Last week I mentioned that I was hesitant to write a complete eulogy for the packaged collection of recordings we’ve come to know as an album. Well, I’ve reconsidered. Here it is.
The album is dead. At least in hip-hop this is the case and, from what I hear, the same is true for other genres. So that Detox album you’ve been holding your breath for – forget about Dre. Blueprint 3? Move it from TBD to RIP. And for all the new signees that keep talking about their debut albums, they need to adjust their marketing and acknowledge the mixtapes are as close to an album as they are going to get.
The demise and death of the album should not surprise anyone. We’ve all done our part to deconstruct the machine that made this sort of packaging sell and we did it for a reason.
Personally, I’m not sad to see the album go. I believe a lot of us have this romantic idea of a classic album that can be listened to cover-to-cover, and that leads us to overvalue the concept as a whole. For every Illmatic, The Chronic or College Dropout CD that you purchased how many albums weren’t classics? I’m guessing a lot. If you’re like the majority of us whose purchases made the music business one of the strongest forces in entertainment, you probably spent a lot of money on a lot of CDs that had 1-2 songs you actually wanted to hear.
When Napster came along, Shawn Fanning became a hero for those of us with towers full of CDs gathering dust. He opened the gate to a world we didn’t know existed by giving us the freedom to pick and choose the songs we wanted and the ability to stop wasting money on things we didn’t need. Some say he killed the music industry; I say he saved the consumer.
What Napster has led us to is an open market of free distribution. The major record labels have all but given up on policing the situation and are counting their blessings every time they make a dime from one of their artists. The current state of the music industry looks something like the legalized drug market on The Wire known as Hamsterdam. We have people craving good music like a drug. We have capable artists, producers and labels able to supply these fans with what we need. And we have the means to make sure the suppliers and customers can find one another. Much like the fictional environment of The Wire in which a renegade commander took the City’s drug problem into his own hands, this same landscape has been created by the bloggers and file-sharing sites, and users have found themselves portrayed as criminals because of bureaucratic bullshit that offers no solution to the problem and would much rather pretend it doesn’t exist.
A lot of us in the hip-hop community like to portray ourselves as progressive thinkers. We kick and scream about how this artist is killing hip-hop, or how that executive is holding us back or how that label won’t embrace change. Then we simultaneously start talking about album releases. It’s one of the biggest contradictions one can make. You can’t be thinking progressively about this industry if you’re still talking about albums.
This sort of thought is what has brought us to the point we’re currently at in hip-hop — on life-support with a DNR already signed. I’m not going to go into the old “hip-hop is dead” cliché. What’s driving people away is that it’s boring. There are very few artists giving us anything to be excited about anymore. Fans have all but given up while waiting to hear material from promised albums that have had release dates pushed back repeatedly. It’s no wonder fans are marking time watching 50 Cent cartoons. If this trend continues, those of us who work in the music industry will need to start improving our drawing skills because while everyone is watching cartoons we’re losing jobs.
I’m proposing a stimulus plan that calls on some of hip-hop’s most powerful names to start releasing the music they have been holding back (and, by the way, do it for free). Dr. Dre, we need you right now. Jay-Z, let’s start getting those tracks from Blueprint 3 out to the masses. This message applies to everyone who is holding back gems because they are waiting for the climate to improve. I’m here to tell you the climate for releasing an album is never going to get any better. Hip-hop fans need to be hit by a barrage of new music that reminds us of why we fell in love with this culture to begin with. Our morale couldn’t go any lower.
The old heads and the new heads need to work together and ensure above all else that what they’re delivering is what the fans want to hear. Hence the word fans in that last sentence, as I think the powers that be seem to have forgotten who they are working for. I mean it’s time to cut out the bullshit, the “I’m a perfectionist” excuses that are given about project delays. This is what caused Guns N’ Roses to take 14 years to create an album that no one gave a shit about by the time it finally came out.
The artists and labels need to give up on the idea that they’re going to recoup the money invested in these projects and begin liquidating what they’ve got. Where are they going to sell these albums they’re talking about? I live in the heart of New York City and if I wanted to purchase an album, I wouldn’t even know where to look.
I believe that getting fans excited about the music again is the first step in revitalizing hip-hop culture. It would provide a renewed sense of optimism among hip-hop fans, which I believe would improve conditions throughout the industry. Much like the stimulus plan recently passed by the Obama administration, the results of this stimulus also may not be immediate.
This stimulus plan involves improving our psyche, rather than serving to benefit anyone financially. The money will come, but that’s not what is most important right now. We as fans need to love hip-hop again. Improving the quality of music and providing the industry with something we can truly be excited about will most certainly lead to a revised plan from the hip-hop community as a whole. While sales may not improve, it will actually encourage people to start thinking of ways to become profitable in this new age of music whether it’s from becoming smarter in tour packaging to creating new online revenue streams. The desire to fix the problem will grow stronger once the overall morale is improved.
Right now everyone is dumbfounded, looking for a solution to the problem of the internet. In case you haven’t noticed, the internet is anarchy. There is not going to be a solution, formula or even a game plan that works because we can’t control an environment that evolves through unfettered innovation. The best the industry will be able to do is quickly adapt to change. That means if your label, management company or agency isn’t staffed primarily by a bunch of internet geeks that are able to identify trends, stop on a dime and shift gears in the way they’re working, then you’re fucked.
The labels will no doubt eventually figure out that everything has changed, but what do fans do until then? Fans have to start pressuring the artists directly and demanding quality music. With citizen journalism at an all-time high thanks to blogs, twitter and other technological advances, it is now possible to create an instant world-wide buzz for a record. The smart artists will take advantage of this capability while the others will continue letting their records gather dust in the studio.
What we truly need right now is for every hip-hop artist to try to do something remarkable and to do it soon. Stop thinking about the dollar signs and start thinking about who you owe your success to. You owe it to hip-hop to do everything in your power to save the culture that created you.