Back in 2009, I wrote a blog post for XXL in which I wondered if mixtapes were becoming better – and more important – than albums. My contention was that there are certain artists – Jadakiss, for example – that are better suited for the mixtape circuit, so they should really be judged on their work therein as much as for their retail releases.
However, the underlying premise was that the music industry was changing and if people weren’t going to the store and buying physical CDs, did it really matter what was a mixtape and what was an official album? Your iPod doesn’t differentiate (unless you tell it to do so).
This is something that has only intensified in the years since and causes me to wonder if albums actually matter at all.
The LP (long-playing) record was introduced in 1948 and, thanks to the invention of the microgroove, could play music for up to twenty minutes on one side without stopping once. Originally thought to be ideal for the long concertos of classical music, the LP was a revolution for pop music, because, for the first time, up to ten songs could be placed on a single piece of vinyl.
While there were certainly other factors involved, this played a major role in dictating what constituted a proper album in the second half of the 20th Century. The listening experience is far different on vinyl. It takes effort to skip tracks. There is no shuffle. There isn’t even fast-forward or rewind. You put the record on and it plays. You can choose where to place the needle, but that’s where the listener’s decision really begins and ends. The consumer had one of three choices: buy a 45 single; buy an LP; or listen to the radio.
Since then, of course, the experience has evolved, from 8-tracks to cassettes to CDs to mp3s. During that time, the introduction of blank tapes and stereos with a record button or double cassette decks allowed anyone to record songs off the radio or create a copy of your friend’s tape. If there were four of you that all wanted four albums, you could save cash by each purchasing a different one and then buying (the far less expensive) blank tapes, passing them around, and getting four full albums for the price of one and some change. Likewise, this is when the concept of the mixed tape was introduced. Why buy an album to have one single when you could record it off the radio? Then, with the remaining fifty-five minutes, you could tape twelve more songs that you liked and suddenly you had yourself a homemade mixtape that was nothing but hits.
There were two downsides to this: first, the quality wasn’t always the greatest. Tapes, even those made by the major labels, had a finite shelf life and a variety of factors – extreme heat, extreme cold, a cheap tape deck, even simply overplaying – could lead to the tape’s demise. Like Nas said, “Never put me in your box if your shit eats tapes.” This was even truer of blank tapes. You could record all of side A only to play it back and hear a distorted voice or just loud silence.
Moreover, there was always something special about purchasing an album. It was more than the music. It was the packaging. And the photos. And the linear notes. It felt real. It felt official.
In 1993, I had dubbed copies of The Chronic and Doggystyle in my yellow Sony Walkman, but I longed to own the official albums. Why? The music wasn’t any different. But there was something about having and holding that complete package just as the artist – or the label – intended and being able to study the inside booklets. No shortcuts. Nothing generic.
Those days are over.
When Drake released If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late, fans, writers, and critics spent hours trying to determine whether it was an album or a mixtape. Why does it matter? Aside from those of us that rank and categorize artists and their work, do people really care?
Jay Electronica does not have an album to his name, but it hasn’t hurt his rep or his popularity. In fact, it could be argued that his lack of an album makes him unique and lets him stand out compared to everyone else. So why should he release an official album that could never live up to the hype when there are already plenty of homemade playlists of his songs that already serve ostensibly the same function?
Today, every person with a smartphone or a laptop is now a program director, creating individualized playlists on Spotify, curating their iTunes, or managing their Pandora stations. This is how people now consume their music, a reality to which the music industry was painfully slow to adapt. Instead of sitting through five songs and twenty-five commercials to hear that hot new single on the radio, everyone has their own specific collection of songs to which they listen.
When most people felt that Jay-Z’s The Blueprint 2 was too long and bloated, he cut it in half – plucking the best twelve of the album’s twenty-five tracks and released that version as The Blueprint 2.1. He was actually ahead of the game, because that’s what most people do now. They take the songs they like, discard the others, and create a listening experience without any filler or skits or lackluster songs that they dislike.
It’s a Darwinian way of listening to music, one that is making the LP largely obsolete.
Christopher Pierznik is the author of eight books, all of which can be purchased in paperback and Kindle. His work has appeared on XXL, Cuepoint, Business Insider, Medium, The Cauldron, and many more. Visit his website and follow him on Facebook or Twitter.