A New Form For The Music Album

By Uloop Archives on March 24, 2016

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What is the definition of a music album in today’s day and age?

In the music industry’s more profitable days, album sales served as the backbone. Individual songs are the products of the artists’ work, and singles are what make it to the radio, but albums remain the main attraction. They are the landmarks, the cornerstones of an artist’s career. Any time any artist releases a proper, full-length album, it is a big deal.

The digital age has fractured the popular concept of the music album. In the ’60s, albums progressed from single compilations and random collections of songs to cohesive artistic statements. This approach was a complement to the popular form of music listening at the time: the vinyl record. Played from front to back, themes and concepts in albums were ways of creating a singularly unique experience for the music listener. The introduction of albums such as Frank Zappa’s Freak Out!, the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds, and the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band all cemented this idea and provided a blueprint for future releases.

Yet, as formats changed and new listening habits developed, the importance of the album order started to abate. The cassette introduced the fast-forward and rewind. The CD was adaptable to a skip button. The digital album made it possible to separate a song from its context in the album, or even just entirely delete songs from an album for your whimsy. The advent of streaming has negated the point of an album almost entirely.

If “albums still matter,” as Prince so boldly claimed just a few years back, what can artists now do to preserve their value?

The stalwart known as Kanye West may have accidentally stumbled upon a development. Consider his latest album, The Life of Pablo. Much hullabaloo has already been made about the album’s rather unorthodox rollout; typical album release expectations were dashed from the get go. TLOP was released as a TIDAL exclusive, causing many grumbling fans (myself included) to sign up for free month-long trials of the streaming service. While faithful music buyers kept waiting for an official release, Kanye announced that there would never be a physical release of TLOP. Moreover, the number of album streams was not released by TIDAL. Thus, the archetypal measure of music success — the units sold tally — has not even been calculated for TLOP. 

Moreover, as the time went on, many noticed little tweaks afoot in the album. The title of the “Silver Surfer Intermission” was changed to include perhaps an unnecessary amount of letters. Then, one of the lyrics in “Famous” was edited. Finally, “Wolves” was changed to include the coveted Sia and Vic Mensa features, while Frank Ocean’s original outro was relegated to its own track. As the latter two changes occurred when most new users’ free trials were expiring, the good folks at TIDAL decided to extend their trials so they could continue listening to the album.

Kanye is a known perfectionist, notorious for a strict work ethic and obsession over the finest details. It is not hard to imagine he was unhappy with the state of TLOP by its promised release date; perhaps the TIDAL exclusive release is his way of sharing it with the public while still being able to change it when he wants. But what if this concept transcends Kanye? Does an album have to be a standalone work anymore, unchanged except for remasters and reissues? What if the album, in all its imperfection, is to morph into an ever-changing form, and streaming is to serve as its adaptable format?

Despite the valiant attempts of artists like King Crimson, Tool, Garth Brooks, Prince, Taylor Swift, and Adele, it truly seems streaming will be the default mode of music consumption in the coming years. The protests against the finances behind streaming are all too understandable still, and streaming corporations must work harder to find sustainable solutions. But what if more artists embraced streaming as an expanded canvas for their work? What if the first reissue of their album does not have to be the final product?

In a sense, all art is truly incomplete. Ask any songwriter, artist, or creative you know and for the most part, they will tell you they are never fully satisfied with their work. As a writer, I often wince at former pieces and wish I could constantly edit them to satisfaction. But perfection does not exist in any form. No matter the work, there is no possible form of it that will please absolutely everyone, least of all the creators themselves. There is something that could always be different; not necessarily better or worse, but a just a little different, a little more satisfactory.

Not all music albums would benefit by such a concept, and not all albums should have to — classics such as Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On and Bob Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited serve as timestamps of their eras. But maybe the future of the music album is the ability to exist as a living form. Already, artists are experimenting with new forms and experiences for both their songs and albums. If artists were to embrace this, albums could still retain value as aesthetic experiences while venturing in even further dimensions.

If this becomes the future of the album, it may be the blueprint for all future artistic works. Whether you think life imitates art or vice versa, you know they are inexorably entwined. Perhaps now, art can adopt a life of its own.

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