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Album-Oriented Crock

Word has it that the big record companies are working on some sort of “bundled package” so they can sell you complete albums via digital download. Of course, they already can do this, except most people, acting rationally, only buy single songs online. The labels want to change this. The “system,” reportedly named CMX, will include digitized copies of the album covers, liner notes, lyrics, and videos. It’s also reported that the “system” may not be compatible with the iTunes store, so Apple is also working on its own bundled album package.

Ever since the late ’60s, when albums rather quickly replaced singles as the music format of choice, there’s been an uncomfortable market and practical balance between the album and its component parts. Great bands can fill an album with great songs that in sequence tell a narrative, or just plain sound great together. Most artists, though, can’t match the transcendence of those one or two hit songs and wind up loading albums with banal, second-rate filler. In the days of milk and vinyl, we all bought the albums anyway.

It got worse in the ’80s with the transition to CD. Now, instead of the 40 minutes of sound on an LP, artists had 75 minutes to fill up, leading to the release of mountains of filler that would have been righteously scrapped in the age of vinyl. The record companies colluded to keep the price of these mysterious, shiny little disks way too high, and we bought them anyway, often buying a CD with 12 songs we didn’t want to replace the vinyl record with 7 songs we didn’t want. And the record companies made a fortune selling us, sometimes twice, music we didn’t want.

Obviously, I’m making some broad generalizations here. Sure, there have been wonderfully remastered CDs with previously unreleased bonus tracks that are great. And, of course, what’s filler and what’s not is subjective: Stuff I might like you might find vile, and I’ll hold my opinion on that crap you listen to. Moving on.

The market pushed back the best it could in this CD-based world with the chart dominance of the Now! That’s What I Call Music singles compilation series, greatest hits packages, and hit-centric movie soundtracks. But it wasn’t nearly enough. Along came MP3s, Napster, iTunes and the rest, and suddenly singles were back. It became a singles world again. Consumers demanded it. And they got it—legally or otherwise.

The genie got out, and now they’re trying to put it back in again with these “bundled systems.” And it won’t work. The “packages,” the “systems”—whatever these things are that purport to repackage full digital albums—will make a little money for a handful of artists, but they will work on the same principle that the old CDs did: People will pay for a few songs they want and a bunch more they don’t. Most people will likely ignore the “bundle” and grab the song they want. And if the song isn’t extractable from the “bundle”? Then the whole shebang is DOA. People won’t be told what they can and can’t do with their music any longer. New rules, babe.

As for the graphics, the lyrics, etc.? All those great “extras”? Maybe good for the 15-20 year-old demo, but that’s about it. Dunno about you, but I stopped looking at liner notes when CDs hit. There’s such little pleasure to be had from looking at those dinky little booklets, and there’s even less from looking at something on my computer screen, or, God forbid, my telephone.

Who knows what CMX and Apple’s digital albums are going to look like or be compatible with, if or how they’ll restrict consumers’ ability to consume music. The thing is, there’s already a fine workable bundling “system” out there. It’s the ubiquitous zip file, and it’s used by the exploding number of music bloggers out there who are posting full albums online for download for free. The best of them post super high-quality MP3s of the best versions of an album available (new remastered versions, rips of Japanese vinyl audiophile versions, etc.), along with hi-res scans of all the album art, all in one downloadable file.

I guess the problem with zip files is that the consumer can easily cherry pick favorite songs (oh, mercy!) and even rearrange the sequence of the songs (utter sacrilege!). And the graphics? Well your preferences may vary, but I haven’t looked at, much less saved, a single liner note or album cover on my computer. Why waste the space? If I wanna know something about an artist or see what he/she looks like, I hit the Web.

So, expect the CMX, whatever the hell it is, to go the way of the mini-disk. Nice try folks, but the train left the station a long, long time ago.

—Paul Rapp

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