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The physical format is on its way out. This is apparent in many areas of life, not just in music formatting. Amazon is selling Kindles like crazy, while their glue-and-paper book revenues are tanking. Blogs are wiping the floor with magazines. People would rather download the HD version of a movie than buy a DVD. Even the United States Postal Service is in deep trouble.
We’ve heard plenty about the decline of album sales. The music industry was hit earlier and harder than just about any other business sector. Theoretically, it’s only a matter of time until no one even bothers to manufacture albums anymore. (I don’t think it’ll ever get that bad, but that’s another matter.)
I’m a young guy, so I have no real nostalgia for the halcyon days of record store scrounging. For me, the golden era of physical media lasted until I reached college and realized that buying a stack of CDs every week meant living off ketchup packets.
In spite of this, I wish that people still bought albums. Well-packaged albums- especially vinyl- are beautiful artifacts that simply can’t be replicated by 96-kbps downloads. And I wish that my favorite bands could make a living off their craft without having to tour until they lose their teeth to malnutrition.
Sadly, times have changed. Pandora’s Box is open, and we can’t put mp3s back inside. But all is not lost. We’re familiar with the various disadvantages of the digital format and the decline of the unified album. Here are some advantages that we, as metal fans, might derive from the rise of digital music.
1. Four minutes of brutal death metal at a time instead of 40
Let’s face it: some styles of metal just don’t work in longplayer-sized blocks. I like Devourment, but after two or three tracks of blasts and slams, my brain ceases to register what’s going on. Or take De Magia Veterum. Awesome band, but do I really want 40 straight minutes of some Dutch guy shoving a spiked cyborg dildo into my ear?
That’s not to say that hyper-extreme bands like these are incapable of producing an album’s worth of quality material. But in many cases, their work is best absorbed a song or two at a time. With digital media, it’s much easier to do this.
2. You never have to hear that intro track, ever again
Metalheads are often first-class nerds. We enjoy sprawling, complex pieces of art. That’s probably why the album format is such a collective hobbyhorse for us.
Unfortunately, nerdy people are often self-indulgent people. It’s a rare metal album that doesn’t involve at least some unnecessary baggage. Witness intro tracks. Almost nobody likes them, but countless bands use them. Worlds Beyond the Veil by Mithras is one of the better death metal albums of the past decade. But it starts with a six-minute intro. In the vinyl days, I would’ve been stuck with that lame intro every time I wanted to listen to the album. Now I can skip it or delete it. Easy peasy.
A lot of musicians would argue that in doing so, I’m failing to experience their art as intended. Perhaps, but I’m not convinced that the most complete version of something is automatically the best. Moby Dick does not lose its literary value if you skip the boring chapters about the whaling industry. The theatrical version of Apocalypse Now is better than the director’s cut. And Worlds Beyond the Veil is better without the intro track.
3. Mixtapes don’t take all day to make (and aren’t tapes)
I’m too young to have ever made a mix tape on an actual cassette tape. But my father is a die-hard music fan, and I watched him record quite a few mix tapes. It was usually an all-morning affair on the weekend- he’d spend hours in front of the tape deck, carefully splicing tracks together.
This lengthy process now sounds quaint. We can burn a mix to a CD in minutes now. It’s just a matter of choosing the right songs. This is effectively a corollary to the above process—not only can we edit out unwanted material, but we can also assemble a collection of the best stuff quickly and conveniently.
And therein lies the value of mixes as a way to disseminate music. Mixes can help us to focus on quality songcraft, that oldest and most endangered of qualities in metal.
4. There’s no such thing as an “impossible-to-find release”
A lot of people consider Gorguts’ Obscura a must-own classic. But not many people actually own it. The original Olympic Records pressing has been sold out for years. If you’re looking for it on Amazon, you can buy a used copy for $90, or a ‘new’ copy for $129.98.
Now, those who can’t find an obscure album for a reasonable price can simply download it. Downloading music raises a lot of ethical red flags, but I’d argue that it isn’t objectionable if the product itself is effectively not available for purchase. And if it helps you sleep at night, you could always mail Luc Lemay a check afterwards. I doubt he’d object.
5. Creative freedom is closer to free
The above advantages help fans, but nose-diving album sales unquestionably hurt artists. However, the same technology that led to the advent of internet music piracy also gave us unprecedented recording and distribution mechanisms.
It is now possible for independent musicians to conceive, record, and sell their music without outside help or significant start-up capital. Underground metal bands pride themselves on their artistic independence. Today’s cheap, hi-fi recording tech has helped many bands embrace that independence.
Ben Sharp of Cloudkicker, for instance, records his own material—usually in EP-sized blocks—and distributes it for free via Bandcamp. Money hardly figures into it. I’m not a fan of his music, but I like his model, and it’s becoming more prevalent.
Historically, music has been an avocation more frequently than a career choice. With the 20th century music industry boom succumbing to technological change, we’re seeing a return to that norm. Music may be less remunerative now, but it’s more accessible to both fans and aspiring musicians than ever.
These changes are irreversible. We can’t put .mp3s back in their box- they’re out in the world now. But let’s realize the fact that that box held hope too. Let’s take the good with the bad.
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Pyrrhon – Live at Lit Lounge
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