that’s just gut instinct. There are stand alone tracks which do grow a life of their own and lead to acts becoming better known and successful without necessarily having an album behind them – Icona Pop’s 'I Love It' being one example – but then I get the impression that was more down to ubiquity on radio and commercial exposure in ads, TV etc.
One thing that’s being overlooked is the significance of who made the statement, and what that says. Ergatoudis is, for better or worse, a significant gatekeeper in the UK music industry and one of its most influential voices. But given his and his Radio 1 paymasters’ obsession with the station’s demographic, of course he’d say that the album was dead – he can’t very well argue otherwise, can he? Tweens make up a very small percentage of the record buying public, and are way more likely to be part of the click-happy, ADHD social media brigade; if they can’t even get to the end of a song, they’re not likely to make it through ten tracks. As it is then, Ergatoudis stands at the head of a particularly vicious circle; his station champions the type of disposable, throwaway chart “hits” by artists who aren’t invested in the album format because they think that’s what the target demographic want, while listeners get used to an increasingly homogenous gloop as that’s what they’re fed.
His statement, and I imagine this was calculated, will simply accelerate this downward spiral; less artists making albums, and more attempting to give mainstream radio whatever it wants in order to be playlisted. It says a lot than even La Roux is now considered “too old” to be featured, relegated to the fringes by brash nonsense like David Guetta and Rizzle Kicks. Maybe if the music business and mainstream outlets followed television’s lead and found a way to cater to sophisticated grown ups, albums, and the industry as a whole, would have a more viable future.
JC: “Sophisticated grown ups” – careful now, Derek, you’re starting to sound like a bit of a music snob there! The more I think over this issue, the more I feel as if it’s just this decade’s equivalent of my Dad (everyone’s Dad) in the ‘80s slating my music for everything from the searing indictment that “those fellas are wearing makeup” to “you can’t even hear what they’re singing”.
Yes, George Ergatoudis is speaking for “the youth” but, unlike you, I think that’s fine. Music – how it’s made, how it’s consumed, how it’s delivered – shouldn’t be pickled in aspic.
Young people today possibly (although again, like you, I’m arguing on instinct here, rather than with cold hard facts and figures) do have shorter attention spans. However, this is because they actually have a greater wealth of “stuff” to devote their attention to: lucky them! Rather than poring over one treasured album – saved up for over weeks, listened to on repeat over months – they can hop online and in minutes choose from about a billion different things: not just tracks, playlists, videos but also games, social media, movies etc. We might well feel that our own younger days’ boredom was somehow character-forming or good for the soul, but – as I said – I’m just worried that in doing so we fall into the trap that every generation ends up falling into: “Ooh, kids today don’t know they’re born… it were better in my day” and so on. Not really true for life, nor for music.
And again, I would say that there have always been artists who aimed at the mainstream, daytime, Radio 1 market. There’s always been “brash nonsense” (and sometimes, on a drunken midnight taxi ride, or at a wedding disco, it’s the best kind of nonsense of all), but there have also always been artists who create for other reasons than the goal of mainstream success. I genuinely don’t believe this is the end of the road here.
DR: I suspect that most people having this discussion will fall into two camps – those derided as the “grumpy old git” brigade (hello!) and those heralding a bright new future, full of wonderful possibility. When I say “sophisticated grown ups”, what I mean is that a huge swath of music-loving, 25-40 year olds with disposable income are not really catered to by the mainstream music industry, whether that be radio, music TV, or even the shopping experience; I certainly feel that there isn’t much on that side of things that appeal to me. Ted Gioia recently wrote something interesting for The Daily Beast, arguing that music should take its cues from what TV has done:
“This should be obvious to the music execs, but somehow they haven’t figured it out yet. Fourteen-year-olds will not support a subscription-based model for music. HBO realized that the dumbing down of network TV left a large group of consumers under-served, namely sophisticated grown-ups—and these were the same people with the most disposable income to spend on entertainment. In contrast, the major record labels are still stuck in kiddie land. No wonder they’re convinced they have to give away their product for free: their core target market is the poorest demographic group in the country—and also the group with the time and know-how to use complicated pirating tools.Put simply, the recording industry needs to grow up, because the high-potential consumers they need to survive have already done so.”
So you’re right about there always having been “brash nonsense” aimed at the mainstream market, and that sort of fluff will always have a place (and make tonnes of cash). I just feel there is a massive gap at the moment that’s not really being catered to, and comments such as Ergatoudis’ will only make things worse by convincing record execs and labels that the gap doesn’t exist or isn’t viable. Albums can, and should, survive and thrive – even if it’s in a smaller niche than the industry is accustomed to – but something has to change.
As for the role of technology, and the fascination with the new, I do think it’s harmful. Sean has spoken about this before, and I happen to agree:
“I think one of the biggest problems with music right now is people devouring things for short periods of time and constantly ‘upgrading’ to the next, newest, shiniest, hottest, jammiest thing.”
Obviously, the genie is well and truly out of the bottle and things will never be the same, but it’s interesting that no one (to my knowledge) has done any kind of study on listening habits, and the effect they have. Now, you might say: “So what? People can do whatever they want.” And that’s true. But if imagine if tomorrow someone told Martin Scorsese that he could only make 20 minute films, as no one wanted to sit and watch for longer than that? Or that David Hockney’s paintings could only be a certain size? Or that Haruki Murakami had only 100 pages to play with? What a dull world that would be.
Ultimately, this is my main concern with what Ergatoudis said; he’s telling artists what will and won’t work – and by extension, what they should and shouldn’t do – but not out of love for the form or concern about hearing people’s best work. No, he’s saying it from the position of commercial gatekeeper, someone whose job is to pour over figures and stats and deliver whatever it is that the BBC Trust demands. It’s the head ruling the heart, and where music – and art in general – is concerned, that’s never a good place to start.
JC: I’m afraid I’m still not really ready to move over to the Dark (Doom and Gloom) Side. Of course, your film, paintings or novels examples would lead to a depressing and distressingly dull future, but I really don’t think the analogy holds up. I think if the equivalent of George Ergatoudis told Murakami, Hockney or Scorsese what they could or couldn’t do they would most likely tell him to do one, and crack on with creating their art in the form that suited them best, while perhaps other artists might adopt evolving forms, as suited to both their own art, and their peers/generation/audience. Who’s to say that too might not be every bit as amazing/inspiring/enthralling?
And moving on from that point is, I guess, where I would want to make my closing arguments (m’lud). My optimism is rooted in two main points: the elasticity of the (any) art form; and the creative drive. I don’t think the “real” artists and musicians – those that in the past and present were, and are, lauded for their experimentation, originality, excellence in the album format – are going to die off, go commercial, sell out or become lesser in a future where the playlist and/or individual track becomes the main (not the only, remember, just the main) music delivery format of choice. I think things will be different, yes. Different like they were for me when I switched from listening to singles that first crossed my radar via Top of the Pops to buying albums by those same bands, to delving from that backwards into bands-that-influenced-those-bands, to switching forwards in recent years to Spotify playlists put together by online friends with particular areas of interest and expertise. Embrace the difference, embrace change. Treasure your favourite albums – of course – but don’t fall into the trap of turning into the 21st century equivalent of the 1980’s parent tut-tutting at Boy George, or the 1950’s trad jazz fan rolling his eyes at Elvis. The album is (not yet) dead. Long live music!
Thoughts? Continue the DiScussion over on the DiS forum or respond via Twitter and Facebook below.