The Music Club

Is the Album Really Obsolete?

Dear Mr. Sheffield and Mr. Harris,

Before we say what kind of year this was, let’s differentiate between the year in music and the year in corporations making money from music. They’re not the same thing. The CEOs are telling us that “the album is obsolete.” Album sales are down 5 percent from 2002, and people are downloading 10 times more singles than they buy. This whole house of cards is going to come down, and somebody is going to be posting their résumé on when the bill comes for that $3 million video shoot with Naomi Campbell and the catamarans. You know, the video you watch in a little 2-by-2 pop-up screen on your computer while you IM your friends with jobs.

So, maybe there’s a good reason, as Rob points out, indie bands won’t cross to the mainstream. It ain’t just musical—this infrastructure of great record stores and midsized venues can sustain a musician more reliably than waiting for Unicorp to send you that check. It’s only a matter of time before more of the alpha voices—maybe even Bruce? He’s a populist—come over to the indie sign. This solution doesn’t address the problem of radio, which must battle the Godzilla of Clear Channel, but it seems unlikely that anyone is going to stop making records. I’d love to hear how you guys think musicians are going to make money in the next five years. Live shows are, as of today, still a real-time experience, and last time I went to a sold-out show it felt just like a sold-out show 20 years ago.

Right—20 years ago. I think we can agree that only looking backward gives you a stiff neck. The Rapture? Can I call them the Mildly Pleasant Familiar Feeling? I was going to write off their hot producers, DFA, but their alter-egos LCD Soundsystem just released a storming dance track called “Yeah,” and it saves the whole indie dance idea in the 11th hour. It’s one of the happiest things I’ve heard all year, aside from the Postal Service’s “Such Great Heights,” which is Ben Gibbard from Death Cab for Cutie singing over beats. It makes me want to pine for somebody. It’s enough to melt all of my cynicism about white people with cowbells. (As a white person with several cowbells, my opinion should be somewhat discounted.)

So, looking back, is any genre in particularly poor shape? I never buy into this kind of declensionist thinking, as my basket is always full when I check out at the end of the year. Commercial rock didn’t have anything as good as Staind’s first album from 2001, though we did get Staind’s second album, which isn’t bad. Metallica put on one of the best live stadium shows I’ve ever seen, and if I can’t find any reason to listen to Linkin Park, watching thousands of boys AND girls sing along to their pouty rock made me think people still get in where they fit in. Killing Joke released the best commercial hard rock record of the year, but released the dumbest song, “Loose Cannon,” as a single with a vaguely racist video. This is why record companies will soon be dissolved like Wicked Witches!

Keith—you were talking about wicked witches, how few came out to play. I say the Girls Gone Wild culture has really eaten people’s brains. In R&B, a genre that could easily feature a black Pink, we’ve got a denatured Kelis, who stepped back from the fury of last year’s “Young N Fresh and New” from Wanderland, (which was never released here anyway). Mya is solid but still playing the kitten, and Ashanti makes great travel brochures. And you know I think Beyoncé is all that and a diving tank full of chips, and she has the single of the year, “Crazy in Love,” but her album had what? Three or four good songs? Pop didn’t give us much more. Shelby Lynne shrank in emotional size, her sister put out a great live album, Show, and Shania hid from the public eye by doing a stadium tour. Is Missy going to have to be the wicked witch of record every year? Only the Dixie Chicks have bigger balls, and they covered a Fleetwood Mac song! And, Keith, we understand that Liz Phair is flipping the mainstream syntax something fierce, but others think she “committed an embarrassing form of career suicide” with her brilliant new album. Her new album has sold 245,284 copies in six months, according to Nielsen SoundScan, while her previous album whitechocolatespaceegg has had five years to sell 274,542. This is why we love record companies! Because, for all the wrong reasons, they can get it right sometimes.

Britney put out a record … didn’t she? Anyway, Rob, what about Justin? What if he is just Rick Astley in a trucker cap? Is that a bad thing? And you know the best jump-rope song of the year was Lumidee’s “Never Leave You (Uh-Oooh, Uh-Oooh).” I actually saw girls jumping rope to it in London.

We still haven’t dealt with the three strongest genres of the year: hip-hop, dancehall, and microhouse, or addressed the trouncing Timbaland gave the Neptunes this year. Next time, but my last word on rock: The best rock band in America (kids, this changes EVERY WEEK, so stay out of the Fray and go get your mom a nice Xmas present) is Seattle’s A Frames, who do everything I’ve ever wanted an indie band to do. And the other best rock band in the known universe is the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, who are no longer an indie band. This is why I love major labels! Because now Karen O can spray expensive beer on the audience.