“Ode To The LP” or… Why iTunes Is Killing The Musical Experience

Last night I encountered the most elusive of musical creatures… the perfect album. That’s right, last night I listened to an album and when all eleven tracks were done playing  I  realized that I had not been tempted to skip a single song. I liked every single one… hence… the perfect album.

I won’t even bother to mention the particular album since “likes” and “dislikes”, let alone “perfect”, are highly subjective with it comes to musical taste, but it did get me thinking about the state of the musical experience. More accurately, it made me realize what a shame it is that albums are a dying breed and, as a result, fewer and fewer people will get to enjoy the “aha!!” moment I had when running into such an album.

For those who have never seen one in the wild, an “album” predates the iTune’s. It is a collection of songs that are released together in a single format and, as such, are intended to be enjoyed as a unit. When I was a kid albums were also called LPs (long-playing records). According to Wikipedia,

Long-playing (LP) record albums are 33? rpm vinylgramophone records (phonograph records), generally either 10 or 12 inches in diameter. They were introduced unsuccessfully by RCA in 1931 and successfully by Columbia in 1948, and served as a primary release format for recorded music until the compact disc began to significantly displace them by beginning of 1988. In the 21st century, a renewed interest in vinyl has occurred and the demand for the medium has been on a steady increase yearly in niche markets.[1] The long-playing record is an analog format. The digital recording of sound was only made practical by the technical advances inmicroprocessors and computing which occurred in the 1970s and 1980s.

Sadly, when I tried to type “LP” the first few times my iPad didn’t even recognize it. That is how far we have come from the days of the long-paying record album.

An album draws together a series of tracks that the artist or record producer thought belonged together. These eight to twelve individual songs are tied together and a larger unit is created.

Sometimes the grouping of songs, that is the “album”, has an over-arching theme or storyline such as Styx’s “Kilroy Was Here”. (Hey, love it or hate it the album was and remains a pretty darn creative work by Dennis DeYoung and crew and Mr. Roboto is a classic…) At other times the album is just a collection of tracks by the artist with no clear relationship from one to the next other than being created by the musician or band at one specific point in their musical evolution. (Hence the reason individual albums often hold together far better than greatest hits collections.)

I came of age listening to WDHA “The Rock of North Jersey” (now just “New Jersey”). They really got the concept of the album and, as a result, would play an entire album each night at 11:00pm with just one break as they flipped the vinyl over and paid the bills with a commercial or two. (Yes Virginia, there was a day when albums had an “a” and a “b” side.) I must confess I spent many a night waiting until 11pm so I could hit “record” on my tape deck and let the recording run straight through. (I know… not good… but I was a kid and I DID end up buying most of the albums I recorded just so I could have the vinyl and the album cover and insert art.)

The thing about purchasing and listening to an album was that on any given album there would usually be a couple of songs you loved, a couple of songs that were just okay and one or two you didn’t like at all. And because vinyl (and later cassette tapes) made it difficult to jump from one track to another you usually just ended up enduring the tracks you didn’t like. (That is, unless you made your own mix tape.) The upside of purchasing an album was that you would purchase (or record) an album because you liked a track or two and then, once you were listening to it, discover a few more that you liked or loved but would never have heard had you not gotten the album in the first place. In fact, often the “best” track on the album often ended up being one that you would never have even heard were it not included on the album.

Then along came the CD.

The digital nature of the new medium meant it was suddenly possible, and easy, to jump from one track to another. This was, on one level, a great thing since it meant that when you got to a track you didn’t like you could simply skip it. There was, however, a downside. You see, sometimes it takes more than a listen or two to like or even appreciate a song. Give it some time and a track you didn’t like initially might actually become a favorite.

(I had this experience with Massive Attacks “Heligioland”.  I didn’t like the album at all the first time I heard it. By the second or third listen, however, it became a current favorite.) Skip the song because you didn’t like it the first time and this might never happen.
There was another issue with the new “skip ability” of digital music- it paved the way for the “iTunes single download”.

Nowadays it is far more likely for someone to download a song or two for $.99 or $1.29 each rather than buy  the entire album for $10 or so. Sure, it is more cost effective and means you don’t “waste” money on tracks you don’t like but it also means the other tracks on an album (often the “better” ones) go unheard and the ones that take a few times to appreciate and enjoy are never given a chance. Yes, I know 45s existed in parallel with lps but they were largely the gateway to buying an album. And even when they weren’t, at least they included a “b” side track so you were exposed to one more song than the one you actually bought.

And that is the shame with the current situation. The practice of individual downloaded tracks narrows the end-user’s music experience and keeps them from being exposed to the larger catalogue of an artist’s work. Just as RSS feeds just give us the specific news we want and, in the process, limits our field of knowledge and understanding of world events, individual musical downloads limit the musical experience we might otherwise have.

In short, iTunes (and to a lesser degree Amazon’s digital downloads) have brought the album to the edge of extinction. It is a shame for a host of reasons, not the least of which is that it means people will never have the wonder of the experience I had last night when I realized I had discovered a “perfect album”.

Categories: Editorials


26 replies

  1. ?Ode To The LP? or? Why iTunes Is Killing The Musical Experience #gadgets http://bit.ly/cb7A5L

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  3. RT @gadgetfreaks: "Ode To The LP…or Why iTunes Is Killing The Musical Experience" #gadgets http://bit.ly/cb7A5L -> 110% agree

  4. Reading – “Ode To The LP” or… Why iTunes Is Killing The Musical Experience http://bit.ly/bs9KYA

  5. “Ode To The LP” or… Why iTunes Is Killing The Musical Experience …: For those who have never seen one in the wil… http://bit.ly/97W3H1

  6. “Ode To The LP” or… Why iTunes Is Killing The Musical Experience http://bit.ly/bjVdM4 via http://topicfire.com/Gadget

  7. I’m not sure iTunes all by itself is killing the LP (or the album for that matter) – the big music conglomerates who fancy themselves the judges of music helped do that back during the late 80’s, in my opinion. Look at when singles were basically abolished in favor of CD’s full of crap which was used to pad out a CD which really was only there for one song. It’s not like Pink Floyd or some of the older artists who tried to make something that wasn’t an album so much as an auditory experience/musical art (which you needed a full album for), but more bite-sized bits of generic bubblegum pop or over-commercialized crap which sounds like what the artist released last month… and which has been trimmed to fit into a radio playlist.

    We’ve been training people for the past 15-20 years to basically listen to songs as a one-shot, disposable item with mediocre albums and self-styled ‘artists’ who have been propelled to greater fame than they could otherwise have claimed if not for the marketing machines of the Music Industry. Digital music and the ability to reorder playlists (which I admit I will shamelessly abuse with some genres) isn’t so much the reason for the LP’s death so much as a by-blow.

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  9. RT @geardiary: "Ode To The LP" or… Why iTunes Is Killing The Musical Experience http://bit.ly/cowzR9

  10. The CD ruined me! I can barely listen to an entire song without clicking next. It is like I have become music attention deficit.

    • Actually, iTunes has made this worse for me. At least with the CD, all of the songs were there and I usually got to them. Now I pick through what I want and don’t want immediately and never hear the other tracks.

  11. Depends on the band. I don’t think it’s a iTunes thing exclusively. The music industry likes one hit wonders now. It is RARE that a artist can put together an album that has 11 songs on it that each are hits by themselves. Most artists can’t even pull it off for 5 of those songs let along the whole album. It’s the bubble gum pop crap that our kids like to listen to that spurs this on. Jonas Brothers (YEEECH!) and other bands like it plus the Nickelodeon created bands like the Naked Brothers Band and Big Time Rush and other non talents being made to sound like they ARE talented. That is the problem. That and the artists we like are getting old.

  12. Ok, I listened to two albums all the way through today. I forgot how much I enjoy that! Even found a couple of songs I like that I wouldn’t have listened to before probably.

  13. On the one hand, I almost exclusively buy ‘full album’ and make a new playlist and listen to it in its entirety several times before passing verdict on any song or album.

    But the thing is – what are some of the best selling albums ever – greatest hits collections. Why – *MOST* albums by even the greats are ~50% ‘filler’ or more.

    Blaming it on iTunes is completely off-base- the trend started 20 years before, and got into full swing in the MP3 piracy era …

  14. Michael, you make some good points but “completely off-base”? I don’t think so.

    Before I wrote the post I spoke to a number of the teens with whom I work and the facts came up the same over and over again. Rarely do they buy complete albums. Why? Because iTunes makes it simple for them to hear a bit of a track and then buy selectively. The result is that they almost exclusively buy “singles” which is something that was not possible when I was a kid.

    The current situation has some positive and some negative aspects and I was simply trying to point out one of the negatives.

  15. Dan: iTunes makes it convenient to sample songs, but to say it’s the primary reason is a bit misleading. We used to have a thing called ‘radio’ which also let us sample songs and listen to them before buying albums… and when digital music distribution showed up, it followed a set paradigm, as established by CD’s way back when, which let you skip directly to the song you wanted, instead of just showing a time and making you guess which track that was.

    And, by that point, singles began to fade away to be replaced by CD’s full of filler, as production costs meant you had to fill the whole disc to be worth it, and the big music companies pushed their products to release more regularly. If you grew up with that crap as being your preconception of what an album is, then you KNOW there’s no point to buying a full album as most of the songs on it are mere filler, with only the odd one sparking interest otherwise… and that one may get radio airtime.

    You might want to look at the circumstances that led to those buying habits before passing judgement.

  16. RT @khouryrt: Reading – “Ode To The LP” or… Why iTunes Is Killing The Musical Experience http://bit.ly/bs9KYA

  17. iTunes is “killing” the music experience? Not really. I think that it is totally correct to say that iTunes (and the rest of the Internet Age) are CHANGING the music experience, but killing it? Not even close. In some ways iTunes and similar services may have saved what had been a dying business.

    The situation is really multi-fold. First, as was already pointed out – MOST albums were not a great end-to-end experience and most people realized they were buying an album really only for a couple of songs. The albums that were really, truly, meant to be listening experiences -end to end- were extremely few and far between. Most of us just lifted the needle to only listen to the songs we wanted anyway! Why do you think “mix” tapes became popular? Easy! To avoid the crap!

    Now one thing that you have totally not mentioned is how products like iTunes let you easily find music that is similar to what you already have. Yes, many people don’t use those “genius” settings, but they are there. And let’s not forget how random skipping through your iTunes libraries lets you “rediscover” titles you may not have heard in a very long time! That last item is, in some ways keeping back catalogs alive that might otherwise totally disappear! The current focus on “pop” records and “bubblegum music” has come and gone numerous times in the rock era and It’s a cyclical thing. I, for one, believe that “this too shall pass”. It always does when folks get tired of the bubblegum. It isn’t an iTunes thing – it’s the nature of the business – nothing more.

    Now widen the discussion a little bit more and iTunes and other Internet sources have opened many people up to music they could NOT have easily come in contact with during the LP or CD eras because there was simply no good medium for the sharing/transmission of independents back then (not on anything approaching the scale of the Internet). This means that independents have a MUCH better leg up than they did in the past. Does this mean they will be more successful than before? Maybe – maybe not – you can argue that the chances of real visibility for independents is still pretty low, but it IS higher than it was before where your only hope was to get seen at a local venue or heard on local radio and hope that the right person just “happened” to see you. Today, the chance for being seen and the avenues for being seen are certainly more open now than in the past! This is a big deal!

    So again, just because the LP format isn’t popular today doesn’t mean it’s decline is the same thing as “killing the musical experience”. It’s not. The experience is changing and in both good ways and bad. So please, let’s not forget the good ways!

  18. Chris- some EXCELLENT points here. I’m not going to go through point by point but I do want to comment on two things-

    First- The “killing” aspect of the post was referring to the fact that when you buy music one track at a time you won’t ever get that “aha” moment that comes with listening to an album in its entirety and discovering a tune you didn’t know was there. That aspect of the musical experience IS dead if you only buy one track at a time and iTunes makes that much easier than ever before.

    It is not that I am an iTunes-hater- far from it. That where all my music resides and I am pretty much exclusively i-devices these days. I’ll even go so far as to admit that I love the “other who bought have also bought” and the “genius” features. All good points you made and all reasons to love iTunes even while recognizing the negatives.

    Second- You write-
    “And let’s not forget how random skipping through your iTunes libraries lets you “rediscover” titles you may not have heard in a very long time!”
    So true.. so very true… but if you buy one track at a time, as so many of my students do, you will only rediscover specific tracks you bought and, again, you won’t have the moment of “aha” when you discover a track you didn’t intentionally buy but discover you love. And that was my point.

    Does it “kill” the experience? Of course not. That was hyperbole. But it does kill that particular aspect of the musical experience.

    On a different but related track- a friend read the post and emailed me a list of albums he considers “perfect”. (He also expressed the hope that the “perfect album” in question was not “Kilroy was here” (IT WAS NOT). I would be curious if others have “perfect albums” to share…

  19. Excellent points, Dan, except I don’t think kids are going to have those Aha moments because I think that record companies are producing albums like that anymore. We lost the double-album in the wake of CDs and the era of concept albums is not around anymore. So I’m nit convinced there are many aha moments to be lost these days. I do believe, however, that the “pop” phase is starting to run it’s course and what comes after will likely change how we buy again too.

    That said – I loved both “Eldorado” and “Out of the Blue” from the Electric Light Orchestra. The popular song “Mr. Blue Sky” is definitely different when heard in the context of the album. But I just don’t find stuff to be produced that way anymore. Personally, I think the era of CDs killed a lot of concept albums.

  20. Oh and “Kilroy was Here” was an interesting concept album and stage show, but it definitely wasn’t the definitive album from that group. Styx’s best album was probably something more like “The Grand Illusion”. :)

  21. Chris-

    Agreed but remember, kids can also pull from the albums of our childhood and teens years not just current music.

    Out of The Blue… One of the best concept albums ever.

  22. My ‘completely off base’ was more related to your choice of blaming iTunes for something that was WELL underway before iTunes came along.

    As an analogy you might as well blame the iPod for the decline in CD sales. Sure, you can chart the ascendancy of the iPod to a decrease in CD sales, but again, the MP3 player was well established and digital music on computers was already killing the CD in terms of sales.

    But as Chris said, we have to reflect on WHY this is happening. Is it because of iTunes or does iTunes simply reflect the majority opinion?

    And quite frankly, I once again go back to this: I would wager that 95% of ‘original’ records, INCLUDING those by the greatest artists of popular music, include 50% or more filler.

    There is a reason why everyone buys Eagles Greatest Hits, Steve Miller Band Greatest Hits, Rolling Stones Hot Rocks, John Lennon Shaved Fish, and so on …

    As for Styx – the best is *definitely* Pieces of Eight … still have that record that I bought new in the late 70’s.

    But while we’re playing the ‘great album home game’, here are 5 reasons Pro and Con for the demise of the rock music LP:

    5 Reasons the Death of the LP is Long Overdue:
    – Paul McCartney “Back to the Egg” … perhaps three decent songs with loads of crap.
    – U2 “How to dismantle an atomic bomb’ … one decent song and a load of self-indulgence
    – Kansas “Point of Know Return” … the two songs you know are the only thing worth hearing.
    – Styx “Pieces of Eight” … even their greatest record is fraught with mediocre songs
    – John Lennon “Imagine” … despite containing two faves (the title track and Jealous Guy) the rest is throwaway)

    5 Reasons to Mourn the Death of the LP
    – Pink Floyd “Dark Side of the Moon” … yeah, a cliche, but it really warrants continuous listening.
    – Beatles ” Sgt Pepper” … yeah, again with the cliche
    – The Who “Tommy” … sure there is filler as is true with all of these, but it is a monumental work and who would have bought Sparks or Underture based on a 30-second clip?
    – Frank Zappa “We’re only in it for the money” … from ‘Are you hung up’ to ‘the chrome plated megaphone of destiny’ … this is amazingly creative, musically inspired, and essential to listen to as a singular thought.
    – Moody Blues “Days of Future Passed” … some of it is terribly dated, but the majority holds up as a timeless classic …


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