It’s an exciting time for music fans of a certain age. Several long-awaited albums by some of my favourite artists are due imminently, yet never before has the music industry seemed so hesitant or tentative about actually releasing an album by an established artist, for fear of a flop. Prevarication about release dates is the norm. The world has changed and nobody is sure that what used to work, in album promotion, will work again. It almost certainly won’t, despite the quality of the music released.
Meanwhile, in a parallel universe, albums are being released under astonishing circumstances and they tell us important things about just how much and how far the business of making recorded music has changed. All three of these albums, which I encountered this week, were released in ways so far removed from the traditional channels that it really makes you stop and think.
The first album was released for free in a music forum called KVR. In it, a musician that appeared to have an Eastern European lilt to his accent released a full recreation of the Beatles album “Abbey Road”. Copyright issues aside, what amazed me about this astonishing labour of love was how faithfully the tiny nuances of the album had been reproduced in what I can only assume was a home project studio, based around a computer. OK, it’s not the Beatles, but as a tribute act you have to admire the quality and the painstaking attention to recording detail. The take away message, for me, is that it is now within the reach and means of an ordinary person to produce an album with production values easily equivalent to the original album, made in the very late nineteen sixties. Indeed, the engineering quality is probably better. Only two people were apparently involved in its making and I have to say that the work is highly listenable. Had this album been released before Abbey Road was, this album would have had a better than fair shot at being the preferred work of art. The production costs, compared to the original, had to be astonishingly low, by comparison.
The second album was “released”, if that’s the right term, as an entry to a competition organised by software synthesiser maker Spectrasonics, to promote their Omnisphere product line. The winner, a guy who is well known on YouTube for his music videos, made the whole thing with a single sound library, on the Omnisphere. He won first prize, which was a hardware console to control Omnisphere software. Clearly, he was prepared to create an entire album’s worth of material, just to win a prize. The work is highly polished and covers a lot of ground in electronic music, spanning several decades and genres. The quality of the work would easily have made it a groundbreaking release, had it been recorded in the nineteen seventies or eighties. The fact that it was made in somebody’s home, by a one man band and turned out so well is a testament to the increasingly sophisticated tools and techniques used by so-called hobbyist musicians.
The third album, also available for free, took the speeches of famous physicists and scientists and gave them melody, through the use of tools like Autotune and Melodyne. Set to contemporary backing tracks, the scientists effectively sing their theories about the universe. It’s an amazing album and highly entertaining. All of it was made by a single guy, using his software sound manipulation and creation tools. I haven’t heard anything quite this surprising or innovative from traditional recording artists in a very long time (not since Jean Michel Jarre released Zoolook). The motivation for making the record appears to be, at least in part, a desire to turn people on to the beauty of the universe and a scientific understanding of it. It’s an elaborate, entertaining musical statement about how people ought to think, essentially.
None of these albums are traditional commercial releases. Not one of them will make even their modest production budgets back. They are donated works of art, to all intents and purposes. However, what they do is show that the record companies are not playing with a straight bat either. Production doesn’t cost what it used to cost. You don’t need a cast of thousands to produce a significant and competitive piece of work. You don’t even need as much time to make it. The music industry is too tied up in outdated assumptions and it’s hurting them and their artists. Complacency has overtaken even the most productive and innovative big-company recording artists.
What it tells me, more than anything, is that making an album of ten songs is now so easy (relatively speaking) that it no longer is enough to make an artist seem outstanding. If a band or solo artist really wants to make a splash and stand out from the crowd, they will have to do more and better. The quality bar has just been raised. It isn’t enough to release a ten song album. You’ll get swamped in the morass of tribute album recreations, soapbox polemics and competition entries.
So where do we go from here? Musicians and record companies alike need to start thinking about what they can do with their recorded works that will make them utterly outstanding, surprising, unexpected and astonishing. Otherwise, nobody will notice. If nobody notices, nobody will buy.