Technology always helped bring the listener closer to the music. Progressing from wax tubes, to records, to cassettes, to CDs, each jump has benefited the music fan. But maybe it's gone a bit too far.
Admittedly, new music formats have always changed the way we listen to music. However, I don't think any have had such an effect over the last 60 years as the move to MP3 and other digital file formats. The advent of the 45 RPM single in the 50s is arguably the first big shift in the way popular music was consumed. Records went from longer-playing 78s and 33s, to the cheaper 45 format, which carried two or three songs on a disc, and became much more accessible for mass consumption. Soon, every big pop artist was releasing their big hits on 45s, and this became the main mode of consumption.
Then came cassettes, which shrank down the record onto magnetic film and brought the long-playing album back into vogue. Cassingles also remained popular among consumers, but the idea of the album as the main purchase was gaining steam again because tapes were more durable and easier to store. It also made it possible for people to record their own mixes very easily.
But the problem with all these analogue formats is that they wore down and degraded over time. Vinyl lost it's sound quality the more you played it, scratched easily, and storing it in the wrong place climate would warp it's shape. Tapes would sound muffled over time, and the actual tape could easily be spooled out from the cassette.
Enter the Compact Disc. Created as a way to prevent the degradation of sound over time, the compact disc ushered in the digital era of music, but it wasn't without complaints. Audiophiles said the sound was cold and sterile, and purists worried about the idea you could skip around the album order so easily, that albums were meant to be listened to sequentially, and not on one-track repeat for hits. It also wasn't impervious, still liable to scratching and subsequent choppy playback. Still, it was the best available option to get music to consumers, until the MP3.
Too Much Music
Sometimes, I feel the rise of MP3s made music too easy to obtain. Instead of taking time to appreciate good work, we now devour as much music as we possibly can. My music collection feels increasingly impersonal, to the point that I have albums I've forgot I downloaded. Sometimes I'll listen to an album I like just once, and never touch it again. Why?
Because at any given time, I have about 10-20 other new albums I'm wanting to check out. There's just not enough time to give every album the same attention, and when you try to really get into a handful of albums, you miss out on 100 other new releases.
The MP3 era is enabling the music junkie's futile quest to stay up on all music, at all times.
But that's not to say it's all bad. Albums that used to take me months to track down in the past can be found with a few minutes of google ingenuity. I've been able to listen to artists I might have only known by name in the past, and not have to wait for corporate America to make their music accessible to the masses.
Despite the greatly enhanced variety of music available to the average music listener, I feel like people's tastes are actually narrowing, more than they're branching out. Sure, the hardcore music fan will go out and dig out obscure artists in 20 different genres. But for the casual indie rock fan, it's just as easy to go out and find 20 other bands who sound just like Sigur Ros.
As a result, you find people digging deeper into genres that they really like, while ignoring the access they have to so many other great genres. The rise of internet forums and communities based around certain kinds of music have only helped listeners to identify with other like-minded individuals and firmly entrench themselves.
However, the rise of unclassifiable, genre-free music this decade would seem to go against my notion of narrowing tastes. Fans have embraced musicians who pull from a variety of seemingly unrelated influences, and reassemble the parts into a whole new beast.
Artists as big as Timbaland, as small as the Avalanches, as weird as Flying Lotus, or as colorful as M.I.A have all made a name for themselves by consciously ignoring the boundaries of genre. And as a result, I've seen myself and many of my friends digging into genres, past and present, they previously had ignored. We're better music fans because of this.
The Death of the Album, The Rise of Musical A.D.D.
I blame the iPod. Before MP3s, when you wanted to listen to something, you at least had to insert a complete album, or at least take the time to piece together a mixtape. Tracklists meant more back then, because it was more difficult to rearrange the order (save for the skip/shuffle functions).
These days, you can crap out whatever you want into an unfocused playlist and take it on the go. Add or subtract songs in a matter of seconds, it's a thought-free process. There's no need to give a whole album the time of day anymore when you can just add your favourite. We all have Musical A.D.D.
But the truth is, I'm just being a paranoid purist. When CDs first came out, vinyl purists lamented how too many tracks were packed into the 74-minute capacity discs, and how easily people could just switch from track to track. Before that, the entire pop music culture was formed around 45 RPM singles in the 50s and 60s.
So while the crotchety old man in me wants to say that we need to preserve the complete album, the truth is that it's significance among music fans has always changed and evolved.
As much I want to say MP3s have ruined all our listening habits, the truth is, they've just pushed us into the next wave of music culture. Maybe it means the album tracklist really is dead. Maybe I'll only listen to a complete album once or twice from here on out. Or maybe it just means people need to start making more interesting albums worthy of such attention.