Idea: The Album Song

I didn’t know this before now, but Radiohead songs aren’t available to download from iTunes. Instead, they’re selling them DRM-free (320kbs MP3s) on another website, and – get this – only as entire albums, not as single songs.

What to make of this? Maybe they just think that Apple’s DRM is a crock and don’t want to have any part in it. Probably not though, as EMI are one of the few labels that allow their tracks in iTunes to be sold DRM-free for a premium.

The stated reason for doing it is that “iTunes insists that all its albums are sold unbundled, but [Radiohead’s new digital distributor] 7digital doesn’t. Radiohead prefer to have their albums sold complete. The artist has a choice, and if they feel strongly then we respect that.” But here’s what I’m not sure about – should Radiohead really be allowed to dictate the context in which I listen to their music? I mean, obviously it’s their legal and moral right to do so, but really, do they have a point here?

Here’s how I see it: songs are the basic unit of content produced by musicians. These units have traditionally been packaged in bundles called “albums”, so that distributors have a viable means of manufacturing physical objects that contain the units, then shipping these packaged units all over the world and selling these them to you in shops. Of course, over time this bundle of songs developed into a cultural object all of its own, and some musicians started to come up with the idea of concept albums[1], and fans came to decide on their favourite albums. As someone who used to make music, and as a fan, I can get behind both of these perspectives. But that doesn’t necessarily make them absolute truths, or opinions that I can universally dictate to others (particularly to my fans if I’m a musician).

Other artists – not musicians, but artists whose work is not intrinsically tied to commerce and business – don’t seem to have this hangup. An artist might have an exhibition of works that is significantly more of a coherent collection that the average album, but by and large they are happy to allow their pieces to be enjoyed individually, and to sell them individually. This is because non-musician artists don’t have this odd historical context that the business side of their distribution model imposed on what they produce, and thus on what they sell.

So on the one hand I respect Radiohead for sticking to their convictions here, but on the other hand I don’t know if it’s not a little bit hypocritical and selfish. I love albums, and I honestly mourn their passing. But I also recognise that when you sit down to write a song, it’s just a song, and not really a chapter of a larger master work (unless you’re Pink Floyd[2]). And even if it is, that doesn’t mean someone might not just enjoy that song you wrote one afternoon in isolation.

Obviously this all highlights yet another hangover that the music industry has inherited from its own colourful past, and the present difficulties in finding an alternative model that everyone is happy with. The old guard will hang on as long as possible, smaller forward-thinking distributors will struggle to get a foothold, and Apple will fail to man up enough to go that last few yards for customers. And bands will still crawl all over each other to dive into the trench and maybe get noticed.

Here’s what I would do if I were in a band that was looking to make an impression: record twelve songs, and then publish them as a single-track album. Tell everyone it’s a forty-minute sprawling rock opera song that just happens to have eleven silent sections, each of which separate parts of the song (or “movements”) that have completely different melodies and rhythm. Call it The Album Song, or Metal Machine Music II. Claim that it was inspired by Radiohead and Walter Benjamin, and if your label tries to interfere accuse them of trying to dictate your art for the sake of commerce. Sell your song on the digital download stores for 99¢, make a little bit of money, and get your music heard by more people. It can’t lose.

  1. There are definitely albums that I can think of that constitute self-contained works, and not just a collection of songs: Brian Eno’s Music for Airports is the best example I can think of. In fact, it might be a bit unfair of me to pick on Radiohead here, because I consider OK Computer to fall wholly under this category too.

But by and large though, I don’t think this is the case. People might think that The White Album is a monolithic piece of art that is completely intertwined with itself, but I don’t. It’s just what happened when one of the best bands ever went into a studio and recorded a bunch of completely random songs; wonderful examples of songs as single units. If they’re adhesive in some way it’s not by design, it’s because the band were on a roll and the songs were all recorded around the same time. That’s why I listen to the White Album as an album, but that doesn’t mean that the songs don’t stand alone. Revolution 9 and Rocky Raccoon don’t rely on each other to be what they are.

  1. Again, maybe Radiohead are Pink Floyd, so they might get a free pass here.

— 22 Sep 2007