The first iPod was released well over a decade ago, and the new freedom to pick and choose songs more easily led to inevitable claims that albums would soon be 'dead'. One advocate of that theory was Billy Corgan of the Smashing Pumpkins, so how come they've got a new album out?
Oceania is the first full-length Pumpkins album in five years, and comes in the midst of (or as part of, according to Corgan) a lengthy project called Teargarden By Kaleidyscope, which has seen them release free MP3 songs one at a time as they were recorded, starting in December 2009. But it was put on hold last year for the recording and release of a traditional album, so what gives?
Corgan initially stuck to his original claim, saying: "I still stand by my view that I don't think albums are particularly relevant at this time. That may change. But as far as making music... from a writing point of view, it's really going to focus me to put a group of songs together that are supposed to go together." He later added: "[I] reached a point where I saw that the one-song-at-a-time idea had maxed itself out... I just saw we weren't getting the penetration in to everybody that I would have hoped."
There's two interesting points there that. One is that he thought that his writing would gain a focus from creating songs that fit together, and he was right. Oceania contains better songs than had been released so far in the Teargarden project, and it does all fit together and sounds more focused, though of course, none of that prevented Zeitgeist from being rubbish, or some of the individual releases from being really good.
Albums have been ingrained into rock music (in particular) since the 60s, when the Beatles and the Beach Boys helped pioneer the idea that an album was more than just 'some singles and some filler'. You could even argue that Frank Sinatra had done it earlier than that with his first albums for Capitol in the 50s, but for most modern-day bands, Rubber Soul and Pet Sounds are the ones that set the benchmark.
So it's no surprise that it's still easier to write in that format, but the second point from Corgan's comments is about the marketing. The process of releasing and promoting new music is album-centric, because an album with a few singles presents an easier product to sell to the press and to advertisers than a steady flow of MP3 releases. That scattershot approach means that, as he said, you don't get the same penetration of the market.
Take Ash, another band to publicly abandon the album format. They tried a more organised project, the A-Z Series, releasing a new single every two weeks until they had done one for every letter of the alphabet, and this concept got them media attention at first for being new and exciting. But it didn't translate into chart success, with every one of the singles charting lower than End Of The World, the third single from 'flop' album Twilight Of The Innocents, and most not even getting in the Top 100.
You can argue various factors for that, like the shift in the singles market and Ash generally not being as chart-friendly as at their peak, but given that each single was released as a brand new track, you'd have thought they would have done better. After all, the first single from Twilight Of The Innocents, You Can't Have It All, got to #16. The first from A-Z, True Love 1980 only got to #148. All the songs were collected on two 'albums' and released commercially, but didn't fare much better, because the hardcore fans already had the songs and the casual fans either didn't know or didn't care.
If they'd taken 10-12 of the best songs from that series and released a few as singles before bringing out a regular album, would they have fared better? You'd have to say that probably they would, certainly the material was strong enough to have appealed more widely than the darker tone of their last album. They're also releasing new music this month, an EP that suggests that they are still focusing on smaller-scale digital releases, but how long before pragmatism leads them to a Corgan-style U-turn?
So, at the moment, it's hard to argue that the album is dead as a format. It's still the way most acts release their new music, and many are simply finding new ways of promoting them. Ginger, from The Wildhearts, released a triple album earlier this year through the PledgeMusic website, gaining funding from his fans before making the music. He set a target for how much he needed and smashed through it within hours, eventually naming the album 555% after passing that landmark.
As well as keeping fans updated on the recording of the music they'd paid for with video diaries from the studio, he released it in a very effective way, bringing out one 'disc' at a time across three consecutive Friday afternoons (at 5.55pm), inviting fans to share their experiences and reviews in Twitter 'listening parties'. They could then vote for their favourite songs from each disc, with the votes compiled into a single disc called 100% that has been released commercially.
There's no doubt that musicians are having to change the way they make and release music to keep up with the changing market and technologies. For some, maybe abandoning traditional albums might be the way forward, but we'll see how Oceania performs for the Smashing Pumpkins, and what effect that has on Billy Corgan's outlook. If it does a lot better than the rest of Teargarden has so far, will he still think albums aren't relevant?
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