Wednesday, June 08, 2011

Nice One, Chief(s)

See that fancy little animated Kaiser Chiefs graphic over there in my sidebar? Well, this post is about that. But first I'm going to ramble on for a while.

So...does anyone buy full albums anymore? For those of you who still do, do you buy even half as many albums per year as you used to?

If you answered something along the lines of "probably not" and "no," congratulations! You're fully aware of the current state of the music industry. I won't hang this giant "Welcome to the Digital Age" banner on your front porch.

Like many of you, I lamented the death of the album. As a kid, one of my greatest joys was buying a new record, getting it home, putting it on, studying the artwork and liner notes, and memorizing the lyrics. When everyone in my high school started switching to the cool new medium—cassette tapes—I refused to give up my albums until they became too hard to find at record stores. I finally had to cave in and buy those stupid tapes, with their too-easily-cracked cases and unwieldy, accordion-style liner notes with the 2-point font. Eventually, I got used to them. Then CDs came along. Again, I was a late adopter. Again, I got used to the new way in which music was being delivered to my ears because, well, it was still being delivered. I even grew to love CDs almost as much as albums. While a CD case didn't feel as good as an album, the liner notes were once again easy to read, there was no flipping over and the discs rarely skipped. And then...the mp3s came along.

I like to think of myself as pretty adaptable when it comes to technology. But I absolutely bristled at the idea of music FILES. I didn't want magical sounds coming from my computing machine...I wanted something tangible. If I played a song that I liked, I wanted to be able to look at a glossy piece of paper that would tell me the lyrics, who wrote it, if that was really an organ I heard way in the background, and if the guy playing the organ was the same guy who played the organ on a thousand other tracks on a thousand different albums. (Yeah, it was probably Benmont Tench.) When it came to mp3s, I DID NOT WANT.

But of course, like everything else, I got used to mp3s. Then they became my world. I am a downloading fool these days, happy to give up the glory days of vinyl for the clarity, convenience and portability of mp3s. And of course, like everyone else, I see no reason to buy entire albums when it's easier and cheaper to just buy the songs I'm sure I like. Sure, I still buy full albums but that number is nowhere near the amount of vinyl albums and CDs I used to buy. Buying à la carte is just the way to go.

In this environment, how does an artist get fans to buy their full albums? Pearl Jam released a barrage of live "bootlegs." Radiohead started the whole "pay what you want" model. Plenty of artists have asked their fans to pick their singles or choose which tracks appear on their albums.

All of the above are good ideas, but I think the Kaiser Chiefs have come up with the most genius plan so far. With their latest album, The Future is Medieval, the band has decided to let their fans actually create their own customized versions of it—cover art and all. Through an app on the Kaiser Chiefs website, fans can listen to samples of 20 songs, pick their 10 favorites, choose the track order, create an album cover from supplied images and download their "self-produced" album. In an especially interesting twist, every fan-made album is housed in the Album H.Q. and available for sale to the public. Each album's creator will get back £1 for every one of their albums purchased! (PayPal will nicely do the currency conversion for you.) Oh, that reminds me...if you want to buy the new Kaiser Chiefs album, just buy the one I made. Not just to put money in my pocket, no! I want you to get the best ping for your pound! And I'm certain that my version boasts the best possible song selection and configuration. Or be nice and buy one of the celeb-made versions, which will benefit The Alzheimer's Society.

I haven't seen the sales figures (the album creator just debuted last Friday), but I'd be willing to bet that Kaiser Chiefs sell a lot more full albums than they would have had they released this record in the usual way. Obviously, they're not U2 or Lady Gaga, so they may not shatter any sales records, but this kind of creative approach to the artist/fan relationship can only help the industry.

So far, everyone I've talked to about this thinks it's a brilliant marketing strategy and an innovative way to bring the album into the digital age. Well, almost everyone. One blogfriend (let's just call him Nerds Nerds Nerds) took the opposite view, calling it a horrible idea and declaring, "If the album wasn't dead as an art form before, it certainly is now." What do you think, readers? Can fans have too much power? Can that power have a negative effect on artistry? Is this an example of too much business, not enough music?

I'm not really sure I see a downside...although I can't decide if the Kaiser Chiefs are smart or evil to only allow fans to make a 10-track record, because it forces them to buy two if they want all 20 songs! I'm leaning towards "smart" though, because the odds are that not too many people are going to like all 20 songs. And isn't that the whole point of this make the album YOU want?

For those who would rather just wait for the artist's vision, the band plans to release their version of the album at the end of this month, which will most likely include all 20 tracks.


tennysoneehemingway said...

I still buy albums. I've never downloaded any songs, whether I've liked them or not. I still buy vinyl for fuck's sake. I like the fact that, when I buy an album, I don't know what other tracks I'm going to like will be on said album. I like the element of surprise and the fact that, months after I've bought the album, I might play it after not playing it for a while and find out that, the track I really hated is now one of my favourites. I'm not sure I see the appeal of downloading. I like going out to shop, or buying from the Internet. Whole albums mind you, not just a track or two. The Kaisher Chiefs probably do have a good idea there but, once you've made your album, are you going to pine for the tracks you haven't bought? Will you remember them? Will you hear someone else's album and think, 'damn, why didn't I get that track?' Will it take off? Yeah, probably. Mainly because I don't think it will and I'm terrible at picking things like this.

tennysoneehemingway said...

Kaiser Chiefs. When will I learn to proofread?

words...words...words... said...

I will out myself as Nerds Nerds Nerds (cute).

After some thought, I still stick by my opinion. You actually worded it better than I did. Fans have too much power. Everyone is not an artist. Would we let people put a mustache on the Mona Lisa? Let people put arms back on the Venus de Milo? Let people change "Rocky" so he wins? I understand that a dumb rock album isn't the Mona Lisa. But art is art, and personalizing it ruins it.

The bigger trend is that technology ruins art. I first thought this when DVDs allowed for director's cuts. They're a bastardization of a movie. There shouldn't be different versions of a movie. The movie should be what it is. I can't tell you how much this angers me. It belittles expression and cheapens the idea of the professional artist. I get that with technology, now EVERYONE can be a DJ, painter, musician, filmmaker, etc. The problem is that most people suck at it, and the clutter devalues art that has value.

Okay, I'm done ranting now. I'll just say that in addition to all the egghead nonsense above, I just want something I can hold in my hand. I don't buy MP3s. You can have my physical CD when you pry it from my cold, dead hands.

*drops microphone and walks offstage*

words...words...words... said...

Crap. Not to go on and on, but I forgot the most important point. We have so few communal media experiences anymore. 200 channels means nobody watches the same thing. Niche radio means nobody listens to the same thing. Now, one of the last vestiges of communal experience is fading away. When everyone has their own new Kaiser Chiefs album, an experience is lost, an experience that has value.

Cora said...

Pffft! "Nerds Nerds Nerds." Funny. When you're mad at WWW do you call him Turds Turds Turds?

Johnson said...

I agree and I disagree with Words cubed. I definitely agree that technology is changing the face of art for the worse (in fact, I wrote about in detail here...if you're bored).
But I have to agree with Beckeye that The Kaiser Chiefs are being innovative, not blame-worthy, for trying something different. You can't fault them for trying to do something to boost sales when downloading is eating profits from bands like crazy.
Having said that, I am part of the problem. I only download whole albums, for the reason that I agree the album must be considered as a whole to be appreciated as a piece of art; however, I don't pay for music. Sorry, but it's true. I have the same opinion of music as a I do of sex: Why would I pay for something I can get for free?

BeckEye said...

One flaw in WWW and Johnson's "it's art, dammit" argument is this: not all albums are entirely the artist's vision. Plenty of artists have had to compromise or cave into their label's demands. For example, if it had been up to Bruce Springsteen, "Dancing in the Dark" wouldn't even exist, much less be on Born in the USA. Obviously, forcing him to write it was a good decision by the label, but it had nothing to do with ART. It was a business decision.

Vinny "Bond" Marini said...

I still have all my vinyl

I get a lot of music sent to me free because of my Music On The Couch

I still will buy music, but only full albums (whether it be CD or vinyl)

I want the whole concept by the artist and accept that most are not talented enough to write 12 great songs and there will be stinkers.

Vinny "Bond" Marini said...

I had read about this idea by Kaiser Chiefs and applaud them in trying something new. Not sure it would work for all bands, but it is a cool idea.

Dale said...

Excellent discussion. I have nothing to add. Somehow, I agree with points that everyone's bringing up.

Professor Chaos said...

I still miss vinyl. I love my iPod, but I like to have a physical object like a CD to hold for some reason. Also, I love liner notes and album cover art.

Barbara Bruederlin said...

I think this is a really fun idea, but I hope it's a one-off. It's a fresh idea and one that is nicely inclusive, plus there is the added element of intrigue, wondering what the band's version will look like. Ultimately though, when I buy an album or cd, I want the band to do the work. I want to know what their vision of their music is.

bloody awful poetry said...

I download practically everything I listen to, although when it comes to albums I truly really love, I keep a lookout for a physical CD I can actually purchase and keep till I'm dead. And I agree with Barb ; the Kaiser Chiefs have a very cool idea here, but I hope it doesn't become a thing. It somehow bugs me that there isn't going to be a definitive version of this album, and when someone talks about how much they love this new album, it's never going to include anyone else's experience of listening to it. I want the band's album, so I'll be right here till the end of a June, waiting for that.

Alice said...

this is so interesting! i tend to.. um.. not care at all about the inherent art value in the composition of an album, it turns out. i realize that sometimes you're meant to take an album as a whole, but i think that far more often it really IS just a compilitaion of songs that the record label thought would make the most money / produce the most singles / whatever. i far prefer choosing which tracks to listen to than being forced to sit through tracks i don't love just to get to better ones.

(and since my idea of which tracks are "better" is obviously not a universal one, it makes sense to me to be able to choose my tracks from the getgo. it's like getting to skip a step where i'd make a playlist on itunes with just the tracks i wanted anyway!)

Alice said...

ps: "compilitaion." ha.

elaine said...

I too love the feel of having an actual cd - something tangible that I can hold in my hands. However, a lot of albums just aren't worth it if there are only one or two good songs on the whole thing. The ability to preview the whole cd has often led me to just download a couple of songs instead of going to the store to buy the whole thing.

So, here's a topic of conversation for you: best "complete" albums in which every song (or at least most of them) is a keeper. Greatest hits compilations don't count. Off the top of my head, I'm going to say Nirvana's Nevermind, Pearl Jam's 10, The Lemonheads "It's a Shame about Ray," The Decemberists' "Hazards of Love," The Pixies' "Trompe le Monde," and The Beatles' White Album.

Johnson said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Johnson said...

Elaine: Weezer's blue album, Miles Davis' Kind of Blue, Al Green's I'm Still in Love with You.


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