Ramblings | January 27, 2014

Thinking Outside The Album

Being an inveterate devil’s advocate I could hardly write a post on the Art of the Album without commenting from the other side of the fence. Having posted at length about how the album is still a relevant form today, I now want to talk about how it is also an unnecessary straitjacket in the world of digital music.

Going back to my earlier post, a key point in the reasons for the development of albums was to do with commercial realities. There is a great deal of overhead in releasing music. To a large extent, the physical costs are pretty much flat whether you are releasing 1 minute or 1 hour, and even when you start thinking about double albums, the costs only go up marginally for that extra piece of plastic. This means that it makes sense to package several tracks up and release them all in one go, because those expenses get spread further.

In the digital world, the exact opposite is the case, at least as far as sales go. The costs involved are primarily bandwidth for delivering the files, and that is directly proportional to the amount of music you’re buying. A one hour release costs sixty times more to deliver than a one minute release. Of course, distribution is not the only factor and the actual production costs of the music in the first place need considering, but aside from this the main cost is typically marketing in all its forms.


Given all of this, why do we still release music in albums? Despite my previous blog arguing the case for the album, I wouldn’t claim that it’s always the right format for a release and indeed, waiting until you have enough music of similar character to make a cohesive album can be very counter-productive. While I have a strong idea in mind for an album of mostly instrumental prog-rock, I also have a growing collection of songs which I don’t feel need to be packaged up as a whole. They are for the most part stand-alone tracks, but until I have an hour’s worth of similar material, they won’t see general release.

This is exactly the sort of thing that digital distribution should be ideal for but my recent interaction with various online digital distribution channels has shown a surprising focus on releasing music in units of whole albums even if it is being sold most commonly as pick-and-mix singles. Almost everywhere I’ve looked wants you to upload a whole album at once, rather than the free form “as and when their ready” stream of tracks.

I don’t tend to write music 12 songs at a time, I write it here and there as the inspiration strikes me. It seems to me therefore that a much more sensible way for me to be releasing songs would be one by one as I feel they are ready. Not as artificial snapshots of a moment in time when the sufficient-material-ometer reaches the top of the scale, but as an ongoing stream of activity. Rather than needing a big advertising campaign on release of an album to re-engage the fan base (“The long-awaited follow up album to 2009’s hit release, We’ve Got Enough Music Here“) it would be more of an continuous conversation, with more scope for a dialogue with the listener (“The feedback on last month’s Fifty Notes On A Mellotron was really positive so I’ve been exploring the idea a bit more with Fifty Notes On A Fender Rhodes“). It’s also an approach that would work well with micro-payments.

To some extent I suppose the main argument against this approach is that the music industry is simply not set up this way. Record companies, marketing departments, charts and even listeners are used to working a certain way and things which don’t quite fit the norm end up facing a bit of an uphill struggle trying to fit a system not designed to accommodate them.

But the point as a small, independent artist is this: you already don’t fit the system, or more to the point the system doesn’t fit you. Its focus is on the mass appeal money-spinners, not the small independent artist. Why not embrace the fact that you’re different and think about engaging with your listeners in a way that suits you, whatever that is, rather than the just the way it suits the rest of the industry? Personally I will be looking into practical ways of releasing music on a more ongoing basis at some point, but more generally I think we as musicians should be finding ways that work for each us and for our listeners rather than all following the herd.

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