Additional Reporting: Tim Karan
Noticed your iPod feeling a little lighter than usual lately? That's probably because so many of the albums you've been loading onto it have fewer songs than what we’ve traditionally come to expect from full-length releases. A wide range of artists including NEVER SHOUT NEVER, HEY MONDAY, FOREVER THE SICKEST KIDS, STEREO SKYLINE, SEMI PRECIOUS WEAPONS, NEON TREES and even LADY GAGA have all put out recent albums with less than the industry standard of 12 or 13 songs--many barely cracking eight tracks. So what's going on here? Have bands run out of ideas or are they accounting for the world’s diminishing attention span?
Instead, maybe this question is all a matter of semantics. In the earliest days of recording sound for public consumption on phonograph, a “record” referred to essentially any single recording, which at the time was mostly classical works. An “album,” was a collection of records—much like a photo album containing many individual pictures. The first collection of records to become an album was reportedly Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite, a four-disc set released in 1909 (which, incidentally, retailed for what would be more than $100 in today’s currency). In 1948, Columbia released the first vinyl 12-inch records, containing room for 23 minutes of sound per side—or enough to be classified as an album. For decades, the industry standard for an album became 12 songs in the U.S. and 14 in England—a number directly related to the fine print in royalty checks.
As the American and British pop and rock genres boomed in album production during the ‘50s and ’60s, bands would routinely record albums quickly and within a matter of days—if not hours in a single session. The Beatles recorded their first album, 1963’s Please Please Me (featuring 14 songs) in just under 10 hours. By the late ‘60s, bands were beginning to spend more time on their albums as fully conceived works of art including artwork and high-concept themes, shifting the norm in the ‘70s from releasing several albums per year to one every two or three—the standard most of us have come to expect.
Advances in technology eventually brought 8-track recordings and audio cassettes that dominated the ‘70s and ‘80s, but it wasn’t until Sony and Philips unveiled compact discs for commercial use in the early ‘90s that massive amounts of data (700 MB and 80 minutes of uncompressed audio) opened up huge amounts of space for musicians to fill.
MERCK MERCURIADIS, manager for Semi Precious Weapons (who released the nine-song You Love You on June 29), has worked with everyone from Elton John to Guns N’ Roses and has witnessed the changing effect of technology on the concept of an album. “The golden age of rock music from 1966 to 1980 is full of albums that are eight, nine and 10 songs--including the best works of Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd and David Bowie,” he says. “It's only with the CD age where many artists felt compelled to fill the available space. Rather than release their best songs and leave the filler for a box set, they put 16 or 17 tracks on an album and the results were weaker albums and shorter attention spans.”
In the AP 265 feature on THE READY SET, JORDAN WITZIGREUTER echoes this statement in regard to his own eight-song “mini-album,” I'm Alive, I'm Dreaming. “I always hated it whenever you bought an album with 15 songs and there would only be nine or 10 songs that were actually, like,really good,” he said. “I think having eight songs makes it so there's no room for any filler on the album.”
NEON TREES vocalist TYLER GLENN says he was originally hesitant to listen to a suggestion by the band’s label, Mercury: To release eight songs for $8. “I think we were prepared to write an album that was longer,” he says. But he soon came around. “There wasn't any filler, it was kind of seamless. I guess it felt right. We want to be accessible and for people to get our music. If that means keeping up with technology—and an eight song record is the way to do it—then we will because we want to be able to reach as many people as possible.”
Perhaps we should begin thinking of albums as short stories instead of novels; meant to be consumed in one feverish sitting, keeping your attention rapt the entire time. You shouldn't have to break your album listening up into chunks.
"We believe in the album as an art form,” says Mercuriadis. “It's pretty clear that 35 minutes to 45 minutes is the ideal length. You want to listen to it again and again and get familiar to a point that you start to discover little things you hadn't heard before—magical moments that are meaningless if you haven't heard the 28 minutes that preceded them.”
But there’s another possible motivation behind cutting songs from the ol’ 12-track standard: the way we now buy music—and specifically individual singles—online. You could blame shorter attention spans in an internet culture, but the nature of the singles market has shifted fans' need to shill out $15 for an album featuring one song they know they like and 11 they’re unsure of, to paying 99 cents for that one song.
DEVIN LASKER, chief imagination officer of Primary Wave Music—a company that calls itself a “next generation music publisher” working with the likes of the Airborne Toxic Event and Your Vegas—says artists are simply responding to the changing times. “I don’t necessarily think kids have shorter attention spans, but we have certainly turned into a 'singles driven industry,'” he says. “Could you imagine if a band tried to release an album like Rush’s [long-form concept album] 2112 right now? The industry wouldn’t know what to do with it.”
While, as a culture, we might not lack the attention span to sit through albums that still come in at an hour or so, we may have begun to lack the attention span to continue following a band who take years between releases. That’s likely why more and more outfits—like Forever The Sickest Kids with their The Weekend series—are packing fewer songs onto shorter releases that can be released periodically over a longer period of time.
“If my favorite artist just recorded some new tracks, let me buy them. Why make me wait?” says Lasker. “I think it’s a smart way for the bands to stay connected to their fans.”
Time is one reason why the new Semi Precious Weapons album has only nine songs. “We did it because we want to be able to release an amazing collection of songs every year for the next four years,” says frontman JUSTIN TRANTER. “Like in the glory days of rock ‘n roll.”
His manager, Mercuriadis, says that shorter, more frequently released albums benefit bands, labels and fans alike. “The kid who discovers [Semi Precious Weapons] today at 14 years old gets to grow up with us, and we get to grow up with them. Led Zeppelin made four albums in three years, Elton John made six albums in three years. We believe in that process and we believe it's a critical part of why those artists mean so much 40 years later. The 18 year-old then is now 58 and still obsessed.”
In addition, most bands and their management are beginning to realize they’re going to need one or two songs from their album recording session to be released in some other way—so they might as well hold off from including them on their album. Neon Trees’ Glenn says planning for iTunes bonus tracks is built into the new business model. “We had 11 or 12 songs we prepared, but we knew the music would be released in one way or another. The full album [including the tracks not included on the official release] is available on iTunes. It made me feel better that at least people could hear [the songs we didn't include on the album].” Lasker says unused album tracks can also end up as retail exclusives or vinyl-only promos—items essentially demanded of artists nowadays.
So what does this mean for the album? Is it an endangered species in favor of a singles-only scene? STEREO SKYLINE frontman KEVIN BARD says many bands already write their albums that way, even if it’s unintentional. “Some bands don't write albums. Some write a bunch of songs that are thrown on an album,” he says. “I think some bands are 'singles' bands, which isn't bad, and some are 'album' bands.” He thinks that shorter albums will help let those "singles" bands focus more on quality than quantity. “[Shorter albums]give them a chance to spend time on all their songs.” alt