Yes, we are living in the future.
The Baby Boomer generation is working long hours while sinking lower economically. Expenses are high, free time is at a premium, usually spent in exhaustion, and there’s little disposable income to spend. Few have the energy or curiosity to look for new music or even to re-buy old favorites on CD.
Generations X-Z have grown up with computers and video games and DVDs and cable and cellphones that have more functions than a deluxe Swiss army knife. The world is virtually at their fingertips. Instantly.
Who has time for music or, specifically, who has the time to make a forty or forty minute commitment to listen to an entire CD in this age of 10-second attention spans? Is it worth it?
If your answers are “Not me” and “No,” please read on. If your answer is “Yes,” we’re knocking on an open door.
Since the earliest days of recording technology in the 1880s, inventors have constantly strived to create longer-playing musical formats – from speedy 78-rpm discs that only held a few minutes of music per side to the late 1940s breakthrough of “long-playing albums,” vinyl capable of capturing more than 40 minutes.
Classical music fans were rapturous – entire concerts could be heard without flipping records every few minutes. Pop music fans loved their 45-prm singles – one song per side – but also enjoyed the convenience of the long-players. Some of the artists themselves embraced the album concept as a medium for building a mood or lyrical theme instead of releasing a catchall of recent hits mixed with throwaway tracks. Long before The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band or The Who’s Tommy, Quadrophenia and The Who Sell Out, Frank Sinatra’s 1955 In the Wee Small Hours was not only his first 12” LP but was structured as a “concept album” of disconsolate lovelorn ballads sharing the same mood. Who could argue that the songs on unified albums like the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds, Brian Wilson’s Smile, Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon and The Wall, The Kinks’ Arthur (or The Decline and Fall of the British Empire), Neil Young’s Tonight’s the Night, Jackson Browne’s Running On Empty, David Bowie’s The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, or even Green Day’s American Idiot don’t pack more of an emotional punch when heard in one sitting, as intended?
Even when musicians didn’t have a full-length musical or lyrical concept to convey, albums from the colorfully exploding heyday of the 1960s onward displayed an increasing sensitivity to the unity and sequencing of their songs. The idea that popular music could be a lasting art form as well as disposable entertainment, particularly when supplemented by 12” by 12” album art, lyrics and liner notes, became a valid assumption.
The smell of a newly unwrapped album, the scrutiny of the front and back cover design and text, the spin of the 33-1/3 rpm label were all part of the sensory experience, followed by endless debates and bonding with friends over every musical and graphic nuance.
Ironically, while many of the electronic developments since that time – 8-tracks, cassettes, compact discs, DualDiscs – have expanded the amount of music that can be stored and increased its portability, the cultural impact of popular music and the time spent listening to it has devolved back to an emphasis on hit singles and multi-song shuffles.
Thanks to the dozens (hundreds?) of legal and illegal digital download Internet sites, peer-to-peer file sharing and an ever-expanding variety of “delivery systems” – iPods, Zunes, ringtones (good grief!) – music has become more available than ever – but seems to mean less. Last year, an alarming 48% of all US teenagers bought no CDs.
The Appleseed staff consists of hardcore “music nuts” who believe that a well-conceived album (read “compact disc,” youngsters) is a creative whole that shouldn’t be sliced and diced into downloadable individual tracks for a three minute entertainment hit and then on to something else. While we pride our CDs as being all killer/no filler, with each track capable of making a stand-alone entertaining and meaningful statement, we don’t believe in “reductio ad absurdum,” boiling a full-length CD down to a single song for the car or computer while consigning the other tracks to “some other time.”
At its best, an album is as much a work of art as a novel or collection of short stories; who reads a single page or story and then puts the book away? Good music is meant to be savored – sometimes as background listening, but at least initially as a new experience that deserves the respect of your concentration. Obviously, we’re not talking about the commercial fodder that is no more than “product” and isn’t aimed any higher than your feet (or crotch). But the CDs released by Appleseed and many other “indie” labels are intended to transport music, and the listener, into a unique realm and to leave a lasting impression.
Some of our best and most popular CDs have been conceptual works, both musically and graphically. Our three tributes to the music of Pete Seeger may be too much for one sitting but provide a broad and comprehensive overview of the great musician’s range as a songwriter and communicator. Spain in My Heart: Songs of the Spanish Civil War (2003) combines an international cast of artists, traditional and original songs about the conflict with historical liner notes and photos to create a vivid picture of the late-1930s conflict. Kim and Reggie Harris, who teach through their music, have created important cultural documents on their CDs of Underground Railroad songs (Steal Away and Get On Board!). The songs on Donovan’s Beat Café were written and recorded to recreate the sensual creative vibe of underground Bohemian/Beat coffeehouses. The effervescent Christine Lavin rounded up twenty songs about food and a couple of dozen recipes by the participating musicians and friends and cooked up One Meat Ball, a unique CD/96-page illustrated cookbooklet– try downloading THAT! Most recently, Give US Your Poor, our charity compilation to combat homelessness, had a thematic unity to its songs, written by everyone from Randy Newman to indigent teenager Nichole Cooper, and a booklet full of infuriating statistics and heartrending photos.
We know we’re fighting progress in our desire to preserve the concept of a CD (album) as a unified entity, but we believe in our artists and the quality of their work, and we believe in our customers and their expectations of musical stimulation. We’ve already yielded to the inevitability of making all of our releases available for individual track or full-album digital download sales on most of the national digital websites, but we’re also watching with horror as the trend toward totally intangible music – R.I.P CDs – is rushing forward. We can’t turn back time, but we hope that lovers of all music of substance won’t let technology rob them of the unique pleasure of experiencing a musician’s complete esthetic statement, aurally and visually, not a soulless, sonically compressed and intangible sound byte.
And, as much as we appreciate you buying or downloading our CDs through our own or other commercial websites, please don’t ignore your local record store, if you’re lucky enough to still have one. About 3,100 record stores around the country have closed in the last five years, and we’re not just talking about the big chains like Tower. Almost half of those shuttered stores were independents, the kind of places that carry a wide selection of music (such as ours), maintain a knowledgeable staff, and generally serve as communal gathering places for music lovers. Doesn’t anyone enjoy a dusty but oh-so-satisfying browse through the bins anymore? Apparently so – this past April 19 was Independent Record Store Day across America, with many stores featuring live bands and other special events to celebrate these waning bastions of hands’-on record-shopping excitement and to assert their continued existence. Save the Album and Save the Indies!
– Alan Edwards and Jim Musselman, Appleseed Recordings