A couple of years ago I wrote an essay on secure music, in which I suggested the factors that would make commercial music downloading acceptable to me, starting with the price, and I was interested to hear some industry analysts discussing the topic on CNBC. They made the same points I made regarding price: without the costs of pressing and stocking physical CDs, downloads should be a lot cheaper than buying a CD, which it is not, currently. When asked about this, a music industry representative tried to excuse this practice by talking about how they are seeing a shift away from albums, towards the purchase of individual tracks.
Haven’t we been here before? In the beginning, the record industry was a singles market, because of the limitations of the technology, but by the time the Beatles stopped touring and released Revolver and Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, it was clear that the medium had far more to offer. Today, are there really separate album and single markets? Looking at the charts, one might think so, but where do you draw the line? Currently, the industry can get away with selling singles, then re-selling the same songs as part of an album. Admittedly, they have made efforts to differentiate the singles from the album versions, with different mixes and unreleased b-sides filling them out, but the rise of downloads is a threat to this idea: if someone has downloaded a song, will they pay to download the same song again? In my opinion, this apparent reluctance to buy albums as downloads is not some kind of seismic shift, but a natural reaction to the current pop market: the high price of downloads means that consumers are reluctant to pay for filler, and many pop albums are full of filler.
So the current crop of manufactured pop stars are not able to sustain songwriting quality across an album, but what happens when we expand our horizons just a little? The few reviews I’ve seen of Gwen Stefani’s first solo album Love Angel Music Baby have been totally positive, one five-star review remarking that it’s full of great songs with no weak spots. I’ve only heard What You Waiting For, the first single, but even my jaded ears perked up to the point where I’m considering buying it. Gwen’s experience with ska rockers No Doubt seems to be standing her in good stead when it comes to consistency.
Straying just a little from the pop world, we have the curious case of Eminem, who seems to straddle the album and singles worlds quite successfully. Each of his albums to date has featured a few radio-friendly singles, which fit right into the iTunes format, but his albums have a clearly thought-out flow and track order to them. I don’t have his new album. but the previous one, The Eminem Show, is book-ended with “curtains” that mark the boundaries of the “show”, a conceit that the songs form part of an arranged stage show, but it also featured the smash hit Without Me glistening among much darker material.
So, are Love Angel Music Baby and The Eminem Show albums, or collections of singles? That’s my choice to make, as a listener, and the record labels need to consider both angles when determining pricing. Are we going to see separate album and single pricing? It wouldn’t be surprising to me if they did that, but it doesn’t make sense. Once a song or album leaves the mastering studio, in digital format, it is simply a collection of bytes that are shuffled around, and the storage and web service costs incurred by the record company are directly related to the file size – that is, per minute of audio data. Which has nothing to do with any marketing notions of “album” or “single”.
Strictly speaking, then, I might expect to pay for music by-the-minute, but I appreciate that would open up a whole new can of worms – knowing how easy it is to pad or extend a track. So, I would be happy to stick with song-based pricing for all songs, with bulk discounts, as long as all the prices drop significantly. I’m very much an album person – something to with having an attention span longer than a puppy’s – so I have to wonder how artists will maintain the freedom to experiment with formats and structures the way they did before. A perfect 3-minute pop song like Franz Ferdinand’s Take Me Out is a joy to behold, but it doesn’t have to be that way.
How would Pink Floyd, Yes, or even Radiohead, The Smashing Pumpkins and Red Hot Chili Peppers fit in to this structure, if they were just starting out today? All have created longer songs, though nothing as extreme as Yes: Tales From Topographic Oceans consists of four songs, but has over 80 minutes of music. I’m glad they did it, and I’m not surprised that no-one else since has gone to that extreme, but I accept no industry-imposed limits on song format, it’s up to the artist to impose such limits, or not. End of story.