About Me

Find out more about me here.

28 September 2017

The Album Is a Lie

The idea in popular music, especially in the rock genres, that the "album" is a thing is largely a lie. With the exception of legitimate concept albums (of which there are several exemplars, including Tommy and The Wall), musicians almost never construct albums in a self-conscious, intentional manner. Instead, most retroactively impose a narrative on top of a set of songs that are otherwise independent works of art.

Just because musicians aren't writing songs that are intentionally coherent doesn't mean that there aren't other, unintended threads holding albums together. For starters, albums are typically chronological works; that is, the songs that end up on an album were written over the same period, say the last year since a previous album had been released. Since they are written over a specific period, they might also reflect a given stage of one's lifecourse or even specific life events (e.g. the "breakup album").

There is, however, at least one practical reason that albums have existed. In large part, it is a matter of economies of scale related to contemporaneous technology. For much of the 20th century, technology made it so that it was more cost efficient to record several songs at once instead of doing one-off sessions. The only place to do professional-quality recording was in designated recording studios, and those studios were relatively expensive to book. Musicians would show up, and it would take hours--even days--just to set up, mic, and get good sounds out of drumsets, amps, etc. Given those sunk costs, it just made more sense to record as much as possible once that initial investment had been made. Today, DAW's, virtual instruments, and samples have made it such that it is entirely effective to record songs one at a time, as they are written.

And, yet, the album has persisted. Why has rock, though, been more insistent on the album than other sets of genres? I asked myself this question recently when watching a documentary about Led Zeppelin. The filmmakers recount how the band contractually forbid their label from releasing singles, insisting that they produced indivisible albums to be consumed as such. Any honest Zepplin fan can tell you that none of their albums is a concept album; they are simply collections of songs connected by virtue of being interpreted and performed by the same set of musicians at a calendrical moment. I don't know that I have a definitive answer, but here are a few possibilities.

First, it could be an economic imperative for a genre in decline. Guitar-based musics have been increasingly displaced by pop country, rap, and electronic dance music. Singles simply don't sell enough units to keep rock viable. Albums earn larger margins and are, thus, required.

Second, it could be a fairly arbitrary marker to distinguish between communities and identities. Whereas rock has been primarily a music of straight, white men, the musics most often sold as singles are associated with women, people of color, and non-heteronormative cultures (e.g. pop, hip hop, and dance music). The difference in preferred format may just signal belonging to one or another group.

Third, unlike singles-driven music, rock has been motivated more artistically and less commercially. This is undoubtedly a controversial statement, but to use examples from my youth, compare Nirvana to Brittney Spears. The album format could be interpreted as an intentional disruption of capitalistic exploit of art.

Fourth, unlike singles-driven music, which involves more external collaboration, rock has been defined much more by auteurs and internal collaboration. Pop music has been much more likely to be the product of independent producers, songwriters, performers, A&R folks, et al., whereas rock musics are typically the product of bands. It could be that persisting collaboratives produce more complex bodies of work not translatable as singles.

I'm sure there are other possibilities as well. More later.


  1. I'm surprised you didn't mention producers, who seemed to have a big influence on the cohesiveness of an album's sound (ex: Nevermind vs. In Utero). The fact that modern pop albums are produced by a wide range of people rather than a single person might also contribute to the decline of the album as a thing.

    1. That's, in part, what I was trying to convey in the fourth point above. I would say, though, that multiple produces on pop albums are evidence of the album already not being taken seriously as opposed to the cause of the album's demise.