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Apple turns consumers’ attention back to the album format. We still have an attention, right?

Apple turns consumers’ attention back to the album format. We still have an attention, right?

Mark Roach

[Music]

One of the latest innovations from Apple in recent months was to announce a ‘new’ format in its arsenal of digital download products—something called iTunes LP. Music fans of a certain vintage will crack a wry smile at the thought of promoting and re-establishing the very format, the Long Player, that was most damaged by digital downloading.

“While you listen to your favourite songs, you can dive into animated lyrics and liner notes, watch performance videos, view artist and band photos, and enjoy other bonus materials,” Apple promises. “And become an even bigger fan.“

An even bigger fan? This suggests that the average music consumer is not much of a fan—and certainly points to what many have known for ages, which is that consumers don’t know or don’t care that their favourite artists actually produce more than just singles. Digital downloading certainly got plenty of plaudits for reinvigorating the ailing singles market, but it was at the expense of albums. Fair play to Apple for attempting to tempt punters back to the album format, but its success remains to be seen.

That’s not to knock Apple, but to question whether consumers in the digital age have simply become too attention-deficit to be bothered with albums, no matter how many bells and whistles are attached.

If brevity is indeed the soul of wit, then I’m doing some hard soul-searching in this tweet from Miley Cyrus, role model of a generation and musical wünderkind: ‘Just drank a coke for the first time in a lonnngg time. Tonight should be interesting’

We want our media and we want it now. We want to consume and devour it and move on to the next thing or use it while tweeting about a Facebook post. The album format says, to quote Paul Simon, “slow down, you move too fast, you gotta make the moment last” but there is now a generation so accustomed to moving at digital pace that, unless music can be consumed in five megabytes or less, it’s no good. We’re in a world of txts and tweets, where the winners are as short and fast as Stacey Jones. And Shakespeare may have written in Hamlet that “brevity is the soul of wit”, but it should be noted that’s actually an abbreviated edit from a fairly length rant as Polonius drones on to point out that Hamlet is a few sandwiches short of a picnic (or ‘H-nuts!’, if he could txt in medieval Denmark.)

If brevity is indeed the soul of wit, then I’m doing some hard soul-searching in this tweet from Miley Cyrus, role model of a generation and musical wünderkind: Just drank a coke for the first time in a lonnngg time. Tonight should be interesting. Seriously. I’m not making that up.

Anyway, my point is that while brevity may well be the soul of wit—at least in the hands of witty people—it is not the soul of musicians who tend to explore ideas over lengthy periods of time. Admittedly, that may be in the form of short bursts of music, but when the muse strikes, it rarely results in a single piece of work. Even if you’re a punk band.

What’s fascinating with LPs, though, is how well the old format still resonates. Did the guys stamping shellac in the early part of last century have it so right? Clearly so. Prog rock bands and Radiohead aside, most artists are conditioned to producing albums of approximately 40 to 70 minutes or ten to 15 tracks in length—the blueprint that was set in the late 1940s when LPs first appeared. The only conceivable way of shipping vinyl was to slot it into 12 square inches of cardboard, thus giving us the album sleeve, which still remains the gold standard. Even when CDs forced a reduction in size, then digital forced artwork to minimise even further, the album cover with liner notes endured as the mode of communication.

I don’t know whether Apple’s efforts will do much to change attitudes. Trainspotters who value complete collections (ahem) will always seek out the Long Player, and singles downloaders and consumers will continue to crave the immediacy of the perfect pop moment. What I think it does represent, though, is another turn of wheel in the ever-maturing digital music market, and it’s a step in the right direction. Let’s see who follows.

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