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The death of the album

Since I’m the designated reader around here, let me pass on the link for an interesting article that ran last weekend in my favorite newspaper, The New York Times. The piece essentially serves as a eulogy for a disfavored commodity: the album. Jeff Leeds reports that last year, for the first time ever, digital singles outsold plastic CDs. And so far this year, sales of digital songs have risen 54 percent. In response, labels are reassessing everything from their marketing plans to their recording contracts. “I think the album is going to die,” a LA media consultant told the newspaper. Of course, this isn’t news to anyone who pays attention to the music industry even a little bit. But it got me thinking about how things have changed as a music critic over the past five years plus that I’ve been writing.

When I first started publishing, I would go into the office of the newspaper I worked for every week to check my mailbox. Every week, a whole stack of new CDs would have magically appeared, and I would go home and spend the next couple of days going through each and every one of them. Some were hot, some were decent, and some were straight garbage. But the point is that I listened to them all. (Including all the demo discs that hip-hop kids dropped off at the office for me.)

A lot of labels don’t really send out much music anymore, and aspiring rap stars don’t seem to do demos. The onus is now on the critic to continually dig for new music. Rappers and publicists send you MySpage page links and mp3 tracks. But it’s up to you to look around for bios and other music by the artist, which, frankly, gets seriously irritating when you’re pressed for time and have space to fill in a paper.

And, deadlines aside, the actual experience of music has become less contemplative and more harried. You rarely have the experience of just sitting down with a new disc, and absorbing the music, and looking at the cover art, and checking the shout outs, and taking it all in at once. I kinda miss that.

Anyway, the result of this shift in marketing and distribution, I think, is that what writers end up checking out is more influenced by media, blog, and word of mouth buzz. I’m sure some will argue that the digitization of music makes loads of more obscure music available to music critics. And I’m sure they’re right in some cases.

But there’s an important factor missing from that argument, a factor that most writers aren’t going to want to talk about. A lot of music critics out there—particularly freelance ones—aren’t particular tech savvy, and they’re usually more than a little broke. Meaning, they have crappy 1999-era computers that can’t handle a lot of downloading, and even if their Commodore 64s could do it, they’re not super up on where to find everything on the web. (I know one music critic who works from the free public library computer stations, for instance.) I’m not sure that record labels new marketing plans really take that into account.

Bloggers, of course, pick up where starving music critics leave off. And while bloggers are fantastic for raw, uncut opinion, they don’t always possess the skills that are second nature to publishing music critics—the ability to present the music to the general public in an accessible way. The conversation, although highly entertaining, ends up being pretty insular.

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