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Downloading ruins full album experience

Michelle Fordice | Monday, October 2, 2006

Getting music is so easy nowadays it doesn’t even take the effort of standing up. Whip out a credit card, connect to the Internet, click a button and there it is – downloaded and ready for you listen to.

Downloading has changed the face of the music industry – the famous Billboard magazine has adjusted its rating system to account for digital sales, pirating of music still puts music producers on edge, and even Wal-Mart has launched a system for buying digital music (sorry Apple aficionados, its 88 cent songs are not compatible with your iPod).

Consumers can get music faster, cheaper and much more conveniently by downloading instead of purchasing an actual CD. But this has also changed the way we experience and how we listen to music. Our auditory culture seems to be regressing to a time where hit-singles dominated sales and determined the music industry’s direction. People are listening to albums less and less, instead buying single songs.

Even cover art is losing its importance as music loses its tangibility. Downloa-ding is making the acquisition of music easier, but it’s also denying many artists the ability to present a unified and multi-sensory vision to their audiences.

Not all of the fallout from digital downloads has been negative. Downloading has improved many facets of the music industry. Obviously, it makes purchasing music faster and easier. The consumer no longer has to take a trip to the store or even wait days or weeks for an online purchase to arrive in the mail. In turn, this convenience can theoretically encourage more diversity in music selection simply because there is less of a cost to buying something unfamiliar.

Downloading is in many ways cheaper. Producers of downloadable music save on many of the costs of packaging and delivering the item, so they can cut the price. Currently, at least three of the traditional Big Four music labels – EMI, Sony BMG and Werner Music – have been pushing Apple to convert its iTunes to follow tiered pricing – instead of simply charging one dollar per song – in order to compete more equitably with their sales. And though Max Hole, an executive vice president of marketing at the last of the Big Four – Universal Music – has been reported by Macworld to say that 90 percent of what they sell is “material goods,” downloading is only increasing its competition with the standard music producer. Soon, it will dominate more of the market.

It’s wonderful that a single click is all that separates listeners from that song on the radio that has been stuck in their heads for days, but people don’t seem to buy albums anymore. Downloading has worsened the inundation that started with radio stations constantly playing the same songs over and over again.

In general, people are not using the cheaper cost of music to try something new or even pick up an album that includes a song they like. Instead they are buying the same single they have heard everywhere, and they won’t even try out the album that the single was on. There’s no investment in the artist’s full performance, just a simple grab for what is familiar.

Rock operas, which differ from the standard rock and roll album by featuring songs that directly relate to each other, are still popular if you consider a classic like The Who’s “Tommy” released in 1969. But new albums are becoming rarer. AOR (Album-oriented rock) radio stations that tried to play sets of songs together instead of one at a time mostly died out by the ’90s. Concept albums, which group songs that expose a common theme that can be defined by either content or musicality, are more popular, such as Green Day’s “American Idiot.”

Still, once again they are being pulled apart into singles. Everyone has heard the song “American Idiot” by now, but fewer have heard the album’s other tracks. Everyone seems to be listening to more music as they make use of portable music players, but they mostly utilize the device’s shuffle features. The entire concept of an iPod shuffle is not to listen to any album, but to listen to a mixture of randomly selected songs. Aptly, the Grammy’s only awarded album art during its heights, from 1959-1961 and 1969-1973. This trend in reducing albums to singles sadly breaks the integrity of these albums.

Sadly, album art has fallen to the wayside. Today’s downloads and the majority of CDs don’t provide the same memorable images that Pink Floyd’s “The Dark Side of the Moon” or the Beatle’s “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” still do. Neither does modern album art bring up as much controversy as the Rolling Stone’s “Sticky Fingers” or as much speculation as the Beatles’ “Abbey Road” and its supposed “Paul is Dead” clues. The cover art created for the soundtrack of “South Pacific” in 1949 by Alex Sterinweiss, who first proposed album covers to Columbia in 1939, remains the second longest graphic in continuous use, just short of the famous Coca-Cola bottle.

Album art was first cut in size when the industry moved from vinyl to compact discs. There were still some memorable covers, but they got farther and fewer between. In the current era digital downloads, cover art is threatening to disappear completely. It does seem to be making a small comeback within the latest edition of iTunes, which allows you to flip through your collection using digital images of the album covers. But it remains an afterthought, failing to provide the same feeling of tangibility or the same importance.

It can’t be denied that downloading has had a positive effect on many aspects of the music industry. The current ease of getting music is such that it seems to outweigh many of its more subtle disadvantages. Still, it seems unfortunate that music production and consumption is changing in a way that seems to devalue the entire experience of investing in an album and gaining an appreciation of its complete vision.