One of the benefits that record companies enjoyed when albums were the prevalent packaging for pop music was the upward pressure this scheme placed on song prices.
In a typical pop* album, there will be a few hit songs as well as some songs that never really catch on. Yet even these less popular songs have become best-sellers thanks to the album format.
At face value, an album that costs $10 and has 10 songs would appear to be pricing each song at $1 per. In practice, consumers and producers are negotiating a more complex pricing structure where some songs are worth more than others.
If I feel that at least two of the songs on a $10 album make it worth buying, then these two songs are worth around $5 each to me. In some cases, one truly great song is worth the full $10. (Dexys Midnight Runners, I’m looking at you.)
During the heyday of pop album sales, labels would have had a hard time selling very may copies of a single for $10, yet that’s often what they accomplished. Alternately, it allowed them to sell songs that would have been priced at a dime or a quarter each for at least as much as a hit single would fetch.
It’s important to remember, though, that albums owe their existence not to clever business plans (though those never hurt) but rather to the greater pleasure this format – this device – created when it was introduced.
The invention of the LP or long-playing phonograph by CBS Laboratories and Columbia Records gave consumers the new pleasure of buying, storing and being able to experience more music. This pleasure is what drove consumer demand for albums. That albums also allowed record companies to make more revenue per purchase or to drive up the price of pop tunes was a side effect.
Albums were dominant for so long because of a gap in technical innovation – most likely due to a lack of competition. There simply wasn’t a more attractive format for listening to a series of songs, without interruption. Until there was one and consumers moved on.
The compact cassette format, which electronics company Philips first developed in the 1960s and then licensed for free, certainly made it possible for consumers to escape the bounds of the album via mix tapes. But it did not make it easy to do so. Thus, home taping never killed the music industry while home computing practically did. Thanks to the optical disc.
It is perhaps ironic that the optical disc was first developed by the Music Corporation of America. Just as the MCA was giving up on the format – eventually selling it to the electronics firm Pioneer – Philips and Sony were working with the same principles to develop a new audio format. The two companies soon combined forces to popularize the Compact Disc, ushering in the era of digital music.
Every new or back catalog song released in the CD format meant another song digitized for digital playback and, in short order, ready for digital distribution.
If Sony can be credited for setting off the digitization of music, it had significant motivation to do so. As an integrated media company, Sony could make money when a Sony CD player was sold and when a Sony music CD was sold. The more music was made available on CD, the more consumers would be motivated to buy CD players. The more CD players sold, the more convenient CD’s became.
The CD quickly became the first mass market digital music player, enabling such shifts in behavior as the “shuffling” of songs on individual and multiple albums. By the late 1990s, personal computers equipped with CD drives, the mp3 file format and the internet provided even more pleasures and changes in consumer behavior as well as consumer expectations.
Part of what made Apple’s iPod and iTunes products so successful in the 2000s, is that the company tapped into considerable consumer demand for the ability to store, play and buy songs individually rather than as part of albums as well as the already established pleasure of listening to many songs, of the listener’s choice, in a row, without interruption.
By providing consumers with more pleasure, those who develop new formats and technology have been able to negotiate new terms and prices, rent-seekers be damned.
The trend continues as cloud computing and the mobile web permit businesses like Spotify to renegotiate what consumers are willing to pay for music – not just for access to songs they already like but also to songs they have yet to discover. (Sounds a little like bundling, don’t it?)
*Pop is a genre defined not by a series of songs played in a set sequence but rather by standalone ditties. If artists, consumers and labels shifted towards other genres, the album could make a natural comeback.
previously: David Simon on HBO, pricing as signaling in television programming
funny, related: using lasers to cut vinyl records to make sample-based music.
music videos on YouTube:
I Break Horses Hearts (2011)
Crystal Castles Celestica (2008)
The Field Sun & Ice (2006)
Autechre Gantz Graf (2002)
Fennesz Shisheido (2001)
Kid606 Catstep (2000)
Nobukazu Takemura Icefall (1999)
Atari Teenage Riot Anarchy 999 (1999)
Queens of the Stone Age: Regular John (1998)
Oval Do While (1995)
My Bloody Valentine Soon (1991)
Dinosaur Jr. Tarpit (1987)
Sonic Youth Schizophrenia (1987)
The Jesus and Mary Chain Never Understand (1984)
related concepts discussed on Wikipedia: headroom, impressionism, white noise, gloss, distortion, overdetermination, cognitive load, harmonic distortion, psychoacoustics, auditory illusions, overtones
I began this current journal, XSML, with the intent of reducing my own notes to extra small, XML-friendly updates. Increasingly, I have been drawn by the allure of the 140 character limit of Twitter. I may get a round Tuit and synchronize my use of Twitter with this blog. For now, here’s a dump of about a year’s worth of tweets in a single post:
Thanks to our friend Joni Daher I have just learned about Rita Indiana Y Los Misterios
The song Esqueibol (Skateboard), is pure gold. Starting at 9m30s, Rita breaks it down:
Cuando yo tenia 12 años
Yo tenia un primo que se llamaba Alex
El vivia en Orlando per venia todos los veranos
Alex se cortaba los cabellos de manera rara
Se ponia unas botitas azules hasta la rodilla
Unas Dr. Martens que aquí no las había todavía
She then name checks Minor Threat. “Straight edge, ya tu sabes.” This is the tribute to Tony Hawk I always wanted to make for my parents but was too uptight and/or American to make. Superb.
It makes me hopeful that 2011 will be an even better year than 2010.
The instrumentation on Da Pa Lo Do should make the ears of Vampire Weekend fans perk up. (While the first 12 seconds sound like they’re from the Tron: Legacy soundtrack.) No matter how much you think you can outsmart the bass guitar slide on Bajito A Selva, it will eventually take you by the waist.
The entire album, El Juidero, is taking future retro to its logical conclusion.
I often wonder if a single song can inspire an entire genre.
Certainly, there are combinations that are so influential they turn up again and again. Consider 10cc’s Not In Love and Hall & Oates’ Can’t Go For That, followed by The Avalanches’ Since I Left You and Boards of Canada’s Aquarius and most recently by the acts Toro y Moi, Memory Tapes and Passion Pit.
With each generation, the song is more chopped and screwed.
True story. Our band Pepito began in San Francisco, California on a Thanksgiving day in 1999, with a brand new Blueberry iMac, a cracked copy of Reason and a then four year old copy of SoundEdit16. That night, we had dinner at the Indian Oven in the Lower Haight. I was 26 years old.
Ana and I played our last show as Pepito on November 16 in 2005 at La Casa Encendida in Madrid, Spain. Here is footage of us performing our last song – recorded, I believe by Celeste Carrasco:
Our last line: “The New World is a tense, it never goes away.”
Here is a video of those concert visuals, dubbed with the album audio track:
This music video is downloadable.
Finally, some production notes for the video from our now shuttered web site, courtesy of the Internet Archive Wayback Machine:
Made with an iSight camera, Apple Final Cut Pro, Adobe Illustrator and Photoshop, Macromedia Flash, GCam, a Canon Powershot still camera, a shower, paper, pencils and plenty of time. Filmed on location in our apartment in Madrid, Spain and El Buen Retiro. The “wad-of-paper” effect used after the lyric “waiting for a name” was shamelessly lifted from Charles Stone’s 1992 video for the Black Sheep. The still images of Super NES glitches in the final section were extracted from Johny Rogers’ collection of NES glitches at Archive.org.
I will try to find and post them all in the coming months.
This may be my favorite of our old songs – at this moment. Thank you Chris Palmatier for making the synth so Pat Benatar at the end. Chris Groves and Ana Machado on vocals. Brian Fraser sampled on drums.
One of my favorite things about music is how clearly it adheres to the dialectical mode of thesis (let’s use more synthesizers!), antithesis (no, let’s use more guitars!) and synthesis (LCD Soundsystem). For that reason, some of the most exciting mixtapes or playlists are those that make connections across time and space, revealing how musical artists quote one another, whether consciously or not, approvingly or as a critique.
I’ve been impressed with the Apple iTunes Genius playlist generator lately which I assume uses software sound analysis along with social or human filtering to generate associations between recordings. But it fails utterly at creating playlists that span across time. It’s a failing that once revealed all but completely undermines the “genius” moniker.
Josh Marshall notes that Sony is retiring the Walkman and what a revolution that product represents. I couldn’t agree more.
Just now I was listening to Everything She Wants by Wham! (1984) and for the first time picked up on its use of psychoaccoustic trickery.
In the chorus that begins at 5m24s, you’ll hear a few angry exhortations to “Work!” mixed behind a synthetic hand clap in the left channel. It’s so subtle most people may not notice it even though they may be hearing – and thus, feeling – it.
It’s a clever technique and one that has become commonplace in contemporary music as pop producers mix for headphones. Thanks, in part, to the success of the Walkman.
As they’re back in the news for a reunion, I have been listening to and thinking about Pavement recently. Their songs are still as fresh for me as they were 15 years ago when I last listened to them – at that time, obsessively, for months on end. But they are not as rewarding – not after listening to LCD Soundsystem.
While playing in different genres and a product of different decades, both groups explore fundamentally similar angles. Both are droll and earnest, obscure and precise, layered and clear. Yet only one of these two epoch-defining projects transcends their own contradictions and thus their time and place.
For me, it’s LCD Soundsystem for the win.
My guess is that when you first launch a Pandora station it begins at the dead center of the Venn diagram created by all the people who have also endorsed/requested the artist / song you have requested. Pandora then begins to wander further and further away from that core. When you validate a song it presents in this outbound arc, you create a new center for it to branch out from.
because it was released on iTunes as an album-only purchase, i’d not heard Mastodon’s The Last Baron until today.
it is by far one of the most ridiculously well executed songs of the genre. whatever that genre might be.
It had been two years since I last heard music so loud for so long as I did tonight. Before that, I’d done it very often, as frequently as several times a week, for years, going back to my late teens.
Despite the ringing of inner ears and the exhaustion of absorbing so much energy, recorded music sounds clearer, more purposeful. It would be a nice feeling to fade away to.
The marching band down the street had been teasing out the riff for about 10 minutes before they hit the recognizable phrase. They’re playing the Steve Miller Band’s Fly Like an Eagle (“Time keeps on slippin'”) at 7 am.
It’s a spectacular wake-up alarm. Well played, Eagle Rock High School Senior Jazz Band.