Remember when record releases were an event? You anticipated them and waited with bated breath for them. When the record was finally released, like a breath of fresh air, it came beautifully packaged, with a twelve inch square work of art, liner notes in a font big enough to read, sometimes even with a poster or cut outs or gate fold. You could sit in front of the stereo radiogram, savouring every note and word, browsing the album art, the lyrics and the poster, letting your imagination run free. It was an experience. Although you could repeat the experience by listening again, there was nothing quite like that first time the needle dropped into the groove and the music started, while you immersed yourself in the fantasy world conjured up by the accompanying album sleeve artwork. Some of the album artwork was genuinely avant-garde and ground breaking.
What happens when an album is released today? Mostly, just one more nearly anonymous file is uploaded to a massive hosting service (iTunes). Big deal. There’s nothing much to look at. Nothing to identify with. There might be a sub-140-character message on twitter – several, if they are persistent. But there is no first listening moment, surrounded by sumptuous graphics, photography, typography and design. Even a CD is a poor relation to the twelve inch album sleeve. It barely feeds your starving imagination. There is no way to identify with the artist or the concept of the album – no obvious outward signs of belonging to the coolest tribe. In space, nobody can tell what you’re listening to on your iPod – and nobody can hear you scream.
My wife and I were talking about this. She comes up with very clever ideas. Did you know there is nothing – nothing at all – that prohibits artists from releasing their music on CD or memory stick, accompanied by a twelve inch square of artwork? Hell, if you really wanted to stimulate imaginations, make it bigger, add a t-shirt and a poster. Artists could, if they chose to do so, release their music in any why they want. Retailers would stock it, if successful. Why would they not? Who said it was a law that music came in those tiny, fragile plastic CD cases, or could only conform to iTune’s own requirements for file hosting. You can release music for download on your own site, replete with three dimensional immersive game experience, MIDI score, PDF’s of the lyrics designed by the best print designers, with a voucher for a custom print t-shirt, delivered next day through the post. Online stores wouldn’t care what your music was packaged with, because it’s just another parcel, to their shipping department. They wrap microscooters. Who would be the first artist to release their album with a free microscooter, for that matter?
The point is this. People like and want an immersive listening experience, but one that engages more than just their ears. They want their imaginations to be engaged as well. They want to see beautiful images and read well crafted lyrics. They want to sing along. They want to imagine themselves in the studio, with their heroes, during the making of the record. They want to identify with the artist in a visible way, to their peers. They’re buying into a lifestyle and want to make this moment memorable for life. Music provides the markers by which we remember our significant milestones, in life and music is unique in the strength and longevity of the memories it is capable of creating. They’re almost indelible. There is a demand, be in no doubt about it, but the music industry is not meeting it. They’re not even doing what they used to do. They’re doing less.
An album release ought to provide an emotional release. It can, with a bit of imaginative packaging and marketing, do that better than ever. We have more ways of creating customised artwork, objects and experiences, at a reasonable cost, than ever before. Digital printing, digital image transfer to physical objects, immersive entertainment authoring tools – all of these now exist and can provide cost-effective artistic support materials for a collection of songs. The audience can have their collective imaginations stimulated like never before, all to the sound of the artists’ latest music. An album release can once again become an event. Not the hype we see today, comprising saturation coverage on twitter, facebook, YouTube and traditional media. No, they can have the full experience-inducing package arrive in their home, either physically, or digitally (if you can pull it off), providing enough fodder for their imaginations to ensure that the release is once again a cherished, pleasurable, memorable, significant, emotional, powerful, immersive, engaging event.