Home Desktop backgrounds About Attaboy the Archives Links elsewhere Photography Essays & writings Contact info Portfolio

June 19, 2003 — 10 AM

Attention K-Mart Shoppers: Track Five Is Now on Sale

Here’s an article about selling music online that gets it all wrong.

Sahar Akhtar argues that Apple’s iTunes Store, which sells individual songs for 99¢, will inhibit musical creativity by removing the incentive to produce full albums.

How many times have you bought a band’s album for an overplayed song, only to discover that the more gratifying tunes are the ones you’ve never heard before?

Well, that’s happened to me a few times, but how about this: how many times have you bought a band’s album for an overplayed song, only to discover that it was the only gratifying tune on the whole album and the rest is just empty filler?

The beauty of allowing people to easily purchase individual songs is that it liberates music from the $20 album format. There will always be bands like Radiohead that make Serious Albums that demand repeated listenings to gain the listener’s appreciation. And the people who enjoy that music (and I’m one of them) will buy the album because listening to just one of Thom Yorke’s floaty, distant wailing numbers isn’t really that enjoyable. There are songs I always skip when I listen to iTunes on shuffle because the songs don’t stand alone successfully. Yet somehow, in the context of an album, I enjoy them.

Equally though, there are many bands who shouldn’t be making fifty- and sixty-minute albums at all. Their skill lies in whipping off snappy numbers that are just perfect alone but are merely repetitive drivel when mixed with eleven other identical tracks. Or take classical music: most of it was written before recorded sound existed, and so the material is rarely album-length.

But now that iTunes and other online music vendors have finally arrived, don’t expect to experience that same epiphany in the future. iTunes is helping to usher in an era where songs are sold individually, thus putting an end to what I call “bundled innovations.”

You can buy individual chicken parts at the grocery store — the breast, the drumsticks, the wings — but people still buy whole chickens when they want to feast. When I can get a taste of an artist, I’m all that much more likely to want more. So either I can buy all fourteen songs individually, or I can just buy the album. I wonder what I’ll choose?

* * *

Akhtar’s argument is based on the idea that the technological format of music distribution is responsible for musical innovation. In communication studies, we call that technological determinism. Now, there’s no question that the medium of delivery affects the content. Before CDs, artists were limited to two 22-minute sides of an LP. Having an A-side and B-side altered the structure of an album, by demanding two coherent halves that fuse into a larger whole. On a “sideless” CD, however, there is no break. Short of adding silence between songs (an underused device, I think), the artist must worry more about how all twelve or thirteen songs share musical space.

In Akhtar’s opinion, the A-side/B-side dichotomy allowed artists like the Beatles and The Who to open up their listeners to more experimental sounds, and so broadened the spectrum of acceptable music. Perhaps that was true twenty years ago, but the model of music consumption has changed, and it happened long before the iTunes store came along. Really, only MTV-mass-music artists still release singles, and while the latest J-Lo B-side might be pure musical genius, there are many other opportunities for listeners to gain sophistication besides what’s playing on Top 40. If the Radioheads of the world prove anything, it’s that you don’t always need a spoonful of honey before you can dish out the cod liver oil.

The era of single-song consumption started in the last century. No doubt the commercial sale of songs rather than albums will alter the way people make music, but that doesn’t mean that the way people did it before was the One True Way.

Some people are quick to predict the death of the physical whenever the virtual threatens. Oh no, people won’t make real albums anymore because buying singles online is too easy! There will never be another band to experiment like the good old days! Life, however, is not that predictable. Cheap, virtual songs may cut into sales of traditional albums, but that doesn’t mean albums will die. They may just have to become more exclusive and special. Artists will release albums with intricate packaging, more extensive liner notes, booklets full of photos, and autographed notes from Bono. And some people will lap all this up, because music is one of those things people obsess over. And it will cost you $35.99.

Creativity isn’t going to go away just because a flimsy piece of plastic that scratches too easily becomes extinct. No matter how many artists sell tired, instant tunes online, some others will decide to do something better. There is more music and there are more musicians than ever before, and that will always be true.


Bernard Perusse, the Gaz’s new boomer music writer, tried to argue a similar point recently: p2p systems are killing music ‘cause they encourage the single over the album. Bah. It didn’t help his credibility by implying the last good album was Sgt. Pepper’s. Moran. (Oh, and he also said the iTunes store was a flop. Hmm.)

M-J | Jun. 20, 2003 — 6 AM

Radiohead’s albums are generally structured like films or compositions; that’s my feeling, anyway. I suppose for such albums, selling individual tracks does take away from it.

However, it’s wrong to say that iTunes “encourages” singles over albums. That’s just absurd. If you want the song, you should be able to buy just the song. Similarly, if you want the album, you should be able to buy the album. Period.

Bosko | Jun. 20, 2003 — 11 PM

Previously: Urban Detroitus

Subsequently: Sesame Street Fever

June 2003
the Archives