Did Shuffle Kill the Music Industry?
I'm not going to defend my ER habit. I know the show wasn't remotely realistic, having worked in an ER myself (albeit long enough ago that the nurses still wore caps). People running around screaming "Stat!" doesn't happen so much. The ER is mostly an endless slog through folks with no primary care physician who come in when they have no other optionalthough the Friday and Saturday night "knife and gun club" hours between midnight and 4am could get quite hectic.
I didn't watch ER because it was true to life (real ERs aren't very telegenic), I thought it was good narrative. We humans are programmed to like sequential narrative. And I didn't normally stay up Thursday nights watching it either. Technology has changed the way we can watch television, so I TiVoed the show and caught up with it some other time with a morning cup of joe or an evening adult beverage.
That single change in technology might explain why a network like NBC is getting out of the 10pm adult drama business, replacing that programming with five nights of Jay Lenothat, and the fact that talk shows are cheap to produce. But don't kid yourself, a nation of TiVoers like me watching asynchronously and fast-forwarding through the commercials has changed network TV programmingmuch the same way that iPods and Shuffle have changed the way a lot of people listen to music.
In a famous 2004 essay, "Listen to This", Alex Ross declared, "I have seen the future and it is called Shuffle. . . ." His real point wasn't so much the death of the traditional recording's structure, but rather removing categories such as "popular" and "classical" music (even going so far as to argue that if "popular" music was popular, "classical" music must be unpopular). Ross maintained that Bob Dylan's "Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands" was at least as serious as Sibelius' Fifth Symphony.
I agreed with Ross that an iPod of sufficient capacity and with sufficient variety coulddoesconnect genres, composers, and songs in unique, and frequently liberating, ways. But I also find that for "serious" listening, I revert to the album conceptor to its bastard child, the playlist.
We humans are programmed to enjoy narrative and albumswell-sequenced ones anywayoffer that structure that Shuffle so joyfully abandons. Stumbling upon "Will o' the Wisp" in Shuffle is a completely different experience than encountering it in sequence on Sketches of Spain. The song is just as moving and delicate, but its impact is greater in situ. For me, anyway.
Popular music pundit Bob Lefsetz disagrees. He advises bands to forget the album, to concentrate on hit singles. However, while Lefsetz frequently offers interesting observations on the music biz, he has never been in a band, produced an album, or run a record labeland until he establishes that he can successfully do any of those things, I'll take his expertise with a grain of salt.
Lefsetz seems to think that listening to albums is as quaint as actually paying for the music itself. Our current music scene reminds me suspiciously of that bleak era back in the '70s when Saturday Night Fever and Rumours reigned supreme at the top of the Billboard charts.
I'm not passing judgment on either record's quality, I'm referring to how their mega-hit status affected the record business. Record labels no longer wanted to develop acts, growing an audience through album releases and touring. They wanted to ship platinum from the get-go. (This was also the era when label executives began referring to the recordings and acts they marketed as "product," which, IMHO, cannot be unrelated.)
(Fun trivia fact: When George Thoroughgood's first record on Rounder turned out to be a hit because of the intense radio play of "One Bourbon, One Scotch, and One Beer," Rounder couldn't find any record presses with openings to press more copies of the record because Rumours had booked them all. Some industry experts think that cost Thoroughgood an A-list career.)
Maybe it's a sign of my age, but I increasingly suspect that the CD's 72-minute capacity may have been instrumental in deconstructing the traditional art of sequencing an album. If a band created the perfect 36-minute suite, consumers might feel ripped off, so many bands padded their recordings with material that wouldn't have made the cut in the LP era. This essentially put paid to the tight format of an album like The Wild, the Innocent, and the E-Street Shuffle orAfrica Brass.
At least, that was the opinion that a bunch of music critics from the New York Times and Downbeat confided to me back in 1990 when I was installing a Revox system into a NYT critic's loft.
So here's my question: Shuffle or the album experience? Which experience gives you greater satisfaction in your "serious" listening sessions? And why?