Archives for: September 2011

The album in the digital world

18/09/11 | by admin [mail] | Categories: Conceptual

Following on from an older post exploring "Open Source" in the context of fields outside of programming (e.g. scripts, takes, cuts, raw audio etc for a film), I was thinking about the nature various media in general. Specifically, though, I'll start with the music recording.

The nature of the traditional music recording has remained fairly static since the first albums of the early 20th century.

Artists go into a studio, record, record, record, and produce a definitive recording (or more realistically the composite of several recorded parts, mixing, production etc). Then, this definitive take is released as a single or part of an album or EP.

The medium is, as is normally the case, defined in large part by the technological constraints that produce it. Where you need to mass produce a physical recording for sale, you want to create a single product to lower your costs. Creating many versions of the same song is not practical in terms of selling.

The effect is that the music recording is its own cultural product, distinct from live music. There are certain cultural expectations and phenomena that come out of hearing the exact same recording of a song over and over. An expectation that the band will perform a song live as close is as possible to the recorded version.

To illustrate this, take the song Baba O Riley by The Who. The long intro to this song is complex arpeggios produced by electronic in a studio, Pete Townsend feeding a synths output through an arpeggiator. Since, the arpeggiator was do the work, it can not, in effect, be played live. So, The Who use a recording during their live performances.

This has been the same problem for all artists whose music can be produced in a studio, but not easily performed live. In a world where so much music is now more produced than performed, a variety of approaches have been taken. From the extreme of the DJ, to innovative steps which have seen performers take the tools of the studio on stage, laptops, samplers and keyboards, both musical and qwerty.

The interesting thing here, is that the work in the studio producing the original sound embodies the essence of a live performance, that sound and composition is created on the fly, a unique sound for a unique moment. But in an actual live performance, the cultural demand is for that performance to reflect the 'original' recording.

If you've been consuming music over the last 30 odd years, particularly since CDs became common place, then you've likely seen 'Deluxe' versions of albums or Extended re-releases which do indeed feature more than one take of the original song.

CDs with their longer playing time allow more music to be included on an album, and the cost of 'pressing' a CD is basically the same whether it contains 3 minutes or 81 minutes of audio. So, for a successful band with a back catalog, it starts to make sense to re-release with an extra 20 or 30 minutes, or perhaps a whole second disc. The extra production costs are justified by the extra sales (particularly true of longer lived artists with older and generally more affluent fans).

The CD single starts to be more than an A and B side, and becomes something like an EP, featuring 'remixes' or live versions of the title track, as well as sometimes a 'B side' track.

However, in all this, we are still left with a 'Radio edit' and/or a music video edit which become the definitive version. Albums are still released, and might contain a longer, more 'artistic' version of the track.

The other big underlying artefact that remains with us from the days of celluloid and 78s is that the tracks are still designed more or less to be listened to linearly: one after another. For a single with 5 remixes of the same track, this can sometimes be unpleasant.

But we live in a digital age, portable digital music players are common place, the shuffle option is there, we can download 5 versions of the same song and not have to hear them one after the other.

So, why not take the obvious next step? A step beyond the paradigm of the last 80-90 years, and combine the advantages of our new technologies with the traditions of the past.

An album, or the modern single or EP, is in fact meta data. It is a specific collection of discrete tracks, with or without a specified order. If you then abstract this just one or two steps, you can produce an album which specifies not a discrete track i.e. a single definitive recording, but can select from one of several versions, and at each listening the album is different, as a different version of each track is chosen at random (or with any other method). So, an album might consist of Song A through Song G, but might play one of several versions of Song A, followed by one of any several versions of Song B etc. and order may or may not be specified.

The recorded experience begins to approach the live experience.

As the single is beginning to disappear in physical release of music, but has become increasingly the basic unit in which music is sold (in the form of digital downloads) and consumed, we now have the real possibility of changing the way the album exists.

We could have a world in which we can still buy discrete tracks, but in multiple versions. Where once you've bought a single, it can be part of one or several albums.

It might no longer make sense to embed in the metadata of these digital downloads simply the track name, and its album or single name, in the way that they are made to correspond to largely outmoded physical recordings. Metadata describing collections should be separate. If a track exists in your music library, it should be able to belong to multiple collections.

Music marketers could be freed, largely, from making decisions about what will be the definitive version or the album version or the marketing version. Artists could make as many recordings as they like of the same tracks. Producers could experiment, all those underground remixes could be re-legitimised and re-appropriated by the original artists as part of their collections. Consumers could choose just their favourite versions, or in a pay per listen model, more popular versions would create more revenue. Fans could 'collect them all' and have a listening experience that differs greatly from the set in stone model of the physical album.

By disentangling the metadata of the album from marketing and distribution, and embracing the potential that digital delivery gives us, we start to open up to new and unthought of possibilities. As a band continues to record and perform, or other artists produce remixes, the album could grow, perhaps not in length, but in depth. The album or compilation itself could become a new medium. Other people could select the tracks that they think go together, these collections could be distributed separately from the discrete tracks that they describe. The album, as metadata, has become open source.

This is all possible because today's technologies allow for music to be produced far more cheaply, distributed far more easily, and compiled with almost negligible cost.

Freeing Intellectual Property

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