So Thom Yorke has come out and declared the album dead. This isn’t the first time Thom’s been the bearer of bad tidings. In 2004 he cancelled the second Melbourne Radiohead show due to a frail voice. Frail voice? I thought that was the whole point. Not only did I have a ticket, I’d won a competition to meet him by sending in four barcodes from my brand of antidepressants.
Well, if the album isn’t dead, it’s certainly lying in intensive care, with a cracked case and a terminal cross-hatch of scratches on the disc. Since the advent of iTunes, the trend has been that no one under twenty buys CDs – and why would they? The things get ripped straight onto computers, and then what use are they? To load into your Discman on the train? To slot alphabetically into your CD tower? I’m afraid this, along with lying on your bed reading lyrics in 6-point, is relegated to the 1990s, along with Vienetta and Magic Eye. Now we get an album cover Gravatar and a track list destined to be corrupted by file sharing cowboys and DJ shuffle.
In the past, singles have been used as an incentive to sell the album. Now, the concept of buying a CD single is laughable. (They’re ten dollars, if you can find them, when a single iTunes track is $1.70.)
Instead, kids are happily breaking up albums like chocolate bars to get the no-obligation songs they like. At best, they may grace the others with a thirty second audition. This is why tunes need catchy hooks more than ever, for the iTunes preview – and songwriters thought radio edits were harsh…
Spare a thought for the poor musicians, who spend the best part of two years and tens of thousands of dollars painstakingly recording their six stringed super hits in 24-bit high definition, only to have them crudely crushed into an .mp3 and listened to through flat earphones. Those of you who take music for granted should realise that the audio quality of an mp3 compared to a CD is like going from a five course Indian banquet down to a sausage roll. Music isn’t just about that awesome guitar riff or those pounding synth-drums, it’s about the dynamic texture of the high treble frequencies blending with the mid-level tones and the soothing sub-bass. Just think of the loud shirted, poor postured producer who sat at the mixing desk labouring for months to ensure the song reaches your ears with just the right blend of equalisation. Every time you listen to your iPod, he cries control tears.
So is our lord and saviour Thom Yorke correct in peering down from his post-EMI pedestal and declaring the album dead for us nonvisionary plebs who don’t have a spare two million-strong fan base to give our album away to for free? (Crazy Thom’s gone mad, he’s slashed his prices not his wrists!) Part of me says: screw you, dude. I’ve waited my whole life to be able to make an album. The rush of running a knife along the box and seeing the ribbed canvas of a hundred identical spines glowing back. To lie in bed listening to my own ideas and sonic creations purring through the cradle of compression and the gloss of mastering. I think of the hours I’ve dedicated to the finer details, like liner notes, the font, barcode placement and gap before the self-indulgent secret track – all of it will be demolished by someone grabbing a heap of shit off a mate’s iPod. Sure, that person may have otherwise never been exposed to your music, but do you really want to be dubbed ‘unknown artist’ with your hit record ‘unknown album’ featuring the breathtaking single ‘track one’?
When I was fifteen, I recorded my first album of songs Ad-Liberation. This was done in my bedroom, on a little cassette Walkman with a stereo microphone Blu-Tacked to the indoor clothesline (how Radiohead record, I believe). I finished the songs, most of them seven-minute power ballads about Jenny Garth, complete with Mum knocking on the door in 4/4 time and ‘waiting for the cat to get off the lyrics’ solos. I gave the album a texta-drawn cover, and the wax seal of any amateur production: extensive copyright information. It’s the professional equivalent of playing dress-ups, writing ‘all rights reserved’ and having no idea what it means. Released on tape, Ad-Liberation fastforwarded into obscurity when not even my biggest fan – me – could stand to listen to it anymore, but it made me hungry to one day make the real thing.
I’m about to release my third Bedroom Philosopher album, happy in the knowledge that in this vintage-obsessed era, my CD format is already considered retro. Though the album may be dying, music itself is thriving. It’s never been so accessible and, despite the file-share explosion, there has been an apparent revival in young people buying vinyl. For now, it means that dads like me, pushing thirty, can proudly bang on about how great Radiohead CDs were to Gen-i kids who can’t really hear and don’t really care. They’re too busy biting off more sausage roll than they can chew.