The mp3 Didn’t Kill the Album After All

10-15 years ago I was telling a fellow metal- and prog-loving friend how I was then listening to my full collection of music as a random mp3 playlist. He bemoaned the impending demise of the album format:

I love albums, it’s sad to think in a few years they’ll be gone

I sympathized with the sentiment, as I also loved listening to a well-crafted album despite also appreciating the imminent convenience of the new file format.

Well, albums are not gone now, are they? What we see instead is that while the constraints of the album format have been smashed allowing for new possibilities, the conceptual grooves in the cultural consciousness have already sunk in deep and the cultural gravitational pull of the album is still strong. I would also argue that about an hour to 2 hours, for whatever reasons, seems to approach the limits of attention for a serious piece of music. Even before recording technology, Classical music works did not often go beyond an hour or an hour and a half. A Rock show rarely lasts longer than 3 hours. (Note that movies generally do not go beyond 3 hours, though they have a longer “sweet spot” at about 2 hours then does music at about 1 hour).

Despite the strong cultural gravity of the album format, we are now free to go beyond it. When digital music technology and bandwidth was limited and focused on single mp3s, it made sense that this new freedom would result in shuffle playlists at the song level. Creative remixing at this level lead to the mashup. As more bandwidth became available, we began to see this freedom applied to whole albums being mashed-up and remixed.

The opening track of the And Justice for Jason… fan remix of the And Justice for All… Metallica album

Now that streaming music is now becoming the dominant format (as I argued back in 2006 should happen, to pat myself on the back), while including the previous changes wrought by the file-song (thematic or personalized “radio” streaming instead of mp3 shuffle playlist a la Pandora for example), we are now going beyond it. While also very much including the album (see full album streams on youtbube) and the concept of an album as an ~hour length work of music, we are also now transcending it. There are now youtube streams of full discographies and now we are beginning to see fan edits that play with and evolve the traditional format (see below).

Digital music didn’t kill the album. It freed it to evolve!

A youtube stream of Rainbow’s entire discography

Ax7’s entire discography sped up!

A thematic fan album of Dream Theater’s epic suites and songs compiled across several traditional albums