Reinventing The Album: Keeping Releases Relevant in The 21st Century

These days when listeners do buy music, it’s predominantly in the form of ones and zeros on a hard drive or a broadband stream. It was just this past year that paid digital downloads finally surpassed CDs as the most popular consumer format, but to put it that way only tells part of the story.

If you poll young people today, you’re likely to find that most of them do their music listening through streaming services, and have been doing so for some time now.

Today, streaming is far bigger than piracy, and despite newfound variety in this field, there’s still one streaming service that dominates. It’s not Pandora or Spotify. (The latter, for all its promise and hype, currently has a smaller market-share than MySpace.) It’s YouTube. At 1 billion users, it’s second only to Facebook, however slightly. And it’s bigger than MTV ever was.

As it exists now, YouTube is a fantastic discovery engine for music, effectively beating piracy at the convenience game. It’s easy, it’s searchable, and thanks to the relentless demands of artists, it finally allows for musicians to effectively control their exposure by limiting how, and to what extent, their music can be shared or monetized.

But there are flaws in YouTube that will keep it from ever replacing the album. The fact that it barely pays anything is an obvious one. Poor sound quality is another. And the jittery, often un-fulfilling experience of interacting with the world’s largest distraction emporium is another still. That’s exactly the opposite of what we seek from art. In the streaming world, you’re usually expected to curate it yourself, every time you listen, and the service is systemically incapable of creating any sense of community or belonging. It passes the time, often without filling it.

Because of all this, there’s still a market for releases – even physical ones. It’s just that today, artists and labels need to change what the word “release” means in order to compete with the potential for instant gratification found on the web. They have to offer something new, something different, something more appealing, and ideally, transcendent. Today, we’ll explore how artists have been able to successfully re-imagine and reinvent the album to keep it relevant in the internet millennium.

1) Reinventing The Vinyl Record

When I was a teenager, I bought vinyl. Lots of it.

In part, this was because of the romantic appeal of the 12” record. There was the size, the feel, the smell, the immersive and interactive physicality of the thing. But if I’m going to be honest, I have to admit that those were not just perks, but justifications. Just like with tape cassettes and thrift shop clothes, I bought records (specifically, used records) in large part because they were what I could afford.

Today, musicians have taken to dishing about the ways in which web-based businesses rip them off far worse than the record labels of yesteryear ever did. And although that’s valid and largely accurate, truth be told, when I bought my used records, not a single dime went into the pockets of the artists or the labels.

In years since, vinyl records have taken on an upscale and artist-friendly connotation. Although they can sound pretty decent, on average, their fidelity is still measurably lower than that of any good digital file (including a high-quality MP3). Yet they now carry the mark of luxury nonetheless. Still, regardless of what we can measure and demonstrate about sound quality, vinyl fans love them, and I believe that to people who love vinyl records, they do sound better. I know that when I loved them, they did for me.

Part of this is thanks to the charming, subtle and familiar distortion and signal degradation of vinyl. But in even larger part, I believe it owes to the experience of the thing. Tangible records are interactive in a sense that websites and videos games can only aspire to be. What vinyl invites is a conscious and almost meditative “ritual of listening” that musicians and true fans live for. It’s like the difference between reading Steinbeck and the comments section on YouTube. One is easy and painfully, shamefully addictive, and one leaves you feeling whole.

All these factors have led to a shocking resurgence for the 12″ disc in recent years. In 2010 — one of the worst years for selling music in the history of the known universe — vinyl sales grew by 14%. In 2011, they rocketed up by nearly 40%. And in 2012, they grew another 17%, just as CD sales plummeted by nearly the same percentage.

It’s entirely possible that someday, CDs may all but disappear while vinyl becomes the default physical alternative once again. That day however, is not today or tomorrow or next year. Before we get too carried away, it’s worth remembering that in 2012, fewer than 3.5 million vinyl LPs were sold in total. This is less than half the number of copies sold just of Adele’s album 21on CD alone. That’s 7 million CDs. Of one album. By contrast, the top-selling vinyl record, Jack White’s Blunderbuss, sold about 35,000 copies in 2012.

Currently, vinyl records are attractive only to an enthusiastic minority of self-selecting hardcore music nerds. But is it possible that the market could be opened further? I think so. But I think it takes imagination, as well as marketing that leans on honest selling points. Berating young people about their listening habits, or leading with easily debunked claims about the superior fidelity of vinyl – these things can only backfire.

Whether or not you like his music, Jack White and his label, Third Man, have gotten that part right. In 2010, they released “The Triple Decker Record” – a 12” album with an “unreleased” 7” single hidden inside. To be one of the few who hear it, you’ll just have to crack open the 12” album, and remove the 7” locked within:

I want one of these, and I’ve never even heard of that band. I’m also the kind of person that rarely buys physical albums, or listens to vinyl anymore. Yet here I am, sitting with my wallet out on my lap, and the only thing that’s stopping me from buying is that the limited run of 300 copies has since sold out.

That’s the not the only cool thing Third Man has done. They’ve released tri-color records, scented records, 13” records, glow-in-the-dark records, even a record filled with liquid, just because they can:

Again: WANT. And I’m not even a fan!

Here’s one band I do like very much: The Flaming Lips. Below,Wayne Coyne explains the pressing of a series of psychedelic 12-inches that embrace the quirks of the medium. Workers at a pressing plant combine raw materials in untested ways to create unique records in stunningly random patterns:

If you can take someone who rarely buys vinyl anymore (me) and get him excited about the medium, you are doing something right. Being this inventive is the way to winning new, young listeners. It gives them an excuse to care. It gives them something to talk about. It gives them something to hold that is — if only for a moment — legitimately more interesting than their smartphone.

2) Going Beyond The Vinyl Record

As much as music fans are prone to romanticize vinyl, the truth is that its very existence was a simple byproduct of economic forces of the past. A tidal shift in these same forces brought streaming to the forefront. Today, the only role of vinyl in music is as a novelty, a luxury, and an accessory to the experience of sound.

Admittedly, it can be an awesome, engrossing, and inspiring accessory that allows us deeper engagement with our music. But if that is the sole value that the medium currently provides, why stop there? Why not imagine more?

Once again, Wayne Coyne of the Flaming Lips did. In 2010, his band released an album packaged inside of a “gummy skull.” That is “gummy” as in “Gummy Bears.” To hear the record, you quite literally have to eat your way through the packaging.

The outside of the skull was pineapple-flavored, the interior — a replica of human brain — was cherry.

People lined up to buy them when they were first released at a little Oklahoma record shop. Upon selling out immediately, Coyne had to go back home to pick up more:

(Of course, you could also just cut it open, but where’s the fun in that?:)

The following Halloween, The Flaming Lips released a 24-hour long song, focusing on the theme of death. This time, it came encased inside of a real human skull. The limited run of 5 sold out before the recording was even finished… At a price of $5,000 each.

You don’t have to be this macabre to make a statement. In 2010, songwriter Jed Davis released a new single on wax cylinder, thanks to some help from the Vulcan Cylinder Record Company. (Well, technically speaking, it wasn’t wax, but a modern plastic that can stand up to long-term storage and repeated plays.)

Most people probably don’t have a player (although it’s a damn good excuse to buy or even make one) but the package is beautiful and the song was also released online in a digital form. For the digital version, Davis recorded the output of a cylinder player – limited bandwidth, clicks, pops and all.

Although that’s a cute idea, my only reservation here is that I want to start seeing more artists have the balls to intentionally make their music unavailable.

Remember: There is no rule that says you have to share your entire catalog indiscriminately. It is okay to save some of your songs for fans dedicated enough to go out and track down the cylinder player, to buy and consume the gummy skull.

If you do not want to, you do not have to make them available otherwise. If someone puts them up on YouTube, today you can easily have them taken down. Now that would be something special.

The truth is that your most enthusiastic fans want to work for it. It gives them purpose. It gives them something to connect to, and to define themselves by. It makes them feel that they belong.

Perhaps the best realization of this concept comes from another of my favorites, Beck, who at the end of 2012 released his latest album as a handsome, leather-bound collection of sheet music. If you wanted to hear the album, you’d just have to play it yourself.

It sold out instantly.

Despite this being a beautiful and totally badass thing to do, some people (who were presumably unable to play instruments) hated the idea and took to letting the world know about it in various comments sections of websites. More than once, I saw this beautiful book referred to as pretentious (presumably by people who don’t actually know what the word “pretentious” means.)

But that doesn’t matter much. Musician doesn’t have to please everyone. They just have to inspire their own audience. And Beck did. The new sheet music-only album immediately entered my “want” list and quickly went on backorder. They could not make enough of them fast enough.

The beautiful thing about making a release exclusive in some small way, whether it’s through limited availability or sheer ridiculousness, is that those who care enough to buy it feel more included. It is a simple fact of human nature: With exclusion comes deeper sense of inclusion. This is not a great thing for say, college admissions or voting rights, but half the point of art is that it’s okay here. It is a place to safely express identity without hurting others.

Remember that inviting people to buy something exclusive is inviting them to belong. And who doesn’t want that? As cartoonist Hugh MacLeod writes, “The market for something to believe in is infinite.”

3) Reinventing The Digital Release

There is no doubt that ethical, sustainable, on-demand streaming services will be the future of music consumption. And it’s likely that they will eventually replace the current consumerist ideas of traditional album “ownership” to a degree.

Time and again, today’s consumers have shown that they’re less interested in paying for any single media product, while they’ll rarely bat an eye at the idea of paying for access. Think about it: Even the most fervent anti-IP, pro-piracy “freehadist” happily pays for laptops and broadband connection, all to obtain access to the world’s music, movies and written words. They are already paying out. The only question is “to whom”? Even the backward old newspaper industry is coming to recognize this, and today’ The New York Times and Wall Street Journal make most of their digital revenue through subscriptions.

Until humanity evolves into some unrecognizable species many millennia from now, there will always be demand for music — just as there will always be a demand for competent news reporting. The only question then, is how to get listeners invested enough in a release that they want desperately to demonstrate that value by opening their wallets and helping to make it sustainable. To do this, we have to meet them where the market is.

As much as we might create novel alternatives to digital music releases, there is no use in fighting the reality that digital is now the default mode of consumption for most listeners. Instead of fighting this, it’s best to learn from what physical releases offer and bring that into the digital world.

Here’s one of those things: Unlike the current crop of under-realized digital albums, physical releases tickle multiple senses. They have a strong visual component and a meaningful physical aspect. Both of these senses can be brought into play in the world of digital releases.

Digital music can, should, and eventually will be released with a stronger visual component. This does not mean that every song has to have its own music video. Music is still foremost a listening art. But much like an album cover does, specially crafted digital visuals can provide atmosphere and context without becoming the central focus.

We do not need to reinvent the wheel to do this: The basic digital formats available for music delivery already have a visual potential that is woefully underutilized.

Today, online stores allow you to not only include album artwork, but high-resolution multi-page digital booklets. Have you done this yet? It doesn’t stop there, either: Today’s .m4a files can actually include multiple, time-triggered pieces of artwork for each song. Arcade Fire utilized this to great effect on their 2010 GRAMMY award winning album, The Suburbs. It included synchronized album art, which unfolded along with the music like a dynamic lyric sheet:

More famously, Arcade Fire released an interactive video called “The Wilderness Downtown” for their song “We Used To Wait.” If you visit thewildernessdowntown.com, a custom HTML5 website will invite you to type in the address of the house where you grew up. It will then take you on an eerie, multi-window tour of your hometown in pace with the song, ultimately inviting you to write a postcard to your younger self.

This is only the beginning of what digital albums are capable of. And this kind of interactivity doesn’t have to be promotional, as it was for The Suburbs. In late 2011, Björk released her Biophilia album as a visually stunning iOS app that allows you to control how the music unfolds. In 2012, Phillip Glass’ ReWork album offered an app that added a custom interactive visual component for each song on the album. Unlike the Björk or Arcade Fire apps it doesn’t beg to be the point of focus. Instead, just like the music, it becomes part of the room.

Don’t have a programmer in your band? You can do something far simpler than this to great results: Try creating a unique and richly dynamic screensaver or for your album. This can bring the visual component back to your releases while reminding listeners to step away from their screens and engage with the world around them. That’s part of the point of art. Give your listeners an excuse to disengage with their thousands of browser tabs. Invite them to just listen for once.

The beautiful thing about an abstract visual component is that the perpetual glow of a computer or tablet screen can become ambient in the way a lava lamp and album cover are ambient. This way, the computer screen can cease to dominate your senses and become a backdrop for a deeper experience. These screens were not built to control us. They were put here to serve us, and we should remind them ( and ourselves) of that with some frequency.

Substance and Accessory

Sound can never truly be “captured,” whether on wax cylinder or solid state hard drive. It is innately physical, existing only as momentary changes in air molecules around us. We can not bottle it, just as we can not bottle lightning or the wind. The best we can do when it comes to music is to measure its energy and try to represent it in another form: as etchings on a surface, as magnetism or as electricity.

We may lament the shrinking physical market from time to time, but the reality is that music is made up only of vibrations through, and everything else is an accessory to that experience. Some of those accessories however, can add richness and depth to our experience in ways that are worth keeping. Whether through physical media or bits and bytes, that’s what we should be offering listeners.

So do your most important job: Make records. But to get them heard and to make sure they stick deep in the memories of your listeners, give them something to hold and something to see. Give them a story. Give them something to do, something to belong to. And for chrissakes: give them something to talk about.

Justin Colletti is a mastering engineer and writer who lives in Brooklyn, NY.

This entry was posted in Featured Stories, Industry Trends, May 2013, New Releases. Bookmark the permalink. Both comments and trackbacks are currently closed.
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