Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Albums away

I don't have an ipod or any other portable device for listening to recordings, but even so the spirit of the times is pretty clear: the age of the recorded album is long over. The album had quaint classical (or more precisely, Romantic) origins in collections of independent character pieces for amateur use, the name probably derived from the intimate private journal, the Poesie Album. With the invention of the long-play disc, the record album came into being and although some musicians composed directly for the new format, it thrived chiefly -- and for better or worse -- as a producers' medium. But while the record album was a tangible object like a sheet music album, its producers came not from the world of paper publication but from concert promotion, and the structure of the record album was that of an ersatz concert, and the power of concert promoters to determine the context in which music was received was significant.

But the structure of the new media players, and the manner in which recordings are now marketed has effectively ended the album's monopoly on the delivery of music. This brings real benefits -- an end to the programming tyranny of record producers and the compulsion to make music that fits into the durations of the media, and the shuffle effectively brings a chance element into our listening habits, which strikes me as healthy. But this brave new world of listening has limitations of its own, and chief among them is the fixed unit of commodification, the "song", identifying any given track as a song, regardless of form, duration, or provenance. Genres in which the pop song format is not the default, including most "classical" works are thus twice-disadvantaged in that they are ill-suited to the marketing unit or packaging, and worse, may suffer real loss of integrity, as, for example, movements of a multi-movement work get separated from one another.

I'm of two minds about this, on the one hand greeting the combinatorial and contextual anarchy introduced by the new delivery system and the removal of the middle-man/producer from the same, but on the hand, I have to recognize that there is an element of moral rights in allowing the integrity of an artist's work to be preserved when that is the express preference of the artist; to me, this is a simple matter of respect for others. Perhaps recordings could have an additional identification tag, indicating the preference by the artist that her or his work not be broken up or played outside of certain contexts (for example, a liturgical work might reasonably be restricted to liturgical use). A change in public understanding of such situations from a legal to a moral context would certainly be a move in the right direction.

1 comment:

Herb Levy said...

If you can spend US$149 or more on an ipod, you don't have to listen to individual tracks shuffled. You can hear them in any order you select, either as a discrete album, a collection of tracks by a particular composer or performer/ensemble, or any user-defined playlist of your choice.

Further, if you copy music from CDs rather than downloading it (& given the comparative audio quality, why would you want to do otherwise?), you can easily "join tracks" so that even if you do use shuffle mode, each track can be a complete work, rather than some subset of a work. Eventually (if it's not already, I don't download much of anything) this option will become available for music that's downloaded.

You can also change any of the ID tags for a recording if, as happens all too often, the only available listing for a recording includes either more or less information than you find useful about the composer, performers, movements, etc in those fields.

So if you care about albums, or multi-movement works of any kind, as discrete entities, they can still be dealt with as "real" objects, even in the world of ipods, if not all mp3 players.

If, on the other hand, you want to have the opportunity of randomizing audible units even smaller than a single track, that can be done as well.

It's all just a matter of how much control the listener wants to take when using these things.