I don't want my MP3

Or: How the Internet could kill the album

At this very moment, you can go to They Might Be Giants' Web site (www.tmbg.com) and download, in its entirety, the band's brand-new 15-song "album" Long Tall Weekend. In fact, that is the only way the "album" is available: by downloading it, in the much-vaunted MP3 format, for the low, low price of $8.99. Or, if you so choose, you can purchase each individual song for 99 cents a pop, which means you're going to save a little cash if you buy bulk. (And there's always the freebie sample taste!) Tough luck if you actually want a disc to hold in your hands, to play on your car stereo -- that is, without burning your own disc using a CD-R (CD-Recordable). Too bad if you want a booklet to read or a jewel case to sit beside your other They Might Be Giants discs on the shelf. It's their way -- the information superhighway -- or no way at all.

That the Giants are making their latest odds-and-sods collection available only through download is hardly surprising or revelatory. After all, the band has been giving away its product for more than a decade through Dial-A-Song, which allows fans to dial a phone number and hear the latest TMBG tossed-off ditty for mere pennies. And it's hardly novel anymore for a band to sell its music through the Internet. Public Enemy's Chuck D became the veritable spokesman for MP3s when his band initially sold its latest album, There's a Poison Goin On..., in the downloadable format. And almost every label has made at least one single by its major artists available only through the Internet, from Tori Amos to Alanis Morissette to Tom Petty. Trying to find a band without at least one MP3-only single is like trying to find a 12-year-old girl without a Britney Spears CD.

A year ago, the format was nothing but whispers and nudges -- the thing that had the music business running scared, so sure the compressed files would be the death of the industry as we knew it. For a while, the industry talked itself to death over issues such as piracy (download a song and burn a thousand CD-Rs for your friends) and lost revenue (free singles for everyone!). Then, almost in an instant, every label had come to embrace the MP3 as though it were a long-lost child -- so much so that it's already old news, yesterday's Next Big Thing. It's as easy to find a punk-rock or klezmer or field-song MP3 as it is to find naked pictures of Gillian Anderson. Next revolution, please.

Down the John: They Might Be Giants' John Flansburgh, left, and John Linnell have a chokehold on the future.
Chris Cuffaro
Down the John: They Might Be Giants' John Flansburgh, left, and John Linnell have a chokehold on the future.
Bubba Kadane, left, laments the possible death of the full-length album.
Bubba Kadane, left, laments the possible death of the full-length album.

"I don't mean to sound like some rainbow world of love, but if you're interested in music in any sense, whatever kind of music you're interested in, chances are you're more interested in it than what is being carried in the local store," says They Might Be Giants' John Flansburgh. "That's a bad situation for musicians who aren't just pop musicians. This is a great boon for people like me and people like whoever -- whatever kind of stuff you're into."

But in the artists and media's rush to christen the MP3 as the savior of music -- the great equalizer, giving superstar and unknown equal opportunity to get their work in the hands of a global audience in a split second -- one thing seems to have been forgotten: the music itself. That is: how the music sounds, how it's being presented, how the artist who makes the music is being represented. Lost in the discussion over ease of distribution and all the gimmicks associated with MP3 (Hey, maw, look at all the pretty lights!) is any serious conversation about what the new format will do to music -- specifically, the long-playing album, which could well go the way of the reel-to-reel or the eight-track.

Granted, every time a new medium is introduced, the naysayers predict gloom and doom -- think of the negative press received by the cassette or the CD -- but consider what the MP3 means to the full-length disc. No longer do consumers have to purchase an entire album to hear a handful of songs they want; now, they can click on a couple of songs, download them, transfer them to a two-buck CD-R, and ignore the so-called detritus -- ya know, the filler (or what musicians like to think of as "the other songs not necessarily the hit single"). No longer will fans have to listen to an album in the order the artist intended it to be heard. It's a cut-and-paste-and-record world now -- a culture of mix CDs.

Sequencing will be a thing of the past. Why should an artist bother putting songs in any kind of order when the audience will just mix and match to their heart's content anyway? Forget about trying to tell a story, trying to build a mood, trying to make a point. The consumer will be the ultimate arbiter -- a DJ creating personalized discs according to taste or whims.

That's all well and good, until you stop to consider what this means to the musician who looks beyond the charts, who actually considers the album a piece of art -- "a work," to use the words of Bad Livers co-founder Mark Rubin. (This, incidentally, does not refer to the likes of Limp Bizkit, Britney Spears, 'N Sync, or any other former Mouseketeer or Top 40 artist.)

"We call our albums works -- like, 'This work is titled...' or 'This song is from our work...,' much in the same way an artist would call a painting a canvas," says Rubin, whose band maintains a Web site that's bereft of MP3s. "By removing a tune, it destroys the artistic integrity of the work. Then again, we're talking about art. Ninety-nine point nine nine nine percent of the people out there don't see music as art really. They just pay lip service to it."

Contrary to happy-happy media reports that insist all artists regard the MP3 as a good thing (progress!), there are some musicians who are galled by this. They view the new technology as the enemy of the musician who exists outside the world of the short, disposable pop single -- the artist who crafts the work to be absorbed in one long sitting. They point out how nobody would ever think of publishing a novel online, allowing the audience to download individual chapters in willy-nilly order.

Imagine if someone out there heard Rubber Soul the first time -- but without "Think For Yourself," "Michelle," and "I'm Looking Through You," because the customer chose not to download those songs to save a few cents. Imagine Pink Floyd's The Wall, missing a few bricks. Or imagine Quadrophenia played backward, beginning with "Love Reign O'er Me" and climaxing with "I Am the Sea." Or imagine Yes albums without Roger Dean's identifiable cover art adorning them. Or imagine, for a moment, Capitol Records releasing "God Only Knows" -- or any other song from Pet Sounds -- as an MP3 single. Think of how small, how rinky-dink it would have sounded -- no high end, no low end, just the thin middle eked out through cheap computer speakers.

Such is the brave new world promised by the Internet: emasculated albums bereft of liner notes and artwork, concept albums reassembled until the story no longer makes sense, notable songs left off masterpiece albums because customers didn't want to hear those songs or, quite simply, didn't know what they were missing. Suddenly, freedom of choice really means dumbed-down, commodified, enervated.

"I must be getting old, because the world is just turning too fast for me," says Bubba Kadane, former singer-songwriter-guitarist for Bedhead. "I don't like the idea of people downloading songs and putting them on blank CD-Rs for a lot of reasons. I could elaborate, but a world without full-length albums would just bum me out. They are one of life's great joys, and MP3s represent a de-evolution to me rather than any sort of evolution. I wouldn't discourage the art of making great cohesive records in favor of a single great song any more than I would discourage making great two-hour movies in favor of great 10-minute scenes, and that seems to be the direction that the technology will take us: people making 'mix' discs for 50 cents per song instead of downloading complete records. For all of the 'punks' who think that MP3s stick it to The Man and allow more freedom and accessibility, I say, 'Meet the new boss.'"

To Kadane, MP3s serve only to prove his long-held notion that music is the art form still sitting at the back of the art world's bus. After all, no one would even consider releasing the new Martin Scorsese film or the new Tom Wolfe book on the Internet -- those things are art, man. But a pop song? A record? Sure, why not. It's only music -- who cares how it sounds?

Last month in The New York Times, writer Neil Strauss wrote a story celebrating "the message of the medium" -- how the MP3 is "changing our experience of listening to and handling the music." According to Strauss, the Internet has killed the album -- and that, says Marilyn Manson's biographer and mouthpiece, is a good thing, because "the Internet is a cooler medium." (Astonishing that this appeared in The New York Times and not, say, SMU's Daily Campus.)

Strauss is blinded by the "visual displays synchronized to the music." And, gawrsh, it sure it easy to make compilation discs on the Internet. Click your mouse a few times, and impress the girl of your dreams with a digital valentine.

Strauss, like all MP3 fans and apologists, talks about how the new format -- whatever it eventually becomes, and certainly the MP3 will be replaced by better-sounding technology soon enough -- frees an artist from making an album they must manufacture and sell at stores and advertise. True enough: The technology allows for immediate gratification, no argument there. Record, upload, download -- and it's yours for the taking in an instant, no middlemen involved.

It's rather astonishing how, in the name of ease and "accessibility," the artists and the audience are more than willing to turn computers into the most expensive transistor radios ever made. The fact is, all the MP3 players have done is duplicate the facade of your pre-existing stereo system. It doesn't matter if you have a Star Wars skin (Strauss' teen-beat suggestion, referring to the face plates that adorn the on-screen players) or a high-tech skin; such MP3 players as WinAmp still have the same-ol'-same-ol' fronts: a play button, skip buttons, stop, and so forth.

Label execs talk privately, very off-the-record, about how they despise the format not because it cuts into profits or because of potential copyright infringement, but because it simply sounds bad. They all agree: Nothing in this world sounds worse than a compressed digital sound file played through cheap computer speakers. "They say it's near-CD quality," scoffs one label employee, "but they're lying. And they're fooling people who don't know any better. Besides, you can't listen to an MP3 on your home stereo system or, worse, your car stereo. That alone makes them a novelty." (That's one of Bubba Kadane's favorite ways of describing MP3s -- as a novelty, as something important only because it's new, shiny, intriguing...but only for the moment.)

One day, the technology will exist that allows CD-quality music to be transmitted in a split second; one day, a CD burner will be as commonplace in a computer as a disc drive; one day, computers will be hooked up to stereos like tape decks and CD players. But that day exists in the distant future -- four, five years from now. Until then, even the most vehement supporters of the MP3 admit that we exist in a state of limbo -- caught between yesterday's technology and the promise of a bright and rosy tomorrow.

"We're in purgatory as far as the technology is concerned, because not everybody has the tools to download the music," says Toadies guitarist Clark Vogeler, an adamant defender of the brave new world. Vogeler is a true believer in the compressed format: He talks about the advantages of distribution, the way bands stand to profit without a label or other middlemen collecting their pocket change along the way, the ease of getting music into the hands of a larger audience in the time it takes to boot up a computer. His are the by-now familiar promises of the Internet faithful: The revolution is now, long live the MP3.

"That element of control is gone, but it's a trade-off for being able to get more people to hear your music and turn people on to it," Vogeler says. "The way that the technology is becoming, the artist is more in control of the music in terms of distribution and sales," he says. "It's easier to get the music in the hands of the people who want it. In five years, everyone will have this technology -- computers hooked up to their stereos or CD burners that allow them to take their downloaded songs with them. Most of my friends already do. So what if a lot of them aren't downloading whole albums? The theory that just listening to one song takes away from the power of an album is just shortsighted and pretentious."

Yet ours has suddenly become a download-and-dispose culture. With the click of a mouse, you can own the latest single by Your Favorite Band -- and, with just as much ease, you can delete it from your hard drive, never to be heard from again. It's 1953 all over again, a return to the days of the single, only with a few significant differences. Your analog 45 sounded better than a compressed digital file, and you didn't throw away your single in your computer's recycle bin when you got tired of it. More important, you could pass down old singles, which is how so many people learned about great music -- from an older brother or sister's collection. They kept and cared for those black vinyl discs -- they treasured them.

Because the technology does not exist to allow for CD-perfect sound, the audience lowers its expectations. They just accept crap because that's all they know: bad sound, bad bands, bad singles. And so pop becomes more commodified than ever, a gumball chewed up and spit out when it begins to lose its taste. The permanent monument -- the album -- slowly disappears, reduced to bits and bytes, compressed into oblivion.

"Music's already so devalued as an art form," Kadane says. "It's already behind everything else in terms of its respect, and I understand some reasons why. Musicians in the Top 40 are so laughable that it becomes harder and harder to take music seriously. It's harder and harder to find good music, but the same is true of other art forms. The top 10 movies are bad; the top 10 bestsellers are. But the Grammys are much more of a joke than the Pulitzers or the Oscars. Everything about the music industry makes music much more of a joke, much more of a disposable commodity. People who like MP3s are people who order gadgets out of the Sharper Image catalog and never use them. It annoys me to the core."

Then again, They Might Be Giants' John Flansburgh would argue that pop has long been disposable -- that today's hit record has always been tomorrow's junk-yard smash.

"I've been in enough junk stores that I think I can safely tell you that pop music is in fact a disposable commodity," he insists. "I've stared at enough Bay City Rollers albums for sale for 10 cents this past week to say that. Landfills all across America are filled with people's record collections. But, that said, what I think is great about MP3 is that it really promotes music beyond the mainstream. That sounds really trite, or really pat, but if you go into your typical mall record store, you'd be hard-pressed to find almost anything that you're specifically interested in.

"Going into a record store is even worse than going into a video store. It's like, after you've seen every Alfred Hitchcock movie and every Woody Allen movie, you're stuck staring at the Tom Cruise section. Sometimes when I go into retail stores, it just seems like our culture is incredibly shallow and provincial and limited."

At best, the Internet is a listening-station at Border's or Tower Records, a place to try it before you buy it. Need proof? Oh, sweet irony: For all Flansburgh's talk about the future and pop music's disposability, They Might Be Giants' next album will be released by a major label -- on CD. The Toadies will still release its second album next year on a major label, Interscope -- and they will still sequence the disc, even though Vogeler has no problem with consumers who create their own randomly assembled discs. And for all its big talk of the Internet revolution, Public Enemy is still selling There's a Poison Goin On... in stores -- on a label, Atomic Pop, run by the former head of MCA Records.

The full-length will never disappear -- not as long as there are people out there who want to hold the disc in their hands, who want to cruise the record store in hopes of stumbling across the hidden gem they never knew they wanted. And, most certainly, MP3s are no more or less evil than radio itself or cable-music networks; if this were 1958, Pat Boone would be a star on MTV, while Little Richard would suffer in the underground.

Revolution? Sometimes, it ain't even evolution.

"Look, it's like the old saying: You get three Jews together, and you get opinions," Bad Livers' Rubin says. "The good news about MP3s is: Anybody can make a record. The bad news is: Anybody can make a record, and now they are. It used to be the lonely went quietly into the good night. Now, they all have a Web site. I see MP3s as more of a marketing device than a format. I mean, I can see the argument from a sociological point of view that it does lend itself to our disposable culture. But for the general public who doesn't have a really strong organic relationship with music, this is what they want. Now they can have their vacuous crap and not have to pay for it or keep a CD they'll sell back six weeks later anyway.

"Look, I got me a freeware MP3 player and went looking for stuff to download, and all I could find was crap anyway. And like my old man used to say, if you don't have to pay for it, it must not be worth anything." John Maxwell

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