No One Listens to Albums Anymore. What's Next?

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"[Billy] Corgan has decided the traditional album is dead, so he's putting out a massive 44 song collection--Teargarden Kaleidyscope --one track at a time online."

When I was thirteen and on my first real music binge, at a Coconuts, if I recall correctly, I picked up Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness, the nine-time platinum double disk that Corgan's Smashing Pumpkins had released a few years before in 1995.

By that point, four songs had been released as singles, and my first instinct, as always, was to flip to those tracks. But when I slid the first purple disk into the my Sony Discman--the pre-ESP variety that one had to hold like a relic for fear of skips and starts--I was too taken by the intro, the title track, to skip forward. The song was solely piano and strings, a kind of soothing, elegant lullaby--hardly what anyone expected from a band whose previous album started with the sort of gritty, distorted electric chords and grinding voices that defined the decade's early rock.

Mellon Collie was the first album I ever listened to in full, front to back, not a skip forward not a touch to rewind. It pulled off an incredible duplicity. It was a journey of sorts for the angst-riddled prepubescents of the nineties, both an exercise in Zen for a case of generational ADHD and a seminar in grunge. It was simultaneously a transcendental voyage to the Pan-like Neverland of the mind--the fiefdom of Johnny Depp or Tim Burton or Hunter--and a shove into a Seattle mosh pit that we might have been too young or too timid to make on our own.

But that kind voyage has gone way of its flannel-clad authors.

The death of the album and the rise of the single perhaps mirrors the broader societal shift. The Internet makes the infinite accessible, yet, in the hours we spend tethered to the sprawling enigma, we tend to pursue what we already know, rather than search for the foreign. A literary agent I know once compared life in the Internet age to dashing down a mine with a headlamp attached. Day after day we visit the same sites; Google Reader and RSS feeds channel us to the niches that fit most comfortably.

Consider also the demise of the broadsheet in favor of news on a narrow screen. The physical act of opening a newspaper is an act of broadening. To get to a specific section, one has to move past others--metro, style, international news--physically moving material out of the way and, more often than not, stopping intermittently. Flipping through records in a shop means touching discs other than the one we're after; moving through bookstores requires reading titles and bylines and picking up things we never would have noticed from behind our keyboards.

It's become so easy to access exactly what we want, whenever we want, that the act of discovery has been diminished, or confined to within those genres we've already found an affinity for.

Pandora gives us singles similar to what we already like; it doesn't throw us to the wolves, to the unfamiliar and the uncharted, or ask us to trek through the broader narrative that an entire album can offer. Amazon tells us what else fits our taste as they exist, as does Google and nearly every other site we visit.

We've become so certain of what we want--be it careers or wealth or entertainment--and so focused on finding or achieving what we're after, that the notion and value of getting lost has somehow been cast aside.

When was the last time you went wandering? Either with the mind, or the ears, or feet? Listened to a song you didn't like, or read in full the arguments of those you vehemently disagree with? Took the time to watch an old, slow movie? Thought about science, or went to see theater of the absurd, or sat for a symphony?

Ours is the privilege to experience more of the world than our contemporaries will ever be afforded, to immerse ourselves in the talents and teachings of others in ways the generations before us could have never imagined. Let's not sell ourselves short. 

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Brian Till is a Research Fellow with the American Strategy Program of the New America Foundation in Washington, D.C., and the author of Conversations With Power. More

Brian Till is a Research Fellow with the American Strategy Program at the New America Foundation in Washington, D.C. He writes on foreign policy, the strengths and shortcomings of the millennial generation, and the perils of the digital age. Previously a nationally syndicated columnist, he is the author of a book of interviews with former global leaders, including Mikhail Gorbachev, Fernando Henrique Cardosso, Bill Clinton, F.W. de Klerk, and Pervez Musharraf: Conversations With Power.

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