If I hear one more label nincompoop whining about how digital is destroying the album, I think I might start bringing a sword to work.

Modern albums are destroying the album, by being bad products that nobody wants.

For the first 600 years or so, the only way to record music was to write it down and you had to have something like a piano and about 10,000 hours of practice to be able to play it back. Compared to this, even a Windows Media Center is cheap and easy to use. Then the phonograph came along. Awesome invention. For about 70 years, you could wind a handle and listen to around four minutes of crackly, tinny mono sound with a dynamic range of on and off. It took real focus to make a record worth listening to. Long recordings were the real outliers – they came in heavy “albums” of multiple breakable discs. It was possible to listen to a whole opera, but you had to really want to do it.

Vinyl came along and the “album” became a single product for about 40 years. Audio quality improved. The CD was more portable and sounded better. Apparently “perfect” audio quality was available on mobile devices with long uninterrupted playing times. What did the market ask for? Cheap (or free) singles, compressed and mastered loud so that they had no dynamic range for playback on crappy devices with no bass response or channel separation. At least my Victrola doesn’t need batteries*.

So here we are, back where we started. What have learned from more than a century of phonographic history? Apparently nothing. The pop folks think they invented rock and roll, like teenagers always do, and have no interest in learning from mistakes other than their own**.

Surely, the classical music world is full of people smart enough to work this out, right?***

Well. Unconstrained by format size, classical labels have tried some interesting approaches. A few ambulance chasers have bundled all the PD repertoire they can find onto massive, hurriedly assembled box sets for tiny prices, which are worth almost as little as they cost. A more sensible innovation comes from the old-school label Deutsche Grammophon, who are increasingly creating digital products that contain a single work and are priced accordingly. It seems to work well (no pun intended).

The place I’m looking forward to exploring in years to come, though, is opera. Sure, composers wrote their operas to be performed in their entirety, but they also wrote them to be heard in theaters, by performers in costume and singing to an audience that could understand the words and who had never experienced TV. Don’t get snobby with me when I only want the good bits on my iPod. Opera made up a large part of the early phonograph record market (in part because Puccini was still alive) but I really think it deserves a renaissance in the digital marketplace. Watch this space.

* it could use a new spring, but hey, it is older than any living member of my family and I’ve burned through seven iPods in five years

** or from their own mistakes, it would appear

*** or at least people old enough to remember 78s


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