I have heard it bandied about that the mp3 and the iPod killed the album. The line of thinking goes like this: mp3s encourage a pick and choose mentality in listeners. It is easier to put together lists of songs that a listener loves, which means that they think in terms of playlists rather than records, which has led to a degraded importance of the longplay album as an art form. It’s true that the “mix tape” was a lot harder than the playlist, and piracy certainly did open up a lot of doors when it came to the ability for listeners to grab what they desired from an album. But while there may be some truth to this diagnosis, I prefer to lay the responsibility for the death of the longplay record as an artform at the foot of a different format. The mp3 may have been the final nail in the coffin of the album, but it was the CD that killed the full length LP.
“What?” I hear you yelling in faux shock in order to propel my #slatepitch forward, “CDs brought around the death of the single! In fact, there was even more focus on the format when the CD came about!” This may be true, but it isn’t the change in attitudes towards the album that caused the downfall of the record. It was a change in the technology’s affordances which I see as clearly at fault. Every technology has possibilities but also constraints; these are called affordances. Telephones, for example, were revolutionary because they allowed people to communicate in essentially real time over large distances. However, the telephone could not send images meaningfully, and was terrible at sending digital information—as those of us who used a 56kbps modem certainly remember. The CD also has its affordances and from the perspective of what CDs are capable, it made them far superior to vinyl and cassette tapes (lol) for a variety of reasons. While I support vinyl for reasons of nostalgia (and purchase vinyl because labels refuse to release vinyl mixes digitally), there is nothing inherently superior about the format. In fact, until I can purchase HD lossless files of everything I want online, the CD is still the best format on the market in terms of sound quality and long-term storage.
But what the CD had that the vinyl record didn’t have wasn’t just better sound and durability. It had a lot more space. Suddenly, artists had a lot more room to experiment, and with revolutions in digital recording records began to bloat. Once upon a time you had to be Pink Floyd to release a double album. Bands would, therefore, go into the studio with eight to ten songs, and then they would have the job of squashing the whole of what they had written down to 45-52 minutes. And 52 minutes was pushing it, in the era of vinyl as the primary musical format, records like Master of Puppets were actually the exception. Most albums were roughly 42-47 minutes—with some even being shorter than that. It was a simple economic question for most bands: labels would not give the funding to do more than a single LP and that was that.
I remember reading Rod Smallwood, Maiden‘s legendary manager, bragging about how Iron Maiden always gave listeners their money’s worth when they bought an LP. Specifically Maiden would work hard to make sure that they had enough material to fill up the format they were working with. And still, in order, through No Prayer for the Dying the records were 41, 42, 41, 46, 51, 52, 44, and 45 minutes long, respectively. Fear of the Dark? 59 minutes long and incidentally the first Iron Maiden record that featured generally loose songwriting1. Not that Fear of the Dark doesn’t feature some great stuff! It just sags under the weight of filler because they didn’t have to edit.
Maiden was not alone in this, even if they are the best example. Bands began filling out their albums with orchestral introductions, and in non-metal music there was the era of the “sketch scenes” like on Dr. Dre‘s The Chronic or “only fun one time” trick like Type O Negative‘s “Bad Ground,” which starts off October Lust with a stupid joke that no one ever heard more than once. The idea that there was an economy of space gave way instead to looser expectations about the stringency with which songs should be written. And, who knows, it may be that the reason bands that I love, like Opeth, were able to do what they did was because they didn’t have the constraints of the LP-length 45 minutes and an editor/producer breathing down their neck to “cut it down to 3:05.” But I suspect that’s not the case, or if it is the case that it’s more exception than rule.
And today? This shit is out of hand. While I like some long albums, bands produce way too many of them. The success of bands that are good at epic sounds has spawned imitators who write hour long (or worse) albums, and who apparently receive no pushback. But it’s not just second rate imitators who produce albums that require heavy doses of Valium to sit through. Once mighty in their songcraft, Maiden is even worse than they were in 1992, with The Final Frontier clocking in at 77 minutes and without a single idea having been edited out of anything that Steve Harris brought in with him.
I commented in my Angra review that the best artistic production comes out of hardship, but I don’t think that’s entirely true. In fact, I’d argue that much of the best artistic production comes out of constraints. Constraints force artists to get creative, and they force artists—maybe even more importantly—to choose. Authors have editors who rip their manuscripts apart. Producers, once upon a time, played a similar role for bands. Every record contains an idea that isn’t as good as the others. Every record has moments that don’t pop like the others, but artists don’t want to “kill their darlings,” as the phrase goes. What the vinyl did for many musicians was to force choices into the production, because the purse was being held by someone else who simply cared about the bottom line. In an era of relatively cheap production, digital storage, and a format that allows upwards of 75 minutes, though, it’s tough to justify saying no to an artist who is unwilling to take no for an answer.
It is this very fact—an unwillingness to edit—that has killed the album. Instead of the longplay record offering up an artfully presented idea in a limited space, listeners today are bombarded with massive soundscapes of unfiltered, unedited songs that dribble out of bloated records. Already this year we’ve received two double LPs, and neither of them were worth the effort. Remember GnR‘s Use Your Illusion records? One great record if you pick out tracks from both—two mediocre ones otherwise. System of a Down‘s Hypnotize and Mesmerize? Same problem. Opeth‘s Deliverance and Damnation? Ayup. And I shouldn’t just use double LPs as examples. The new Blind Guardian is 15 minutes too long. Desolate Shrine? I love it, but it easily could lose 10 minutes without suffering. When someone releases a 60 minute record or, Dio forbid, an 80 minute one, it has to be a triumph of extraordinary skill or inventiveness to be successful. Records of that length simply drag down under their own weight. When records are so dauntingly expansive, I do just want to take the songs I like and throw them in a playlist, leaving the chaff to rot on my external drive.
It’s time we admit to ourselves that editing is the problem, instead of blaming mp3s and iPods and Spotify for the downfall of the full length record. It seems clear to me, instead, that we can blame the fact that whole albums have gotten so fat on the technological affordances of digital media that musicians, producers and labels have forgotten Stephen King’s wisest words: “To write is human. To edit is divine.”
- I know that people are really hard on No Prayer for the Dying, but if you can listen to the album from start to finish for the songs, you’ll notice that the songwriting is actually extremely tight and the music is good—on par with Maiden‘s earlier stuff. Bruce Dickinson single-handledly harpooned that album by singing from his scrotum instead of his diaphragm. ↩