I remember when I was first introduced to the game. It was somewhere around the 7th grade and a friend of mine mentioned the word “Kazaa.” My inquisitive nature got the best of me and I blurted out a phrase that I’ll forever regret.
The onslaught of laughter and sophomoric quips that ensued could only be found inside of the venomous walls of a middle school classroom. I had been shamed.
And so it began—my journey on the road of intellectual property piracy. From Kazaa to Bearshare to the countless Megaupload, Rapidshare, and Mediafire links moving across the internet, I saw the evolution of music acquisition and the subsequent destruction of the industry. I watched as countless friends downloaded and traded, steadily moving high hats and sixteens like the earliest form of structured economy. Music was our currency. And the wealth of others, those with minimal to no artistic talent (read:executives), meant absolutely nothing.
As I have grown older and inevitably developed an interest in entering the music industry myself, I have not found much empathy for those executives suffering from musical piracy, despite wholly understanding their difficulties. Instead, most of my feelings are situated amongst those who I stood with in the past—the consumer. Because as much as the executive (whom I will admit is absolutely significant in the continued financial stability of the artists we love) and most importantly, the artist (the creator of it all) is losing money, I do believe that the greatest victims of this “crime” are those who commit it themselves—the “consumer.”
What I have watched slowly unfold within commercial music is the flooding of the market with songs. Not musical products. Just songs. Allow me to elaborate.
The most recent trend in online musical consumption has been the leaking of single tracks from upcoming projects. As each day passes, we find ourselves introduced to yet another song off of a highly anticipated release. This, I believe, greatly depreciates the value of the album itself.
I have a very specific idea of what an album is, so let’s get that out of the way first. When I say “album,” I refer to the full body of work presented in packaged form. Under this idea, we can recognize that by default of an album being leaked track by track, the “album” implodes, by (my) definition. Let’s relate this to another form of art:
Imagine that you are anticipating a new book. Let’s say that you appreciate the classics and it’s the next installment of “Fifty Shades of Grey.” Your excitement gets the best of you. Succumbing to the anxiety and pressures of both carnal and pseudointellectual lust, you find yourself scourging bookstores for possible leaks. Barnes and Noble drops pages 37-53. You read it. Borders (do they still even exist?) leaks pages 248-365. You read it. You’re a fan of small businesses, so you hit the mom and pops spot down the street and they’ve got you for pages 109-112. You read it. The book is finally released and you take in the remaining pages. Fin. Think about it. Now how stupid is that? I’m not mincing words here. You would never read a book that way. It’s literally absurd.
So, then, why would you listen to an album that way?
An early leak diminishes both the clarity of the work as well as the overall experience of following the album from beginning to end. Looking at a recent release, G.O.O.D. Music’s Cruel Summer could never reach its absolute potential if for nothing else than it’s steady leak into the public atmosphere. We listened to Track 3 (“Mercy”) and then Track 6 (“Cold”), right before we jumped to Track 4 (“New God Flow”), followed by Track 2 (“Clique”), which led to Track 10 “(Sleepers”), which, logically, of course, carried us over to Track 1 “To The World”), and so on and so forth. You see, instead of sitting down and listening, track by track, top to bottom, enjoying the musical journey, our listening experience has been diluted to an underwhelming ride of musical hodgepodge. The trajectory is more than simply lost. It becomes null and void. However, this brings us to a larger point that I would like to make.
Perhaps, we’re talking about a chicken and the egg scenario, but what I believe is the greatest flaw in leaking music is the way in which it has disrupted and essentially destroyed the making of an “album.” It may be a reach, but I believe that artists have strayed away from building “albums” and have instead focused on making “tracks.” These tracks are then strewn together to make something that looks sort of like an album, but isn’t exactly the same. And that’s exactly how Cruel Summer should be defined. Even if we had listened to Cruel Summer as it was intended, it still would have fallen short in the bigger picture. It’s the product of a lawless generation. The “album” that really isn’t an album. Welcome to the present.
Now, here is the point were you, the reader, and I, the author, may greatly depart in our understanding of an album. But allow me to reiterate my position nonetheless.
When I really think of an album—exactly what defines the concept—I think of the Marvin Gaye classic What’s Going On. For just a second, I ask of you the herculean task of forgetting the musicianship. Because what I believe to be the album’s greatest achievement, comes within its conceptual dynamic. What’s Going On is a narrative. Like a film, the album plays out as a well written storyboard. It tells the tale of a Vietnam War veteran returning to the United States as he attempts to navigate the sociopolitical landscape of a changing country. With each track, our protagonist explores drug abuse, violence, and the overall corrosive nature of the inner-city to which he has returned. Only further driving this point home, the album literally plays as one solid track. “The Detroit Mix,” featured on the deluxe version of the album, released roughly thirty years after the original 1971 pressing, accurately displays the way in which each track fluidly transitions into the next, never stopping the progression. This is an album.
I hate to put limits, boundaries or guidelines upon art, but I would say that when constructing an album, it should have, at the very least, some binding agent. Each album needn’t be a mechanism for storytelling, but there should be a common thread that is seen throughout the body of work, even if it means comfortable movement from track to track. It is this concept that seems to be missing from the modern musical stage. It seems as if artists of the present are taking 10-12 of their “hottest” songs recorded, throwing them on a CD and calling it an album. No. That would be a collection of songs—a literal mixtape. But even those mixtapes we all made back in high school had a purpose (Shouts to my “Slow Jamz Car Mix” circa ’05). Cruel Summer, while great in many ways, doesn’t have any sense of direction and for this, I honestly don’t blame Mr. West. If I’m Mr. West, why would I waste my time crafting something with a grand perspective, when it’s going to be valued by its individual parts? It would be more important to focus on the specificity of each track more so than the entire product’s connectivity and broader scope. Yes, artistic integrity can overwhelm this logic and lead to such conceptual masterpieces as My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. No doubt. That can happen. But more than not, we have and will continue to be repetitiously living through a Cruel Summer like it’s Groundhog Day, but not as funny.
Let’s go back to the example of “Fifty Shades of Grey.” Now if E.L. James believed that her work was going to be consumed in random chunks, don’t you think there would be more inexplicable, but titillating moments of unbridled eroticism and even less coherent character development and plot advancement? No longer would the overall narrative matter. It would be of greater importance to captivate the audience within each 20-30 page interval, knowing that it would inevitably leak that way regardless. And I may be alone in saying this, but I do not consider that to be a satisfying reading experience.
Above all, as much as I appreciate the movement of music within our modern society, I do believe, in the most ironic fashion imaginable, it actually hurts us all in the end. It creates the necessity for artists to change their original ideas, abdicate legitimately great pieces of work for the sake of presenting something easily consumed. Ultimately the overall creative genius is interupted because we were too impatient to wait for their potential magnum opus. And trust me, I know. It’s a double-edged sword. As a music consumer, I fully understand the insatiable hunger for more. But perhaps the next time we plan on “taking” music from our favorite black market music space, think about exactly who this is hurting.
Written By: Paul Pennington