Monday Musing: The Ideology Of The Album

Posted on April 15, 2013


The critic goes outside.

The critic goes outside.

I’ve been wondering about the way that I choose what music to write about, what the reasons for those choices are, and what the consequences of them might be. I feel I’ve been fairly rigorous in examining the way I think and write about specific pieces of music in detail, and I’ve gone to the effort of engaging with (relatively) current schools of thought in critical theory in order to inform my thinking. But this basic question, related both to my personal tastes and to the utility of my blogging, has remained something of a black box. I decided to have a poke around and see what I could break…

I have certain criteria that a piece of music must meet before I’ll consider reviewing it. There are no particular standards of quality I apply, and I’m willing to write about music in any style, although I have some reservations about reviewing types of music that I don’t know much about: basically, if you send it to me, I’ll give it a write up. One set of criteria relate to the music’s release status: it must be available to my readers without too much effort on their part, either for sale or as a free download, but I won’t review something that’s only available to stream; and I will only review it as a coherent release, which means I won’t accept submissions of a bundle of random tracks on Soundcloud, even if it is possible to download them; the music must be presented in a recognisable format, an album or an EP or a single, and it needs to have cover art.

My overt reason for applying this set of criteria is a practical one, of utility to my readers; I want my reviews to be sources of information for listeners, rather than promotional vehicles for musicians, and it serves no purpose to recommend music to people if it’s unobtainable. Even if it’s possible for people to download the tracks involved, unless they’ve been packaged together as a release and decorated with some form of artwork, I generally take the line that the musicians haven’t made a reasonable effort to make their music available, and I won’t review it.

I do make exceptions; I recently reviewed a single by H.L.I. that was only available as a freebie to accompany their debut (album length) EP, which I’d already written up. I did so because it was at least packaged as a release, and because it was so fucking good I just had to write about it. Sometimes I chase up artists for artwork, on the grounds that they clearly intend to release the music properly in the future, or I’ll review demo CDs, or CDs that are only being distributed at gigs, and I usually make these exceptions because I have an existing relationship with the artist, or because I just happen to love the music.

On the whole though, I figure that if the artist can’t be arsed to make some effort in releasing their music, in a world where music is exceptionally easy to release, if they are going to place obstacles in the way of people hearing their music when no obstacles are necessary, then I can’t be arsed to write about it. I do, after all, do this for free and for fun.

Now this is is all very well, as far as it goes, and it’s my blog so I can do what I want, but there is definitely a bit of an ideological knot at the centre of all these criteria. I am making certain assumptions, and although I generally expend some effort in questioning the assumptions that inform my writing and criticism, I’ve never really bothered much about these ones. So let’s break it down a bit, and see what’s going on inside my knee-jerk prejudices.

It might be argued I’m stuck in the past; I subscribe to a paradigm of music distribution that was established under specific commercial and technological conditions that no longer apply. I’m a classic middle-aged white Bob Harris clone obsessed with obscure twenty minute album tracks so abstruse only I can listen to them. Well, that’s a characterisation that could lead me into a lengthy discussion of the false dichotomy between art music and pop music, which is of some relevance to this discussion, but peripherally. Best if I don’t get distracted…

Let’s look instead at the distinction between physical and digital releases. This is actually another false dichotomy; they are two categories of musical distribution, but they are not in some way ‘opposites’, and nor do they neatly divide the universe of possibilities into one thing or the other. I do however treat them slightly differently, in terms of submissions for review. If someone sends me a physical release to review, then it automatically gets given a feature review, and it gets reviewed before anything that’s been sent to me digitally. The reason I do this is that I appreciate the expense of sending me a physical package, particularly if it’s on vinyl, and I consider it a fair exchange: I swap reviews for music, and when the music represents a more significant personal expense to the artist or label submitting it, I reward it with a more substantial review. The only difficulty with this is that I now get enough physical submissions that I can’t give anything else a feature, and I have a number of digital submissions hanging around in the features folder that I really want to write up in detail, but they keep getting pushed back down the queue.

That’s fair enough you might think, but there are two issues there. Some music is so good that it demands to be written about, irrespective of the amount of money that’s been spent getting it to me; after all, since when did I think that capital had any relevance to artistic value? In effect this enables some artists to buy access to my blog. And the other thing, is that some music is released only in a digital format; why should that stuff miss out? It’s no more or less musically interesting, and represents no more or less of an artist’s effort, or of their ‘seriousness’ in releasing it. Ultimately, I wanted to solicit more physical submissions because I like them, and I’ll be quite content if I get so many that I have to revise my criteria for feature reviews; but the simple fact that I’ve allowed this distinction to function as a de facto arbiter of value is interesting in itself. There is an ideology at work there, one to which I would not explicitly subscribe, which says vinyl is better than a CD is better than digital. I’ve not mentioned cassette, but every format will find its place on that line.

Another important distinction is between streaming and downloading. I won’t review music that is only available to stream; physical releases or (paid or unpaid) downloads must be available to my readers. I put a link in my reviews to downloads rather than audio streams, and if I have a choice of embedded players to put in the review I opt for Bandcamp, where a click on the release title will take the listener to a place where they can ‘obtain’ the music. Note the quotes: there is a whole philosophical can of worms there, around the idea of music as an object, and I can’t get into it here, but it is obviously relevant. What is the difference between hearing a sound over the internet and by any other means? How is it of any relevance?

Well, for me, with my dodgy rural broadband and intermittent 3G coverage, offline listening is the norm (and music for review usually gets its closest attention while I’m walking the dog); for most people however, the difference is minimal, particularly with services like Spotify, whose player goes to some lengths to elide and obscure the distinction. However, I’m slightly happier with my default ideology on this; yes, I’m being old fashioned, thinking of music as something to ‘have’, to ‘collect’ rather than simply embracing the fact that I can instantly hear any track I want at (more or less) any time. But I’m also adopting a position that puts the control more securely in my own hands; my internet depends on other people, with their own interests, but my CDs, and the tunes on my hard disc, I can listen to wherever I have electricity (and even if the same Bad Men that control my intarwebz also control my electricity, I can always go and plug my laptop in at the library, or into my car, or something…).

So here, although there’s much to question in my attitudes and practices, at least my ideological conditioning conforms to my overt politics. The fact remains, however, that these factors serve to privilege certain long established ideas about music and resist the new kinds of listening and distribution practices that I spend so much time raving about to all and sundry. Am I a hypocrite? Possibly, but I think it’s fair to say that this is some pretty treacherous territory to negotiate.

I am definitely excluding whole areas of musical endeavour. Brazilian technobrega has received a certain amount of global attention for its ‘new media’ distribution methods; technobrega producers put their tracks out in the public domain, where street vendors make money putting them on MP3 CDs and memory sticks that they duplicate themselves. These sales serve as advertisements for parties, which is where the producers make their money, by selling CDs of the live DJ sets, whose value is enhanced by shoutouts to the punters. I’m not aware of any technobrega producers being anxious to get an Oliver Arditi write-up, but if they were, I’d be asking where the artwork was for their release, where my readers could download it, etc, and probably declining to review it. Ditto all the hip-hop that gets put out exclusively as YouTube videos.

Essentially, my insistence on particular submission criteria ensures that I and my readers will not be exposed to music that does not conform to a particular set of expectations about what characteristics music should possess as a commodity. It’s a classically ideological situation, in which a set of assumptions render their owner literally blind to anything that might contradict them. I’m not about to change my submission criteria, but at least I’m aware of the issue, which I guess is a good thing…

The fact is that not all the music that’s released sits easily within the traditional taxonomy of Western commercial music; not all recorded sounds are a single, an EP or an album. These are essentially arbitrary categories, determined by the limitations of particular, now long obsolete reproduction formats; the very concept of a ‘release’ is a product of the commercial era in musical distribution, which began with moveable type sheet music in the early nineteenth century, but which may now have exploded in so many simultaneous directions as to render such ideas irrelevant. Indeed, the online era in music witnesses a return to many of the practices that pertained around music prior to the commercial era: patronage, oral transmission, community based music making. The distribution of recorded music no longer requires any significant economic exchange, and we may expect the question of musical format to become moot. Well, I know it’s early days, but it hasn’t. A surprising number of people, who may well be producing and releasing their music in an entirely digital space, continue to employ the album format, and to refer to anything shorter, with more than say three tracks, as an EP.

The arbitrary structures imposed by the lengths of vinyl records and CDs did manage to hang around long enough that they became habit forming; artists (in jazz from the middle 1950s and in rock from the late 1960s) began to treat albums as formal structures, analogous to the sonata, or the novel. The practice emerged of either recording an album in a set of related sessions at a single recording studio, or of mixing and mastering it to give the impression that it had been. ‘Concept albums’ aside, composers began to write music in coherent suites of a length to fit on an album, or existing material would be selected for consistent qualities and similarities; where an album had once been a collection of single recordings, which might span many different sessions in different studios, it became possible to relate specific albums to specific creative stages in an artist’s career. The format became the long form for musicians newly empowered to regard their work as culturally and artistically worthwhile.

As such, the album remains a valuable cultural tool for many musicians, and it is also a useful marketing format, along with its short form companions the single and the EP; listeners are used to receiving music in these packages, and they are also used to understanding it in them. The formats stretch and morph under the pressures of the changing technological context, with albums like Steve Lawson’s 11 Reasons Why 3 Is Greater Than Everything beginning to exceed the constraints of even CD running time (or smash it completely, as in the case of the five and a half hour sludge/doom/hardcore compilation Paralysis Vol #1). Such releases would have once been packaged across multiple discs, and that formatting intervention would often become a formal one, with the different discs in a set being carefully programmed as separate episodes, or differentially themed; now there is no need to differentiate, although I personally find myself splitting extremely long releases into roughly hour long chunks for my own convenience.

So there is value in the album format, in my view; it’s something worth maintaining as a formal convention even if its technical justification has evaporated, but such conventions have value to specific groups of artists and listeners. Albums, and even EPs, and the very idea of the distinction between albums and singles, without which individual songs are just ‘tracks’, are a fetish of the culturally self-aware; as I’ve said, whole genres and styles have come and gone without recourse to the album format as a primary site of discourse, and it could be argued that this is the truly vital, significant, progressive bleeding edge of musical culture.

While I, my blog, and other people like me focus on the continuing value of established formal devices, we are unlikely to notice the world moving on without us. The kinds of music that truly engage numbers of people in such a way as to generate genuine grassroots fields of practice are unlikely to crop up on our radar; even the majority of hip-hop that gets sent to me for review (or that I listen to for fun) is firmly rooted in the 90s.

Staying abreast of the cutting edge has never been of any particular interest to me, fortunately. Or rather, the cutting edge of mass culture has not; I’ve always been interested in the progressive and forward-looking, but I’m committed, for political, ethical and cultural reasons, to the idea of organic discovery, and I will not let any kind of mass-marketing machine dictate to me what is and is not worth listening to. So I will come across what I come across, most of which will be utterly obscure, and much of which will be brilliant; life is far too short to even consider staying in touch with the cultural ‘big picture’, now that there is so much culture of every kind at our fingertips.

But until I stopped to think about it, I hadn’t realised quite how ideological my criteria were, quite how unthinkingly I bought into the myth of the album/EP/single triumvirate; like almost everything in our society, they may have many positive values that I am happy to endorse, but they are also instruments of control. Although they are no longer the exclusive weapon of choice for the music industry, they have been, and to some extent remain, tools for the concentration of cultural capital, for the articulation of a cultural hierarchy, for the naturalisation of certain sets of relations and practices.

While many artists whose work can be considered ‘outsider’ or ‘underground’ make use of these format categories, in ways that, it can be argued, subvert them, I have to recognise that my attitude as a writer and a listener serves to privilege certain forms of cultural activity for no better reason than their conformity to my expectations. This has not been a particularly comfortable understanding to reach, mainly because those expectations are not something I’m ready to relinquish: I will continue to apply the same criteria to review submissions, and hope that other bloggers will prove more flexible. Thinking about it can hardly hurt, and if I can provoke some debate, that would be even better…