[EDITORIAL] The Album Experience: What It Was Then Versus What It Is Now

Earlier this morning, I was listening to this video while cooking some breakfast. The author, Mic The Snare, purposefully went an entire month without using any music streaming services — no Spotify, no Tidal, you get the idea — and resorting to CDs instead. I won’t spoil the video to you if you wish to watch it, and, thankfully, the seed that germinated this idea I’m about to propose came very early on.

About fifty seconds into the video, Nick said something that got me thinking: “I figured that limiting myself to only physical media might force me to listen more consciously”. This fired my inner engines. As an artist (eeyup, I’m a producer and a DJ outside of journalism), I’ve always decided very consciously on what I want to listen to, because I believe I can learn from it. “But that’s not always the case“, I figured. Shook the thought off my head, kept cooking.

But then, at exactly the 4:00 minute mark, the following line was printed into my brain: “It was nice to feel more of a reason to listen to an album all the way through or to treat them in my mind as just one cohesive whole”. Now that’s food for thought. Suddenly my stomach didn’t feel nearly as hungry as my mind. In a heartbeat, my attention went from “Don’t burn the food” to “What happened to the album experience?”. And that brings me to this very piece of text.

Disclaimer: you are likely NOT to find any answers here, only questions. Tons of them, for that is my style of writing. So, yeah, there’s that.

Albums: Ties, Analogies, and Romanticism

Credit: Andrea Piacquadio

I find the current vision on albums a bit like how wearing a tie feels in today’s era: they are often overlooked. They don’t feel like a must anymore, and, for certain industries or companies that are a bit more laid-back (“modern” as they claim), it’s even a bit odd. But they do have their fair share of romanticism to them. Matching a tie to your outfit elevates your look. It demonstrates you’re going the extra mile on complexity and you care about how you look, that you look after your IRL cover letter. Please note, “matching a tie to your outfit” as in “taking the time to put on a tie that goes well with the colour palette you’re wearing”. But even if you take the time to put an outstanding formal look together, nine out of ten people will not even notice it (source: me). So, does that make it a useless item? Does that make me a romantic for caring about the tiny, so-called useless details?

(Ties, outfits, matching colour palettes… next thing you know I’m moving on to fashion journalism!)

Back down to Earth. Albums seem to serve no purpose today. They’re only a collection of songs, and nothing else. You, the artist, take your time to compile a number of tracks and pour them onto a conveniently sized package, for what? For your audience to skip to song number 6 and play that and only that, then switch to TikTok for an hour of procrastination? Yeah, that’s our jam today.

Albums Used To Be Milestones

They still are, by the way, but only from a CV perspective. If you read about a given artist, and they have released albums — extra point there: albums are not the primary vehicle for delivering music anymore, as singles and EPs have taken that spot —, you WILL find out how many they’ve put out. But they don’t feel like accomplishments anymore, do they?

On the artist’s side, it is of course a huge deal, because it is, at least, a large number of original tracks of your collection coming out at once. But the modern listener doesn’t care about that: an album is simply a packaging, a container. One very tasty, mind you, for the number of tracks included, but not much else.

I’ll go as far as to say, without exposing names, that there are an alarming number of artists who don’t see the album as a product anymore, and just as a container. So, who should we blame?

Back When — Back Whom — Albums Were Something Special

Credit: Mati Mango

Having a bit of an extensive background in Trance — which is a refined way of saying I’ve listened to way more Trance than I probably should have —, albums from 20 years ago felt much more special than today’s. The album was a product on its own. Yes, tracks were lifted ahead of time. Yes, you had your favourite pick(s). But the album was meticulously built to impact the listener. It used to be the standard that the album was a journey.

The Album Was A Journey

Looking back, Track 2 was meant to be there. Track 6 was meant to be there. The opening and closing tracks served a purpose. Everything served a purpose.

I always come back to the one band which has impacted me the most: Above & Beyond. Let’s forget for a while that their ‘Blue Monday’ cover went massively viral on social media, and dive into the LPs.

The first time I listened to their debut long play Tri-State, something clicked inside me. I won’t go into detail about how I feel when listening to it, but one of the crucial things I can recall from that experience, is that over half of the album went by before I realised I was listening to a different track other than the opening. And this still happens today, years after I hit ‘Play’ for the first time: I really struggle to pause the listening session at any time between the opening track ‘Tri-State’, and ‘In The Past’, the eighth track.

If there’s something that really makes me think about this whole experience and journey concept I’m trying to portray is that very thing, the fact that, in my ears, that album is so perfectly crafted that I literally stress over when to stop listening. That’s where the bar is for me. And that’s what I would absolutely love to see come back in today’s era. The whole intention of this article is for me to try and get to the consciousness of my fellow readers and say “Hey, this is achievable!”, and “An album is much more than what we think of today!”.

The Whys And The Hows

The Whys

Let’s make a little exercise here. Let’s assume a given artist does not believe in the way I see albums, and they only use them as a fancy way to promote their singles. Instead of putting out twelve singles a year, this artist decides they’ll just put everything inside a blender, seal it shut, and there you have it, an album a year. No roles for any of the tracks either, it’s just a collection of his most recent tracks. All fair and square.

Why, Felipe. Why would you want an album to be a product by itself? Because it ups the experience by a thousand percent. An album with purpose makes you feel a closer bond to the artist who composed it. Now that tracks are expected to be under five minutes in length — a topic for ulterior discussion —, I really want to see artists put out hourlong content that can be your companion, your friend, and your confidant on your worst days. I make memories by listening to albums. When artists I love have put out albums (A&B, Marsh, Leaving Laurel, Paavo), I grab my ever-busy schedule and make a space to listen to that piece, from beginning to end. That’s why I put so much of me into reviewing them. I digest them as a four-course meal. No skips, no random order. I listen from Track 1 to Track N, in the order that they were meant to have, in full. I trust the artist and I like to think they thought every aspect of the compilation through, from beginning to end. So in short, I enjoy the ride, and I’d love others could do the same.

The Hows

Unfortunately, I have little to no answers here. How could we make a shift in the industry so that albums had their starring crown back? No idea. It’s a game of who to blame, and who should take the first step.

Credit: Jessica Lewis

This is the comfort zone. Why should one, as an artist, step out of it? On one side of the spectrum, artists might say “I don’t need to put in the extra effort if it won’t retribute me accordingly. It makes no difference versus just throwing in these twelve tracks and calling it a day. No need to risk it”.

On the other side of the spectrum, the audience may say “I, as a consumer of their content, am not really inclined to ask them to change the way they pack their music. After all, I want music, they deliver music, and both parties are happy. I don’t need something new, I need more of what they’re doing now”.

So, who is at fault? Hard to say, right? There are arguments for and against both. Risk and reward, doing something new when your current formula is working, not wanting to waste time better spent, and so on and so forth.

My view on the matter is that change should come from both parties simultaneously, as a community. I say it because I see it. Living on the most emotional and open-to-feelings end of the Dance genres out there with Trance, Organic House, and so on, people often share their stories. People share the intimate stories they’ve had while listening to X, Y or Z artists, or W, V or U albums. This motivates the artist to produce content with a soul. But on the flip side, if an artist does it first, chances are, fans will be delighted.

Final Thoughts

It’s tough, I know. And the toughest thing of all is, perhaps, the only one making a huge deal out of this… is me. Maybe things won’t change at all. Maybe a couple of readers will leave this rant thoughtful, hopeful even. That’s my mission. I can’t change things, but I want you to think about what you consume, and how you consume it. Out of a passing fancy? Perhaps. But that fancy has forever changed the way music enters my body, mind and soul. And even if one person walks out of this post with a different mindset, that’s a job well done, and a pat on the back for yours truly.

*Cover image credit: Kelly