Long player

I started reading David Weinberger’s new book, Everything Is Miscellaneous, this weekend. I’d been looking forward to it. Weinberger has a supple, curious mind and an easy way with words. Even though I rarely agree with his conclusions, he gets the brain moving – and that’s what matters. But I have to say I didn’t get very far in the book, at least not this weekend. In fact, I only reached the bottom of page nine, at which point I crashed into this passage about music:

For decades we’ve been buying albums. We thought it was for artistic reasons, but it was really because the economics of the physical world required it: Bundling songs into long-playing albums lowered the production, marketing, and distribution costs because there were fewer records to make, ship, shelve, categorize, alphabetize, and inventory. As soon as music went digital, we learned that the natural unit of music is the track. Thus was iTunes born, a miscellaneous pile of 3.5 million songs from a thousand record labels. Anyone can offer music there without first having to get the permission of a record executive.

“… the natural unit of music is the track”? Well, roll over, Beethoven, and tell Tchaikovsky the news.

There’s a lot going on in that brief passage, and almost all of it is wrong. Weinberger does do a good job, though, of condensing into a few sentences what might be called the liberation mythology of the internet. This mythology is founded on a sweeping historical revisionism that conjures up an imaginary predigital world – a world of profound physical and economic constraints – from which the web is now liberating us. We were enslaved, and now we are saved. In a bizarrely fanciful twist, the digital world is presented as a “natural” counterpoint to the supposed artificiality of the physical world.

I set the book aside and fell to pondering. Actually, the first thing I did was to sweep the junk off the dust cover of my sadly neglected turntable and pull out an example of one of those old, maligned “long-playing albums” from my shrunken collection of cardboard-sheathed LPs (arrayed alphabetically, by artist, on a shelf in a cabinet). I chose Exile on Main Street. More particularly, I chose the unnatural bundle of tracks to be found on side three of Exile on Main Street. Carefully holding the thin black slab of scratched, slightly warped, but still serviceable vinyl by its edges – you won’t, I trust, begrudge me a pang of nostalgia for the outdated physical world – I eased it onto the spindle and set the platter to spinning at a steady thirty-three-and-a-third revolutions per minute.

Now, if you’re not familiar with Exile on Main Street, or if you know it only in a debauched digital form – whether as a single-sided plastic CD (yuk) or as a pile of miscellaneous undersampled iTunes tracks (yuk squared) – let me explain that side three is the strangest yet the most crucial of the four sides of the Stones’ double-record masterpiece. The side begins, literally, in happiness – or Happyness – and ends, figuratively, in a dark night of the soul. (I realize that, today, it’s hard to imagine Mick Jagger having a dark night of the soul, but at the dawn of the gruesome seventies, with the wounds of Brian Jones’s death, Marianne Faithfull’s overdose, and Altamont’s hippie apocalypse still fresh in his psyche, Mick was, I imagine, suffering from an existential pain that neither a needle and a spoon nor even another girl could fully take away.)

But it’s the middle tracks of the platter that seem most pertinent to me in thinking about Weinberger’s argument. Between Keith’s ecstatic, grinning-at-death “Happy” and Mick’s desperate, shut-the-lights “Let It Loose” come three offhand, wasted-in-the-basement songs – “Turd on the Run,” “Ventilator Blues,” and “Just Wanna See His Face” – that sound, in isolation, like throwaways. If you unbundled Exile and tossed these tracks onto the miscellaneous iTunes pile, they’d sink, probably without a trace. I mean, who’s going to buy “Turd on the Run” as a standalone track? And yet, in the context of the album that is Exile on Main Street, the three songs achieve a remarkable, tortured eloquence. They become necessary. They transcend their identity as tracks, and they become part of something larger. They become art.

Listening to Exile, or to any number of other long-playing bundles – The Velvet Underground & Nico, Revolver, Astral Weeks, Every Picture Tells a Story, Mott, Blood on the Tracks, Station to Station, London Calling, Get Happy!, Murmur, Tim (the list, thankfully, goes on and on) – I could almost convince myself that the 20-minute-or-so side of an LP is not just some ungainly byproduct of the economics of the physical world but rather the “natural unit of music.” As “natural” a unit, anyway, as the individual track.

The long-playing phonograph record, twelve inches in diameter and spinning at a lazy 33 rpm, is, even today, a fairly recent technological development. (In fact, recorded music in general is a fairly recent technological development.) After a few failed attempts to produce a long-player in the early thirties, the modern LP was introduced in 1948 by a record executive named Edward Wallerstein, then the president of Columbia Records, a division of William Paley’s giant Columbia Broadcasting System. At the time, the dominant phonograph record had for about a half century been the 78 – a fragile, ten-inch shellac disk that spun at seventy-eight rpm and could hold only about three or four minutes of music on a side.

Wallerstein, being a record executive, invented the long-player as a way to “bundle” a lot of tracks onto a single disk in order to enhance the economics of the business and force customers to buy a bunch of songs that they didn’t want to get a track or two that they did want. Right? Wrong. Wallerstein in fact invented the long-player because he wanted a format that would do justice to performances of classical works, which, needless to say, didn’t lend themselves all that well to three-minute snippets.

Before his death in 1970, Wallerstein recalled how he pushed a team of talented Columbia engineers to develop the modern record album (as well as a practical system for playing it):

Every two months there were meetings of the Columbia Records people and Bill Paley at CBS. [Jim] Hunter, Columbia’s production director, and I were always there, and the engineering team would present anything that might have developed. Toward the end of 1946, the engineers let Adrian Murphy, who was their technical contact man at CBS, know that they had something to demonstrate. It was a long-playing record that lasted seven or eight minutes, and I immediately said, “Well, that’s not a long-playing record.” They then got it to ten or twelve minutes, and that didn’t make it either. This went on for at least two years.

Mr. Paley, I think, got a little sore at me, because I kept saying, “That’s not a long-playing record,” and he asked, “Well, Ted, what in hell is a long-playing record?” I said, “Give me a week, and I’ll tell you.”

I timed I don’t know how many works in the classical repertory and came up with a figure of seventeen minutes to a side. This would enable about 90% of all classical music to be put on two sides of a record. The engineers went back to their laboratories. When we met in the fall of 1947 the team brought in the seventeen-minute record.

The long-player was not, in other words, a commercial contrivance aimed at bundling together popular songs to the advantage of record companies and the disadvantage of consumers; it was a format specifically designed to provide people with a much better way to listen to recordings of classical works. In fact, in focusing on perfecting a medium for classical performances, Columbia actually sacrificed much of the pop market to its rival RCA, which at the time was developing a competing record format: the seven-inch, forty-five-revolutions-per-minute single. Recalls Wallerstein:

There was a long discussion as to whether we should move right in [to the market with the LP] or first do some development work on better equipment for playing these records or, most important, do some development work on a popular record to match these 12-inch classical discs. Up to now our thinking had been geared completely to the classical market rather than to the two- or three-minute pop disc market.

I was in favor of waiting a year or so to solve these problems and to improve the original product. We could have developed a 6- or 7-inch record and equipment to handle the various sizes for pops. But Paley felt that, since we had put $250,000 into the LP, it should be launched as it was. So we didn’t wait and in consequence lost the pops market to the RCA 45s.

A brief standards war ensued between the LP and the 45 – it was called “the battle of speeds” – which concluded, fortunately, with a technological compromise that allowed both to flourish. Record players were designed to accommodate both 33 rpm albums and 45 rpm singles (and, for a while, anyway, the old 78s as well). The 45 format allowed consumers to buy popular individual songs for a relatively low price, while the LP provided them with the option of buying longer works for a somewhat higher price. Of course, popular music soon moved onto LPs, as musicians and record companies sought to maximize their sales and provide fans with more songs by their favorite artists. The introduction of the pop LP did not force customers to buy more songs than they wanted – they could still cherry-pick individual tracks by buying 45s. The LP expanded people’s choices, giving them more of the music they clamored for.

Indeed, in suggesting that the long-player resulted in a big pile of “natural” tracks being bundled together into artificial albums, Weinberger gets it precisely backwards. It was the arrival of the LP that set off the explosion in the number of popular music tracks available to buyers. It also set off a burst of incredible creativity in popular music, as bands, songwriters, and solo performers began to take advantage of the new, extended format, to turn the longer medium to their own artistic purposes. The result was a great flowering not only of wonderful singles, sold as 45s, but of carefully constructed sets of songs, sold as LPs. Was there also a lot of filler? Of course there was. When hasn’t there been?

Weinberger also gets it backwards in suggesting that the LP was a record industry ploy to constrain the supply of products – in order to have “fewer records to make, ship, shelve, categorize, alphabetize, and inventory.” The album format, combined with the single format, brought a huge increase in the number of records – and, in turn, in the outlets that sold them. It unleashed a flood of recorded music. It’s worth remembering that the major competitor to the record during this time was radio, which of course provided music for free. (The arrival of radio nearly killed off the recorded music industry, in fact.) The best way – the only way – for record companies to compete against radio was to increase the number of records they produced, to give customers far more choices than radio could send over the airwaves. The long-playing album, in sum, not only gave buyers many more products to choose from; it gave artists many more options for expressing themselves, to everyone’s benefit. Far from being a constraint on the market, the physical format of the long-player was a great spur to consumer choice and, even more important, to creativity. Who would unbundle Exile on Main Street or Blonde on Blonde or Tonight’s the Night – or, for that matter, Dirty Mind or Youth and Young Manhood or (Come On Feel the) Illinoise? Only a fool would.

And yet it is the wholesale unbundling of LPs into a “miscellaneous pile” of compressed digital song files that Weinberger would have us welcome as some kind of deliverance from decades of apparent servitude to the long-playing album. One doesn’t have to be an apologist for record executives – who in recent years have done a great job in proving their cynicism and stupidity – to recognize that Weinberger is warping history in an attempt to prove an ideological point. Will the new stress on discrete digital tracks bring a new flowering of creativity in music? I don’t know. Maybe we’ll get a pile of gems, or maybe we’ll get a pile of crap. Probably we’ll get a mix. But I do know that the development of the physical long-playing album, together with the physical single, was a development that we should all be grateful for. We probably shouldn’t rush out to dance on the album’s grave.

As for the individual track being the “natural unit of music,” that’s a fantasy. Natural’s not in it.

44 Comments

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44 Responses to Long player

  1. On a vaguely related note, I will mention the 16 & 1/6 and 8 RPM vinyl record formats. For many years, the Library of Congress has distributed free record players and “Talking Books” on low-speed 12″ vinyl records, to the blind. The lower speed recordings were adequate quality for spoken word recordings, could store much more data than a 33 1/3 LP, and reduced shipping and distribution costs considerably (a vital consideration in a federally funded project).

    I remember my Grandmother just lived for those monthly shipping boxes with Talking Books. I just checked the LoC’s National Library Service for the Blind website and it appears they still deliver vinyl records, but primarily distribute content on a unique low-speed tape cassette that plays up to 6 hours.

  2. I think Shelley Powers nailed it in her review of Everything Is Miscellaneous:

    “David had a concept, a belief, and then sought out specific knowledge and other witnesses to the faith who would provide the evidence to support such.”

    As for his revisionist history, David himself put it best in his conversation with Bradley Horowitz at Yahoo, when he admitted, “I’m not that fact-based.” Exactly.

  3. xertroyt

    Who are these “Rolling Stones” you speak of? They sound very interesting. Are they jazz musicians? Also, you refer to a thin black slab. Really neat: What’s all that about?

  4. It’s a MOVEMENT:

    Dave Rogers: http://homepage.mac.com/dave_rogers/GHD05-07.html#note_3208

    “I looked briefly, but sincerely, for any sort of cautionary exposition, any explication of the potential downside to the phenomenon David is describing. I found none. Maybe I missed those parts. Mostly I found advocacy, boosterism, and cheer-leading. In other words – marketing. I did not discern a critical examination of the phenomenon in question. I did notice some hand-waving that sort of dispensed with any such seemingly misguided or trivial concerns with the notion that we’re “going to get better” at divining meaning in a sea of conflicting miscellanea, because “we have to.”

    Kind of like we’ve gotten better at that whole “peace on earth” thing. Or poverty. Or ignorance. Yeah, like that. So, you know, case closed.”

  5. Nick Carr

    Ryan and Seth,

    To be fair, my criticism here is of Weinberger’s particular point about music, which (I assume) is fairly peripheral to the main thrust of the book (though illustrative of the liberation-mythology mindset). I am still looking forward to reading the rest of the book – whether I end up agreeing with the argument or not.

    Nick

  6. fp

    Excellent criticism. I hope you will read and comment further on the book. I think what David has written is important and examining it carefully is also very important.

  7. jV

    One thing Weinberger may be responding to is the recording industry’s abandonment of the 45 single, literally forcing users into purchasing full-length albums just for the 1 or 2 songs.

    The development of the LP is laudable for the artistic freedom it allowed, yet look at what the recording industry did to it. How many ‘artists’, and I use that word loosely with the all synth-pop tripe we have had to put up with popular music over the last 20-30 years, took advantage of the freedom the context the LP and later CD formats provided?

    For the majority, music’s ‘natural unit’ *became* the track. Single song air-play and the ‘single’ went hand-in-hand. Track-level distribution liberated the end-user from what the recording industry had become.

    One last point, artistry in the end is in the eye (or ear) of the beholder. If the end-user finds the artistry in a cut up compilation, then so be it, no matter what the artist or popular culture intended it to be.

  8. Most of the music I own definitely needs to be in the album format. The songs go together to form a theme.

    However, there are a lot of mass produced artists that sell more on image than music. For them, the album format is just too long, they don’t have more than 1 or 2 songs, the rest is just filler.

    It all comes down to quality. “Real” artists benefit from albums, but modern mass-produced junk probably doesn’t.

  9. Good piece, Nick.

    The track is no more the natural unit of music than the blog post is the natural unit of text (yuk cubed).

    But the mythological “liberation” that David aludes to I think is justifed in this case. It was a liberation of popular music not into natural states, but out of the straight jacket of the album. You make a wonderful and inarguable case for how much great pop music was crafted as a whole album. But even music that was not meant to be listened to as an album — and was ‘sold’ on the radio as singles – still had to be bought as an album.

    I believe you are right that the album *expanded” the options of musicians and listeners. But then it becames a prison that *constrained* buyers, by eliminating the earlier choices of individual tracks. Long ago it was a single or nothing. Than later it was an album or nothing.

    What we want of course, as always, is “all of the above.”

  10. Nick Carr

    What we want of course, as always, is “all of the above.”

    Agreed.

    One thing Weinberger may be responding to is the recording industry’s abandonment of the 45 single, literally forcing users into purchasing full-length albums just for the 1 or 2 songs.

    But even music that was not meant to be listened to as an album — and was ‘sold’ on the radio as singles – still had to be bought as an album.

    This is a complicated (and fascinating) issue, and I don’t think it can be reduced to “the recording industry’s abandonment of the 45 single.” The 45 single was abandoned because once cassette and CD album sales displaced vinyl album sales, people abandoned their turntables and hence no longer had the equipment required to play 45s. Still, through the 80s and into the 90s I believe that singles – in vinyl, cassette, and CD formats – were widely available and continued to sell. However, as turntables and cassette players became scarcer, only the CD-single format remained as a viable mass-market product, and I don’t think it ever really took hold commercially – certainly not in the way that 45s and even cassette singles did. There were probably many reasons for this, and I’m sure some had to do with record company behavior but others probably had to do with physical format issues (45s were more fun and more distinctive than CD singles) and still others had to do with changes in consumer behavior. Anyway, as single sales fell, radio stations began (as Kevin notes) to play “singles” without requiring that they actually be released as singles and then, late in the 90s, Billboard began including non-released singles in its singles charts – both of which took away a lot of the incentive for record companies to go to the trouble and expense of releasing what was by then a shrinking sidelight to the album business. Let’s not forget that, around the same time all this was going on, MP3s and Napster arrived, and the singles market immediately went underground (where it largely remains today, even with the success of iTunes).

    One thing we do know is that the shift from analog to digital, in both the recording and the distribution of music, has changed a lot of things, some for the better and some for the worse. It was digitization, arguably, that created the album “straightjacket,” and it was digitization that destroyed it. Has digitization spurred the kind of creativity in popular music that vinyl spurred? I don’t see evidence of that. Will it? Maybe. It’s hard to predict what form forms will take. But to assume that the piecemeal digital distribution of music is simply “better” than everything that came before is wrongheaded, I think, and gives short shrift to the past.

  11. Phil

    Tread softly, David, for you tread upon my albums. (And my dreams, come to think of it.)

    What iTunes has done is to reduce recorded music to the condition of radio: you get the track, you get the artist and the title, and, er, that’s it. I wrote about this back here. (Quote: The first time I heard /Forever Changes/, I got up instinctively at the end of “The red telephone” to turn the record over. Then I sat down again, because the first time I heard /Forever Changes/ was about eighteen months ago and I was listening to it on CD. All the same, I knew the end of side one when I heard it.)

    My post was inspired by this marvellous essay by Dan Hill, which should put paid to any lingering temptation to use the word ‘natural’ in this context. (And my Smile review is here.)

  12. Nick Carr

    What iTunes has done is to reduce recorded music to the condition of radio

    That’s sad, but I think there’s a lot of truth in it. Be careful which straightjacket you choose.

    And thanks for the links.

  13. Your criticism of Weinberger strikes me as odd. He’s right: the natural state is the track; of course it is, it’s the artist’s first, best tool defining the canvas of self-expression. A book is a series of chapters. A film is a series of scenes. Plays have acts; opera has arias.

    Weinberger correctly identifies the digital liberation as evolutionary and urges us to break free from our antiquated notions of music belonging to any single format – be it plastic, vinyl polymer or one not yet conceived.

    There’s no reason to stop there.

    I can pluck songs from Green Day and Duran Duran and combine them to create a new tune – a new track – and enjoy it endlessly. Why not? iTunes, and tools like it, make it possible. Keep your decks and enjoy your albums how you like.

    Of course this is all a red herring. The fact tracks are the natural unit of music is self-evident, so I’m unclear to the actual object of your annoyance.

    Are you lamenting the passing of analog technology? Is it a manifestation of a profound distrust of consumers to recognise ‘art’? What’s really going on here?

  14. What’s really going on here?

    This is what is going on here in my opinion:

    • Consumerist vision of music as a product.
    • Ever-shortening attention span.
    • Cultural dilution.

    See a pattern?

  15. nodesofyesod

    For me there is a wider picture to be recognised which the description of a track/song as a ‘unit’ of music touches on, and that is the commodification of music. While the supermarkets sell music purely as a loss leader to entice you into the store to buy the overpriced groceries, the kids talk about music in terms of sheer numbers. How many tracks are on your iPod? Not ‘which’ tracks, but ‘how many’.

    Nick tells me everything I need to know about his own engagement with recorded music from his loving descriptions of the actual act of preparing and playing the record. There’s a magical physicality to be found in taking a record from it’s sleeve that simply is not there using the scroll wheel of your mouse. In fact, this was such a large part of Nick’s post that I’m surprised no-one else picked up on it. For me, the act of playing a record or a cd is part and parcel of the experience and enjoyment music brings to my life.

    As an aside, I also find it interesting how, even in these rarified circles, musical snobbery comes in to play. While Nick based his piece around an undeniable classic example of ‘the album’, I don’t believe he was creating a set of conditions to which one type of music or another should be held. Any genre of music is perfectly capable of producing exceptional work, even ‘synth-pop’ to borrow a particurly archaic phrase from one of the posters. I can think of several ‘synth-pop’ artists, such as Depeche Mode and Pet Shop Boys, for whom the album was far more than a marketing device to profit from a hit single.

    I’m at a loss to determine what a ‘real’ artist is. Excluding the obviously charlatan Milli Vanillis of this world, the majority of rock and indeed pop music that finally breaks through to the mainstream these days has usually been a hard won success. It’s all “real” music.

    One further observation (if anyone is still reading) is that, at least here in the UK, vinyl production is on the increase. All indie/rock artists usually still release a 7″ format. In the early 00s these were in numbers of 1000 but now they’re in 5000s. Small numbers maybe, but it’s a nice growth that’s bucking the trend.

  16. I think the main point is Weinberger’s ignoring a major part of record history – the song-unit vinyl market – because it doesn’t support, even contradicts, the story he wants to evangelize (Old Media Bad, New Media Good).

    You can run this same template for anything, e.g. imagine:

    “For decades we’ve been watching TV half-hour comedy shows and hour-long dramas. We thought it was for artistic reasons, but it was really because the economics of the pre-Internet world required it: As soon as video went digital, we learned that the natural unit of video is the scene. Thus was YouTube born, a miscellaneous pile of 3.5 million scenes from a thousand citizen-producers. Anyone can offer video there without first having to get the permission of a network executive.”

  17. I had some very long thoughts at my recently restarted blog: The natural unit of music marketing is…

  18. Anyone using the words “normal” or “natural” is spining.

    Weinstein misses what seems to be an essential point: what all technologies allowed is for someone to decide what is the proper format for his work, and how units (whichever they are) should be organized. I look forward to have my brother’s cut on the Beatles–because he is a great fan, and he could set an refreshing light over fantastic albums. Try http://djzebra.free.fr to ear what I mean. Interpretation and recording can merge–and that is good news.

  19. Laurent Caillette

    I keep all my music on CDs because CD supports clean transitions between tracks. Track-oriented music doesn’t. I don’t like “best of” albums neither because they sound like a patchwork with out-of-context pieces. Considering the track as natural music unit is like claiming artists don’t have consistent ideas past 4 mn. By the way a great piece of music can keep my attention up for one hour.

    In his comment, Seth Finkelstein’s shows how Weinberger’s purely economical approach absurd is. As a general rule, we want more immersive cultural experiences. Movies are getting longer than ever through multi-season series. Novel books don’t get thinner and chapters are not sold individually.

    I see per-track music as the result of two limitations:

    1) Some artists are really screwing us, filling their album with 80% crap. It’s not true for artists who matter.

    2) Current standards for digital music don’t help reproducing the same experience as a full album.

    Thanks to Nicolas Carr for debunking a nasty piece of economical propaganda.

  20. Great post Nick.

    Looking past the debate behind the motivation of bundling songs into albums, I think spinning the Internet as some sort of positive evolutionary step is just silly.

    Our attention spans are shrinking – rapidly. Two minute videos. Three minute .99 cent songs. Five sentence blog posts. Our willingness to tolerate anything that requires any sort of focus is dwindling into nothing.

    And then there’s another problem…the physical artifact – is dying. No more watching someone unwrap a gift, or HANDING someone a CD to borrow. The stuff just isn’t there.

    I wrote a blog post about this a few months ago, and John Updike spoke about this in terms of books:

    http://www.basement.org/archives/2006/06/your_edges_are_our_edges.html

  21. alan

    I heard this http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=10286252 NPR piece yesterday. Have we come full circle? It offered a context that for me at least stretched the brain a bit. Whilst one naturally relates to historical context through ones own experience the facts, as given from one point of view in the above linked content, really do shed light upon subjective experience.

    “As soon as music went digital, we learned that the natural unit of music is the track. Thus was iTunes born, a miscellaneous pile of 3.5 million songs from a thousand record labels.”

    David’s take might not have goaded Nick’s response had it read like this.

    As soon as music went digital, I realized that the format of the track was the format for me. Was iTunes born because others had the same experience? Alan.

  22. Larry Cannell

    Yes, there are some great album sides (side 1 of Kansas Leftoverture, Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon, for example).

    But, we can only point to a handful of good albums out of the millions that were produced. Most of these were filled with junk.

    How often did radio stations, even those who called themselves “Album-oriented Rock”, play an entire side? If they did, it was a special event, usually late at night.

    You can keep you scratchy LPs. I like digital music and I like playlists. I am discovering, and enjoying, more new music now than ever before.

  23. Nick,

    Everyone loves to say this-or-that thing is “dead”–and the album is a perennial target. But doesn’t it feel like this is a temporary state of affairs?

    Yes, popular music and the ways it’s distributed these days are mostly garbage. And there’s absolutely something special about vinyl for music fans with the system and the ears to appreciate it. But that doesn’t mean people aren’t innovating.

    Here’s an example of a compilation album distributed via memory stick.

    Or how about DJ’s who are using programs like Serato’s Scratch Live to play mp3 and wav files on turntables, so they can adjust the pitch in real time?

    Still, you’re right. The plates have shifted, but it’s not that the album is (or newspapers) are dead.

    I’m an occassional iTunes shopper, but I still collect vinyl by artists who made the record for that specific purpose. The thing is, it’s people like us who actually give a damn. So-called record labels have to keep surprising us or they–and not the album as format–will die.

    -Robert

    (The good/bad news for this debate is that iTunes is about to get beaten up by Amazon.)

  24. nodesofyesod

    Larry, if you’re discovering more new music now than ever before (which backs up my assertion that discussion of digital music is done in terms of quantity of music) then I am very surprised you can only point to a handful of albums that are deserving of this status. By any average critical reckoning there have probably been 20 or 30 albums this year alone which fall into this so-called ‘proper’ album category. Hell, even pop artists like Avril Lavigne have albums with all songs interwoven both thematically and emotionally.

    I guess it’s all about choice. Because I didn’t have the freedom of choice to buy individual tracks as a younger person I see at as yet another loss to the opposing forces of instant gratification. All I know is that some of those tracks hidden away on an album, perhaps originally overshadowed by the obvious hit singles, wouldn’t have become the songs you really fall in love with once you start listening to an album proper. If The Byrds’ Mr. Tambourine Man album had been available track by track I probably wouldn’t count “Bells of Rhymney” as an all-time favourite. Same goes for “(I Am) The Resurrection” by the Stone Roses.

    Is there any longevity to be found in music any more? My nephew recently got some new music for his iPod, and just deleted a few albums to make room for it, when he probably wouldn’t have thrown physical albums out.

  25. Oh, this is a wonderful post. My dad was in the music business in the 50s in New York and I actually remember the joy of the advent of LPs, when artists could truly develop a theme in an album. Not that single tracks are bad, but I’m not sure they define an artist’s “oeuvre.” They are like poems, that should be combined into a book of poetry, or flowers, that look best arranged in a vase.

    Crap, I’m old!!!!!

  26. Larry Cannell

    Nick, I guess I am not that interested in finding a good album. I am mostly interested in finding music that I like. No, that doesn’t necessarily translate to the latest hit (actually, it rarely does).

    I am willing to listen to a few artists’ full album, but they are rare (Toby Lightman, for one, recently won me over). Perhaps I am after a wider variety of music rather than understanding the message of an individual album.

    So while you are focused an entire album you may also be missing the opportunity to listen to a more diverse selection of music.

  27. Since when does “music” mean “popular music?”

    The idea that a track is the “natural unit of music” is shaky even in that context, but absurd when considering works like symphonies and operas.

    Nick’s invocation of “Roll Over, Beethoven” wasn’t just a clever line, and his history of the LP wasn’t just about formats and technology.

  28. Chris Anderson

    Nick,

    Do I get any points for getting the Gang of Four reference? I had you pegged as a shameless nostalgist till then ;-)

    Oh wait. The GoF are 20 years back. Crap. Me too.

    Chris

  29. Hey, Chris, “Natural’s Not In It” was recorded in 2005. Some claim that’s the definitive version.

    I’m not sure which way this fact cuts in the current argument.

  30. Nick Carr

    I hate to break it to you, Chris, but Gang of Four go back 30 years. I saw them, btw, at some university in London in late 1979 or early 1980 with Delta 5 and (I think) the Au Pairs. Oops. More nostalgia.

  31. Upon long consideration, it seems to me that the “natural unit” of music in the digital age is 1/44100th of a second. That is one sample at 44.1khz, CD quality. Use as many units as you like.

  32. Condo

    As for nostalgia, I can recall that the first time I heard the first few tracks of Gang of Four’s “Songs of the Free” was on a cassette in Nick’s car.

    As for Nick’s claim to have seen Au Pairs circa 1979, I remember the poster on the kitchen wall of the house he and his friends rented from Ed Dickman.

    As for Weinberger, it’s my guess he was in grad school when Floyd’s “Dark Side Of The Moon” was released and he’s never recovered.

  33. David Weinberger has replied:

    “So, I don’t agree with the characterization of the argument of the book he derives from this one phrase. I’m disappointed that Nick found this sentence to be a “stopper””

  34. Nick Carr

    I kind of hate to add this comment because the current comment count happens to stand at a perfect “33,” but I need to point out that what stopped me on page 9 was less the sentence about the natural unit of music being the track and more the two sentences that preceded it: “For decades we’ve been buying albums. We thought it was for artistic reasons, but it was really because the economics of the physical world required it.”

  35. what stopped me on page 9 was less the sentence about the natural unit of music being the track and more the two sentences that preceded it

    Yes – I thought this was staringly obvious myself, but apparently not. I reminded David that he’d omitted to address this point on the EiM blog. I found his response a bit disappointing, but not quite enough to come back at him again.

  36. Nick Carr

    By the way, Phil, when will we see your review of “Everything Is Miscellaneous”?

  37. Nick,

    You and Chris might not be arguing over Gang of Four cred if iTunes weren’t ignoring the long tail. They only sell “Return the Gift” and “Entertainment!“–but it’s the remastered (’05) version–not that you’d know the difference since it’s a low bit-rate download.

    Kinda funny… the CD version of “Return the Gift” comes with a real dollar bill in the plastic. Sounds like a stab at downloaders to me. I reckon that’s fairly punk rock.

  38. Nick Carr

    Not arguing, reminiscing.

  39. Pardon me. At 28, I’ve gotta rely on borrowed nostalgia–and the one time I saw them play at the Magic Stick in Detroit a couple years ago.

    So, really, the albums of that era (and everything before it) are all I’ve got.

    Sounds like good times, though…

  40. when will we see your review of “Everything Is Miscellaneous”?

    I’d have to read the book first, and that would entail buying it. (I took David up on his offer here, but no dice, or at least no freebie.) It would be an interesting book to review, though – I sympathise with and value about half of what David writes, but the other half strikes me as mostly wrong, mostly trivial when it’s not wrong, and sometimes pernicious when it’s not trivial.

  41. the albums of that era (and everything before it) are all I’ve got.

    Sounds like good times, though…

    They certainly were. Something with the uncompromising title of “The Socialist Unity Blog” recently ran a great couple of posts about what punk was like to live through. (Sample title: “I’m so bored with the Clash”.) I won’t link it here, but it’s easy to find.

  42. Meant to add: the other thing we ‘discovered’ with iTunes was that the natural condition of the music audience is the isolated individual in complete control of his/her cocooning sound world – or, for a bit of variety, surrendering complete control of his/her cocooning sound world to a computer. My girlfriend used to hate listening to the tapes I made from the radio, because every few minutes she’d have to say “who’s this?” – and I’d tell her. That music was my world, with the emphasis on ‘my’. Guess I was ahead of my time.

  43. quang cao online

    I’ve listened to David Weinberger but i never read David Weinberger’s book, i will look for buying it.

  44. Guillermo123

    Nick: how about a re-posting of your “Long Player” post in honor of the May 18 release of a remastered “Exile On Main Street”?

    Here are Mich Jagger’s comments on the best way to listen to the album: “At the time Jagger urged that its four sides were best enjoyed in separate bursts. Forego the CD remaster for the vinyl companion and you’ll find that he’s right”

    http://entertainment.timesonline.co.uk/tol/arts_and_entertainment/music/cd_reviews/article7125456.ece