Tuesday, 18 September 2012

This album is forgotten

According to a recent BBC article, Nottingham is the second worst city in the UK for illegal downloads. the most shared artist in my fair city is Ed Sheeran. In fact, the entirety of the UK seem to think that they can't last without Sheeran in their lives, so they've decided to illegally download his album instead. I could go on about how I dislike Ed and his novelty micro-acoustic guitar, his beige demeanor, his MOR, milquetoast, pointless, translucent music, and his fan-base, who mistook his rendition of Wish You Were Here for a 'new track' of his at the Olympic Closing Ceremony (there is a special kind of stupid happening there, and it probably needs an entire post to get to the bottom of) but really I just wanted to use the article as a jumping off point for a bit of spiel.

I have no real problem with torrenting, but I do wonder how it changes people's relationship to music, and the people that create it. After the news broke, Sheeran reconciled with the ridiculous figures presented to him by musing that he had a good turnout live, and this could probably be attributed, in part, to the rampant thieving of his material. That puts music in a funny situation, where it becomes less important as an article than seeing the artist perform in the flesh. In my opinion live gigs are an absolutely integral experience, but the album as an artifact, a physical document of intent, is something that I believe is incredibly important, and the throwaway nature of downloading music seems to be undermining the slightly.

Artists like Ed Sheeran, Rihanna and One Direction probably don't invest a lot of effort into making a coherent album with themes and motifs. I'd suggest they are more interested in putting out product, hit singles tweaked to garner increased airplay and improve their status as a brand beyond their status as an artist. Contrast this with a band like Swans, who have been around in various forms since 1982, and whose latest album The Seer has a title track weighing in at a colossal 32 minutes long, a time stamp that need only stretch itself a little further to tickle the entire running time of Rihanna's 2011 album Talk That Talk. I'm not saying that Rihanna is of less artistic merit than Swans, but as two constructs, there is a world of difference between The Seer and Talk That Talk. The former is the culmination of Micheal Gira's life's work; a two hour long unfinished litany and the utter apex of what he considers Swans to be as a creative unit. The latter on the other hand is your typical pop album, a few undeniably slick and heavyweight tracks produced to within an inch of their lives and the required smattering of filler to push it from EP to album length.

Again, this isn't comparing merit between the two albums, merely riffing on the consumption of them. The Seer is intended as a whole, a journey that takes you from a definite beginning to an absolute finale. Its opposite is a construct of its environment, a grab bag of different genres and styles produced to appeal to a large as possible market, a dubstep song, a hiphop song, a trance song, a skit, a house track, a ballad: it is ticking all the requisite boxes. Due to the nature of torrenting I don't really think it is a stretch to imagine that the album will primarily be downloaded off the back of a hit single or two, thus a multitude of tracks that have been worked on by a veritable super team of producers will probably only ever be played if the album is left on in full in a car or neglected stereo- will the album even be purchased in a physical format at all?

When fans go to see Rihanna and Ed Sheeran, do they go to see that album track that was never released, or the single that topped the chart? Is even referring to a song by the bizarre moniker of 'album track' a concession to the death of the album as a working tool in popular music? When fans go to see The Seer are they desperate to hear the title track, or would they be content with its omission? Neither is the right or wrong experience, but I thoroughly believe one is a relic and one is a product of the digital age.

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