One step forward, two steps back? Concept Albums, Mixtapes, Classical Music & Generation Y
Creating a mixtape used to be a painstaking process. I couldn’t imagine the frustration that it entailed, having to redo the entire thing if you had to make just one little change. Now it’s all done at the press of a button. Hit delete and the song is gone or drag the title up or down to change the order. It’s brilliant that we can do this; it makes it easier to experiment without the threat of having to start hours of painstaking work all over again. As a result, I have playlists and mixtapes for a whole host of moods and situations. The problem is I rarely actually play these. The order I spent hours fussing over just gets put on shuffle. Sometimes this unpredictability is great, on my larger playlists a song may come up that I wouldn’t have thought to put on otherwise but was exactly what I wanted to hear. Other times, thirty seconds into a song it’s ‘too chilled’, ‘too heavy’ or ‘the drops not big enough’ for the situation and it gets changed or skipped. Someone may get an overwhelming urge to listen to a particular song and sure enough the entire mood and vibe gets changed, perhaps for the better. For people of my age it is generally expected at parties that there will be a whole group of iPods lying around the speakers or a laptop with spotify/youtube open; whose iPod or song choice is playing gets changed after every song.
We may discover great new music this way but more often than not this culture actually takes away from this unpredictability that has the potential to make the digital music age so much more exciting. People want to listen to what is familiar, songs that everyone knows. This gets very repetitive, monotonous and boring resulting in every parties’ playlist sounding almost identical to the last. Those with less mainstream music tastes will find their iPod often getting turned off mid song and without the aid of a lot of alcohol this can be incredibly frustrating. It also robs us of an appreciation of what I feel is a dying art form: the concept album.
Many bands and artists now produce fantastic songs, that I will not argue. But for many artists, particularly in the alternative or ‘indie’ genre, it seems that these songs are just released in the order they’re written. When they have enough to put on an E.P, they release an E.P. Then when they have enough for an album, they release an album. While there may not be anything wrong with the album, the songs could in fact sound great, there isn’t really much of progression. In a nutshell, it just doesn’t feel like an album. The problem is once one record is released like this the rest tend to be written in much the same way. There are some bands I used to love but after the first album I just got bored. There was nothing wrong with what the produced afterwards I guess, a few of the better songs may make their way onto one of my playlists but as a whole I just wasn’t excited while listening to it. I want to be excited. I want it to take me somewhere and that somewhere to be different then the place the last record took me.
The problem is that the fast paced nature of today’s music industry makes us as consumers rather impatient. The time taken to work on a concept album and to grow as musicians and individuals to be able to create a new concept for that album can be too long for the fans to wait. Quickly artists become forgotten, even ones that are our ‘favourites’ because they’ve been replaced by someone else who is shiny and new. The lucky ones that have created enough of a name for themselves will be able to leave 4 years between albums without releasing any singles in-between. They are few and far between though and many that could choose not to. Maybe they’re pushed by the labels, consumer demand and money or maybe they’re just not that creative…
What I love about the concept album has a lot of parallels with what I love about classical music. The three minute song that dominates popular music only really takes us through one or two emotions. A piece of classical music will take us through all of them. Particularly music produced from Beethoven onwards; it all sounds bipolar and psychotic. For this reason I don’t think classical music makes for particularly good background music. You’ll find your hand glued to the remote, turning it up at a quiet bit then covering your ears and frantically turning it down because the brass have just come in at fortississimo only 30 seconds later. It used to be expected that an album would do this too. Last Friday I spent an entire evening listening to albums in their full, one after the other. I went through the majority of the Led Zeppelin, Beatles & Pink Floyd discography (I didn’t sleep at all so it was more of a full 24 hours than just an evening really) which is what inspired me to write this. I had just seen the New York Philharmonic play Mahler’s 9th the night before and what I experienced was exquisite; it drew me in with these booming highs and incredible lows. I found that these albums enthralled me in much the same way. Even individual songs on these albums have striking similarities with many of the concertos and sonatas I play, taking me through an entire spectrum of emotions. The thing that often makes this achievable however is why both classical music and concept albums tend to be overlooked by Generation Y, the length.
Our lives are dominated by the desire to make everything instantaneous. We want to be able to access everything and contact anyone from anywhere with one click. Fashions are discarded almost as soon as they come out. We have a need for more, more and more, for constant movement and change. Albums that you have to set aside the time to actually listen to in their full, not on shuffle?! A Mahler symphony lasting more than an hour?! Our lives are moving too fast for that. We don’t have the patience to just stop and listen.
This ends up creating a paradox. As I described above, the music I hear at parties, small gatherings etc tend to be strikingly similar even though, as someone with several very different, very separate groups of friends, this is probably more diverse than the bulk of people my age. We end up getting less through our desire to consume more. Classical music is watered down, shortened so we only hear the ‘highlights’ to make it ‘more accesible’. We have ‘classical’ cross-over artists which more often than not merely disguise a pop record with a small chamber orchestra and excellent vibrato due to classical training. We have single compilations thrown together by the labels which sell better than albums the artist spent hours arranging the song order for. Most people will probably have spotify set up so it lists the most popular songs at the top. Even if we do listen to the full album, we’ll probably neglect to switch our iPod off shuffle, a setting it is likely to permanently be on. Does this not feel a bit backward to you?
There are of course some notable examples that manage to buck the trend and have used the digital music age to innovate what the concept album can be. Bjork’s Biophelia is a prime example of this. As well as being musically spectacular she’s made it visually so by creating iPad apps that take you through the album. She’s made her music interactive and tactile. Radiohead’s In Rainbows pushed boundaries in a different way. Released online it was downloadable for free; you gave what you thought the album was worth. They also made accessible the stems of their songs. They wanted to hear what others could do with them. Radiohead and Bjork have always released concept albums though. You could say that because they’ve already ‘made it’, established themselves and will have a following no matter what and a following that expect them to produce this kind of work at that, they can afford to do this. How can new artists hope to do the same thing? Gone are the days when you can have a jam session loosely structured around your songs on stage and hope to walk away with a contract. For my old band if there was an important gig coming up and we needed to cut our set our 7 minute song was the first to go.
I think there are some newer bands and artists out there that have got it right though. Foals being one that show a definite progression between their first and second album. Joanna Newsom is another whose records all have a very distinct feel. Maybe more new artists will catch on but as consumers we really do need to calm the fuck down. Try making your playlist into one 45 minute mp3 so you can’t skip or shuffle through. Have a listen to Dark Side Of The Moon, OK Computer, Have One On Me, Sgt. Pepper or a Mahler symphony. Really, really listen, then beg for more.