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The Idea of the Album
Recently, I spent a ridiculous amount of time trying to fix a bug that assigned the wrong images to albums in my digital collection. I’m talking months.
Why, I kept asking myself, through innumerable pointless software updates and support message chains, should this matter at all. These images are just thumbnails anyway. The artists and titles remained correct; the tracks all still played.
Yet the situation was unsettling. Listening to an album by Helado Negro by clicking on the image of an album by Fabrizio de André (for some reason, most of the album covers in my digital collection had been replaced with releases by Fabrizio de André) was… discordant. Especially when I downloaded music which I didn’t yet know. As I listened, the image I formed of these new albums kept merging with images of Fabrizio de André.
When at long last I stumbled on a solution and all the digital albums in my collection suddenly again wore their correct covers – including those newer acquisitions I had never before seen with correct covers! - I had a vision:
The album will survive into the future.
I usually avoid predictions like this, for good reason.
Tech writers have a habit of making predictions (blockchain this, blockchain that) which can make much of their work, like the tech industry as a whole, feel ancillary to financial speculation. And I know my native melancholy can lead me to err in the other direction, toward a nostalgic Jeremiad. But that form, too, is tied to prediction – albeit of doom…
So when I started writing about tech-related topics, I promised myself not to make predictions in order to guard against these extremes. I hoped this might also rescue my non-fiction work from a quick obsolescence. Because what’s less useful than a past prediction of the future, whether of glory or doom? Eventually, we know what actually happened.
But I have had a vision, and so I am compelled now to break this promise. Yes, the mighty streaming platforms of today may crumble into digital dust like so much MySpace. And the creaky, wheezing vinyl industry may finally collapse altogether from a lack of raw materials and/or absurdly high international postage rates. But out of this analog and digital wasteland will stride, in all its approximately 40 minutes, the album of the future.
And it will look just like the album today.
I am confident of this prediction because it has already come true. The album was doomed by the launch of digital music. Napster was going to destroy it by removing it from the music industry’s control. Apple’s iTunes was going to destroy it, with the industry’s befuddled approval, by unbundling its tracks and selling them individually for 99¢. Streaming is trying every day to destroy it, with the industry’s enthusiastic cooperation, in favor of mutable playlists and the renewed control they represent.
And yet, artists continue to release albums – from the top of the charts to the underground. Albums, albums, albums. With cover images that should never be scrambled!
It was those scrambled images that led to my vision, because they severed the idea of the album from the music of its tracks. And the idea won. You can have all the tracks to play, as I did for my digital collection throughout the last several frustrating months. But without a concept to tie them together – even if that concept has been reduced to the minimum, like a thumbnail image – they remain just tracks.
Take the example of Harry Smith and his famous Anthology of American Folk Music. These were isolated tracks to begin with, each originally released on 78s - one song per side. As 78s, each of those songs could live in any context, and did. But once they had been sequenced as an album - not a playlist of old weird 78s with shifting content that might be different every time you return to it, but an album with a fixed track list, a cover image and liner notes - they became the embodiment of an idea. An idea so powerful, Greil Marcus had to write a whole book about it.
It's not that approximately 40 minutes of sequenced music is an ancient, immutable form. The “long-playing” album as we know it dates only to June 20 1948 (some accounts say June 21), when it was launched by Columbia Records at a press event in the Waldorf Astoria Hotel, New York. Edward Wallerstein, then-president of Columbia Records, made the announcement. “As I stepped up to the podium to address the fifty-odd representatives of the press, on one side of me was a stack of conventional 78-rpm records measuring about eight feet in height and another stack about fifteen inches high of the same recordings on LP.” Wallerstein had directed research on the LP, a decade-long project, pushing Columbia’s engineers to lengthen its sides to at least seventeen minutes. “I timed I don't know how many works in the classical repertory and came up with a figure of seventeen minutes to a side. This would enable about 90% of all classical music to be put on two sides of a record,” he recalled in an oral history interview some twenty years later. The engineers at Columbia delivered on the demand, and then some. By the 1948 launch, Wallerstein explains, “[Bill] Bachman and the rest of the team had managed to lengthen the LP to about twenty-two minutes.” It has stayed there ever since.
I don’t know if this seventeen to twenty-two minute audio unit has other deep human significance, but after 74 years the interval has clearly dug in. CDs stretched the total time possible for albums to at least an hour – but as that format waned, albums generally drifted back to LP length. What’s more, the length of LPs seems to have influenced even purely digital formats, which might be any length at all. The median duration of a podcast, according to a survey of ten million episodes in 2018, is 38 minutes and 42 seconds. A perfect fit for one of Columbia’s original LPs.
Cooking: The last of the winter storage potatoes, steamed and pan fried