Did Shuffle Kill the Music Industry?

I stayed up late last on April 2—late for me, anyway: 11pm. I watched the last episode of ER in real time. (Hang in there, peeps, there will be an audio point after the jump.)

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 option—although 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 Leno—that, 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 programming—much 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 could—does—connect genres, composers, and songs in unique, and frequently liberating, ways. But I also find that for "serious" listening, I revert to the album concept—or to its bastard child, the playlist.

We humans are programmed to enjoy narrative and albums—well-sequenced ones anyway—offer 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 label—and 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?

Keith Spring's picture

...pted by the need to turn the LP over. (Sorry for the glitch).

Richard's picture

No, it was dead long before the Shuffle got to it. Screwing over customers with a sonically inferior format in the Redbook CD that cost them less to make, ship, store and market while they increased prices by 50% or more pretty much was the industry's kick in the teeth to the music buying public. Now it's just kicking back as digital and the other trends come around. I guess you could say it's a beautiful case of karma coming to bite them all in the ass.

Keith Spring's picture

My answer is that it's great to have all of these options. Your example of the Sketches Of Spain track makes an excellent case for the album experience. Shuffle play offers the possibility of experiencing unimagined connections of various musics. Playlist is a way to create a hybrid that can optimally combine the best traits of both. Your point about 'product' is well taken, as is your use of the qualifier 'serious' re: listening sessions. It may be that there was only a relatively brief era when bands that made 'hit' singles also made albums that were more than greatest hits collections. I think we've returned to a Top 40 Song vs. Album dichotomy these days, & online access has created a low-cost venue for non-Top 40 music that has superseded the era of the big labels having a stranglehold on access to the music. As for CD length, I often considered some cuts on most popular LPs to be 'filler', and I REALLY like not having the Bartok Concerto for Orchestra interru

Mark Fleischmann's picture

Some artists are practicing running-time restraint, if only because they're old enough to recall how well it works. Robyn Hitchcock's new CD Goodnight Oslo clocks in at 39:18.The LP presentation works well not only because it doesn't wear out its welcome, but also because it breaks up its average 40-minute running time into two 20-minute suites. Twenty minutes is a reasonable time to sit in the sweet spot and have a strong relationship with what you're hearing. If you want a change of pace, you're free to go on to 20 minutes of something else.The 74 (sometimes more than 80) minutes of a CD is a grueling marathon by comparison. Perhaps that's why I often listen to CDs when I'm reading, while reserving vinyl for more intense foreground listening.A day with a new Wes Phillips post is always a happy day. I've been keeping a vigil!

mrlowry's picture

Wes-I've held a similar opinion about album length for quite some time. In December I wrote the following piece for Big Black Disk (http://bigblackdisk.ning.com/forum/topics/40-minutes-is-just-about):New albums are simply too long. Older albums were limited by the length of the LP record,about 40 minutes or so depending on bass content. Also because of their two sided nature artists had to seriously consider running order. Today artists don't even need to think about running order. Sequencing an album is a lost art. New albums can be as long as 80 minutes giving artists too much space. They don't need to ask if they are repeating themselves because they have the space and time to do so.In the past if an artist really liked a song but it didn't fit on the album because of time they could hold it over for a later album or use it as a B-side. Led Zeppelin held many songs over because of an over abundance of material as did The Who and The Beatles. In fact many of the truly great doub

mrlowry's picture

Part two:In fact many of the truly great double albums are roughly the length of today's single albums. Pink Floyd's "The Wall" could squeeze onto a single CD as could Led Zeppelin's "Physical Graffiti." Don't agree with me? Just imagine Pink Floyd's "Dark Side of the Moon" 15 minutes longer. How about The Beatles "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Heart's Club Band" with three extra tracks. In both cases the impact of the album would be greatly lessened and their genius would be diluted.

Trey's picture

(Explain It To Me - Liz Phair) My experience is that I listen to my iPod quite differently than I do music at home. My iPod is for work and the car, it is the world's best radio station! And it helps me sty on task during the more boring parts of my job. (I Fall Up - Brian Eno.) But it is for rocking out rather than really listening.For really listening at home I either listen to a cd or record or a particular artist through my computer system which runs Media Player. The lps sound great but require a bit of work, the cds are so easy to use, and the computer is easy to use and sounds better than the cds. I seldom sit down to listen to shuffle, it is too jarring. I like the concept of the narrative, and I believe that has something to do with serious listening. (Love And Only Love, Neil Young.)But as the paranthetical songs show, having the Pod running on shuffle can make typing more interesting.And illegal downloads killed the music industry.Trey

Barry Diament's picture

Hi Wes,I'm with you all the way. I've always loved the album as a vehicle for musical expression.The "singles" orientation of current download schemes is a turn-off. It isn't just the musical content of an album either. Anyone that has assembled an album knows how much difference adding or subtracting a second from the pauses in between tracks can alter the overall feel of the experience. I don't want a "playlist" assembly of an album where an arbitrary pause is added between tracks, I want the whole enchilada.Albums are to books or movies, like singles are to magazines or videos. I prefer it when the listener is expected to have an attention span (remember those?).Best regards,Barrywww.soundkeeperrecordings.comwww.barrydiamentaudio.com

Yuriy's picture

The shuffle function is a really good way to acquaint yourself with new music. I often load the mp3 machine up with gigabytes of new music (music I hadn't heard yet, not new releases) and let it play on shuffle with songs I already know and like. That way when I'm passively listening and a particuarly good new song comes on, it catches my attention and I try to remember it and read up on the artist. It's nearly impossible to do that without mp3 players and shuffle because you can only make a mix cd/tape out of songs you already own. The passive diffusion of music files throughout my music collection is a far better method for me to discover new music than the much more deliberate action of creating a playlist or mix cd by selecting specific tracks.

Eric Dorr's picture

Interesting topic! - Listening to music certainly has changed. I'm 51 yrs. old and I believe that it has changed for the better. I have now switched to the computer based music server via the Transporter. I could not be happier with this! Do I miss the tactile feel of the album or CD with the cover art and all that - Yea ok. If I want the cover art I can hang out by the computer and watch the cover art as the songs play in the background. Is this "the same" experience as queuing up an album and listening with anticipation as the needle made its way through the blank "touchdown area" of the disk until the music started. No way! I loved that! The thing is that I was a teenager then! I'm not the same now! I don't want to hear the "thickum, thickum, thickum" of the scratch or imperfection in the album. If I dont like the song, or I'm not in the mood I would like to skip it with a push to the remote. I also tend to get "stuck" sometimes and don't have the

Pierre France's picture

Interesting observations...this past month I find my listening habits changing and I play less of my dedicated two channel and use my iPod more for working in my woodworking shop or reading in different places. But still I find myself going back to CDs and LPs just to find out if the drummer was Steve Gadd or Steve Jordan on my favorite songs.Shuffle is great but I have a mental model of trying to remember who the musicians are because I don't have that physical contact with CD or LP.

triks's picture

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nunh's picture

I personally discover more music online (blogs, youtube and emusic) than I ever did in a "record" store (cd store in my time). I miss buying and waiting for a cd through BMG etc. but, record stores were always an extreme ripoff. Amazon and emusic have leveled the playing field.I love listening to cd as well if the album has a running theme etc. I am into alot of electronica which can be enjoyed track by track or with the whole of the album/ EP etc.I miss vinyl's warmth but, probably will not pursue this avenue due to space and expense.