Music Biz 2.0

What Is An Album Anyway?

It was interesting to read Michael Corcoran bigging up albums (and Jake Bugg‘s new album in particular) on the Village Voice site.  He concludes “The album is far from dead, it’s just that they’re not making very many great ones anymore”.

Artists work hard on producing albums and get peeved when everyone mixes the order, skips tracks or (heaven forfend!) just downloads the best songs. They feel like a director whose latest film is judged on a few clips watched out of order on Youtube. And yet most albums are NOT ‘complete artistic statements’. Think of it like this. Have you heard of an artist recreating an album live on tour from start to finish? Still rare enough to make headlines isn’t it? But when an orchestra plays Beethoven’s 5th symphony they NEVER drop a movement, change the running order or stick something from one of the other orchestral works in the middle. Why? Because it really is a unified work. Most albums just ain’t.

That said what we call an album can basically be one of three things. A photograph, a painting or (shifting from metaphor to description) a playlist. The first two are truly worthy to be called an album. The last isn’t.

The Album As A Photograph

Most photos are snapshots of a specific time and place. The archetypal musical ‘photo’ is a live album. But a focused period of time in a studio gives the same result. Albums like Back In Black, Whatever You Say I Am That’s What I’m Not and Revolver capture a band in a particular place and a particular headspace.

The more time, producers, studios or guest musicians you use, the less it becomes a unified photo and more of a collage where the elements might have been put together in any number of different ways with no real difference.

The Album As A Painting

A painting might have been worked on by an artist on and off for decades but it has a unifying overriding concept. It is a painting ‘of’ something even if that ‘something’ is abstract. The most obvious musical example is the concept album – The Wall, Operation: Mindcrime, Tommy – but the the album doesn’t have to have a narrative text to be a unified whole. It could be a response to the death of a loved one (Steven Curtis Chapman’s Beauty Will Rise, Reed & Cale’s Songs For Drella) an album of outtakes (Steal This Album), an unplugged record (Live In New York), a return to roots (Let It Be) or a genre exploration (Ry Cooder’s Jazz, Bjork’s Homogenic).

These two categories are worthy of the the name ‘album’. Perhaps one test would be “could you replace a track with one from another album? Would it sit well? Or stick out like an auto tuned pork pie at a straight to cassette tape bar mitzvah? The third category is …

The Album As A Playlist

A playlist can be well thought out or poorly executed but it is almost always arbitrary – nothing more than “These are my favourite pre-electric Dylan or post-Woodstock Hendrix or Weird Al food songs”. You may hate some songs. You may like the songs but not the running order. And you may be the head of A&R at Sony. But who says your playlist is the definitive one? Even if your ‘playlist’ is set in stone (or at least encoded as a CD) on Beyonce‘s latest record why should I (or anyone else) accept it?

Most ‘albums’ fall into the this category and have for decades. Which is to say they are not really ‘albums’ at all.

So it should come as no surprise to find consumers taking control of the playlist back from the content creators by downloading single tracks, partial albums, remixes and then listening to them in random (or no) order. The digital revolution gave people to tools to take control but iTunes didn’t create the situation. What ‘killed the album’ was 20 years of playlists masquerading as albums (not to mention the ‘2 singles plus 12 tracks of filler’ phenomena).

I love albums. But some bands aren’t cut out for them. Artists may lament the demise of the long player but it’s ridiculous moaning about the death of the album if you’ve never really made one.

Interviews Songwriting

Banker’s Hours And The Vanity Of Writer’s Block: David Bazan On Songwriting

Once you have young kids, your time belongs to someone else. How has having kids altered your writing schedule?

My arrangement with my wife even before we had kids was that I had to keep banker’s hours. Before we came to that agreement, we’d be sitting down to dinner and I’d leave the table to go write if I suddenly got an idea. And she’d just be sitting there alone. So finally she said, “You’re not going to do that to me. I’m not going to be with you if that’s the case.” And so I asked her how we could work it out, and I’ve kept banker’s hours for years when I’m at home.

I write when I’m on tour [just like the Beatles!]. Especially when I’m struggling with something like the last line of a verse and I can’t seem to get it, those lines tend to come to me when I’m driving. So having kids hasn’t really changed that. When I’m home, I’m theirs and I work hard at not having any ideas for songs when I’m with my family [just like Phillip Glass!].

What do you do when you get writer’s block?

When I get writer’s block, I feel like it’s a lack of vocabulary and that I need to recharge. So if I’m really stuck but I still want to stay actively engaged in songwriting, I’ll learn four or five covers. I’ll get inside of them and digest them. That will give me a renewed vocabulary and fodder for songwriting. Because if you think about how stuck you are, you’ll just get more stuck. I don’t want to just walk away and not participate in songwriting. I want to stay engaged, and learning covers really helps me. The next thing I know, I’ve got tons of song ideas.

Anthony Doerr told me that writer’s block is a failure of courage and that you can’t be afraid to write badly. That’s why people get stuck.

I agree. There’s an element of vanity to writer’s block. It’s usually because you don’t like what you are writing, not because nothing is coming out. I feel like each song I’ve written that I’ve really liked is a coup, in a way. It’s almost like I feel like I’m a sh***y writer who has managed to make 25 songs that I really like, so I totally agree with that. It’s me thinking that I’m a bigger deal than I really am when I get super discouraged.

I have a sanctuary notion in the early part of my writing process. I never know if I’m going to like something that I’ve written until way later anyway, so I prepare a sanctuary in my mind where my editor is just banished. He’s not allowed in. It’s like I’m just puking words onto the page. I’m actively trying to make stuff up, but I don’t allow myself to judge my writing during that initial period. Then later when I come back, most of it might stink. Given distance, I can tell what lines really work. But when I first write, I can’t tell the difference between what’s good and what’s bad.

David Bazan speaking to Ben Opipari. Read the full interview at Writers On Process

David’s song Magazine remains one of my favourite songs of the last few years. Check it out here.

Song Vault

Vengeance Is Mine

Can you see the heart inside a man?
Theology with Frank Black
Download     mp3 demo     Chords (pdf)     Lyrics (pdf)

Little man with an axe to grind
If I let you judge this world of mine
When you saw the millions awaiting trial
You’d lose you strength or lose your mind

Vengeance is mine

Shall I acquiesce to your demands?
Shall I place all judgement in your hands?
Can you see the heart inside a man?
Tell me, who should fall and who should stand?

Vengeance is mine

Cos you don’t know what you’re asking for
No, you don’t know what you’re asking for
You don’t know what you’re asking

You got a thimble full of righteous rage
I’ve seen every murder, every rape
Heard every victim’s cries of pain
Seen evil things done in my name

Vengeance is mine

© Matt Blick 2013