I’m in the middle of a move, so for the past two weeks I’ve set upon the task of digitizing (and disposing of) my CD collection. This feat is neither small nor fun. Like a growing number of Americans, I’ve heavily curtailed my CD purchasing, but my hoard of discs remains ridiculous, dusty, dense, and heavy. The wooden rack where they’ve languished for years — stowed in the very back of the dining room closet like some hidden coffin — only meets daylight when it’s dragged off to a new apartment.
I’ve always borne a grudge against CDs. They scratch, they skip, they crack and peel, or get clawed by the broken teeth of their own stupid jewel boxes. Their flimsy physicality comes off like a vestige of a clunkier world, an era trying hard to get beyond itself but leaving only a wake of plastic trash as its legacy. CDs are depressing.
Sucking in disc after disc, my laptop wheezes to inhale and convert its data into long strands of 1s and 0s, and I watch as song after song lodges itself in my library. From here, this mass of long-unheard music will be uploaded in bulk to a cloud service, releasing me from the burdens of its presence, and relieving me of some boxes in the process.
But even as this virtual vault assembles itself, its grid of album art forming a patchwork panorama of my past, I notice something different about how I engage with it. I snatch one track from here, another from there. I drag innocent songs from their homes and force them into arbitrary playlists surreptitiously crafted to suit my anticipated moods or whereabouts — the gym, the train, for long drives, for when it rains.
My respect for the sanctity of albums has always been on shaky ground; partly because I was weaned on the statement-free indie rock of the ’90s (when albums seemed more like casual scrapbooks), and partly because I’m just generally more partial to a strong hook than a saggy arc.
But it also has to do with the expanded parameters and conveniences of the Internet.
Streaming services like iTunes and Spotify may host albums, but they traffic in tracks; any platter can now be consumed as an la carte offering. And those services have experienced a recent boom, up 42 percent from just last year.
The forms we consume have always been sculpted by the media we have at our disposal — our cave walls gave rise to paintings, our pages gave us poems, our books gave us novels, and our records gave us what we know as albums (well, once we slowed down from 78 to 33 r.p.m.). Our cassettes bestowed portability beyond the hi-fi to our albums before CDs expanded their floor plans. But now that the physical limits of the album are a non-issue, is the form itself a necessary constraint?
When Taylor Swift opted not to offer her new album, “1989,” through Spotify last week (and further yanked the rest of her catalog from the service), it was read by many as a strike against the paltry pay that artists earn through streaming royalties, a subject Swift took on in a recent editorial for the Wall Street Journal. But as some have pointed out, it could as easily have been a way to boost full-album sales to increase the value of her label Big Machine – which is up for sale, and partially owned by Swift’s family. That “1989” soared to over a million sales in its first week is testament to the willingness of her devoted fanbase to pitch into the cause of Taylordom; but that “1989” was the only album released this year to go platinum (the soundtrack to “Frozen” has sold more, but was released in 2013), is a sad prognosis for the viability of the album as a movable unit.
Increasingly, our appetite for music craves single servings. Back in 2002, Cherry Lane Digital chief executive Jim Griffin warned that “you cannot price a single low enough to attract fans to buy it”; but one decade later, there were 1.4 billion digital singles sold in a single year, “dwarfing CD sales by a factor of 7,” according to CNN.
Still, as the model of the album grows more incompatible with our listening habits, it remains fundamental to the way we understand artists — their progression, their pace of work, their capability for variety and capacity for change. Albums become ways to measure time, and chart the relationship we form with our favorite artists.
But that relationship is changing as well. As more mainstream and independent artists move to D2F (direct-to-fan) platforms like Bandcamp, PledgeMusic, Topspin, and Gumroad – which eliminate the need for any intermediary distributors, labels, or management (i.e. the music industry) by providing a direct connection — the bond between artist and listener is getting closer, and the album is becoming an artifact of that relationship.
Ryan Leslie – a multifaceted singer, producer, Harvard graduate, and founder of his own media company who spoke recently at MIT’s Hacking Arts event – treats himself like a startup and each of his fans like a “microinvestor.”
Upon subscribing to his #Renegades club, fans receive an album’s worth of music, but also access to Leslie’s online empire — as well as Leslie himself. He keeps his phone number public, spends a chunk of each day on Whatsapp texting fans around the world, and uses a combination of music, merchandise, and events to create the full Ryan Leslie experience. It’s a lot more substantive a project than assembling a traditional discography.
But even as Leslie attempts to redefine the dynamic between artist and listener, he acknowledges that albums remain a stubborn, standing expectation.
“As an artist, I would love to just have a stream of consciousness,” he says. “I don’t know if it’s possible to convince 10 or 20,000 to subscribe to a Ryan Leslie stream of music. The challenge is that human beings are comparative, and so when streaming services say, ‘Look, you can have access to all the recorded music in the world that ever existed for $9 a month, it becomes a difficult value proposition for people to say, ‘Hey, I’ll give you about 18 songs for $9 a year.’”
While the music industry figures out how to make access as cost-effective as ownership, how to make mere products seem more like full-blown experiences, and how to make itself appear vital when any artist can be her own distribution channel, the album stands by, awaiting the verdict on whether it has a future as a fundamental form.
To be honest, until someone releases the next “Rhythm Nation 1814” (so close, Beyoncé!), I’m fine sticking with my fickle, cherry-picking ways. Any grand musical statements that can’t be made in a few minutes I’ll just pick up on vinyl (the proverbial fine china of my music collection). In the meantime, for anyone looking for 50 lbs. of plastic, there’s a big box in front of my house.Michael Andor Brodeur can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @MBrodeur.