A conversation recently with my partner revealed an incongruity in our perception of music. There is one obvious difference, which wasn’t really all that consequential—she’s nearly deaf, with no hearing in one ear and only partial hearing in the other. She’s actually quite a music lover. However, the packaging and delivery of music has changed substantially over my lifetime, causing quite a discrepancy in the way we construct meaning from music. Even casting aside the obvious difference between monophonic and stereophonic perception, or the more limited bandwidth she has to work with, the overall syntax is different. I grew up in an LP culture, and she grew up in a CD culture.
I’ve loved music since I was twelve or thirteen. From the moment I had any money whatsoever I began collecting it. The passion of the collector is different from the passion of the listener, but I never really crossed the line into serious obsession. Music was information, a form of food that I craved. Although I wanted the artifacts that contained information (such as concert programs, books about artists, magazines, as well as the LPs or singles themselves) I was never obsessed with such things as “first pressings” unless they contained different information from the subsequent releases. However, I became somewhat of a completist—if I liked an artist, I’d follow them from band to band and felt compelled to even buy their records when they were less than perfect.
Radio was pretty much a polluted waste dump of commercial crap. The major channels where musical information flowed were my friends, and print sources—magazines, zines, etc. where a person could find stuff they might be interested in. Music swapping was social; you’d go over to a friends house and listen to an LP, or they might make you a tape for you to check out. Close friends might loan LPs, so you could check them out. If you liked it, usually you bought it, or better still, bought something else that you would then share with the friend who turned you on to the initial album or single by the artist. Music swapping isn’t really all that new. However, the ethical outcry over it is louder now.
The difference between my experience and my partner’s is not so much that the sources of information have changed, or that the mode of delivery has changed, but that there is a sort of middle syntactic unit (the “album”) which has faded away. A person is more likely to say that they like an artist or a particular song than an album. Further, as I thought about it, it seems that the overall social value of “albums” has diminished.
The transformation of the music industry from a “singles” (radio) culture into an LP or album culture occurred in the 1960s. By the 70s, when I grew up, there had been many major records that seemed to shift the musical landscape (such as Sgt. Pepper’s from the Beatles. The trend to demarcate changes in musical culture by “albums” continued at least until the time of Nirvana’s Nevermind, which kicked Michael Jackson’s Thriller off the top of the charts. However, by the time phenomena such as the White Stripes or Strokes came along, I don’t really remember these things being connected to “albums” that changed things, but rather ore general musical perspectives/personae.
As I mentioned, I often had strong, almost obsessive tendencies to collect not just one work by an artist, but all of them. Most of my friends, however, were more than happy to have just the “albums” they liked. I tend to think that there used to be a more gradual scale from collecting singles, collecting albums, and collecting artists which has fallen away in the digital age. Now, it seems more likely that a person would collect songs or artists, but not albums per se. This seems to be reflected in increased media attention to the extremes of artist or song, while relatively little attention is paid to individual albums other than the practice of reviewing them, which perhaps is as much a matter of inertia as anything else.
While many artists continue to release albums of carefully wrought song cycles, the social impact of these albums (like individual books, to use a print analogy), is slight. It seems to me that we have moved from a singles culture to an LP culture that brought personae (singer-songwriters in particular) to the forefront. The shift to digital culture was in one sense a return to singles culture (especially in light of electronic distribution practices), but in another sense, an amplification of the importance of personae (as in the complete package—videos, interviews, press coverage) which began during the height of LP culture. What has been attenuated is not only the length of the units we consider most marketable (single songs rather than suites), but also the real social impact of music.
When was the last time a record really had much of an impact on the course of music or social activism? The peak of musical connection with social issues was perhaps the 1960s, when LPs were on the rise. Topical music seemed so much more important then, and it was topical not just in the sense of a single song or two, but also in more uneven collections with a unified theme. Albums made you consider not only those songs that immediately hit you, but also other songs that slipped through in between. They made more complex narratives possible, and hence, garnered more attention on those things that were not merely a matter of personae.
It seems to me that a sort of “center” has been lost, or at least attenuated in such a way that the action or life alteration possible by experiencing such works is only local in impact, rather than national. Or perhaps all this retrospection is just an attempt to construct a myth around albums that changed my life, and I thought, the lives of others. My partner has no such memories. She primarily remembers artists, not albums, as the major source of meaning.