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Is iTunes Killing the Album?

The Atlantic’s Dave Thier laments that, “The Beatles on iTunes Means Your Kids May Never Hear ‘Her Majesty’.”   That Thier is only 23, and thus born not only decades after the band released its final album and years after John Lennon was murdered, makes the lament both amusing and more interesting.

While the easy availability of band’s catalog will almost certainly increase the amount of Beatles listened to in the world, and thus make the world a better place, most of that Beatles will probably come in the form of $1.29, single tracks, not albums.

Early songs like “I Wanna Hold Your Hand” are quick, clean, pop masterpieces and they’re ready made for insertion into the world’s iPod playslists. But in my opinion, Beatles albums, not songs, are their true masterpieces. Later works like Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, Let it Be and Abbey Road have great songs on them, of course. But they aren’t collections of singles, they’re 45-minute-long symphonies.

Abbey Road ends with seven distinct tracks as the iTunes flies, all but one under 2 minutes long. The last track, “Her Majesty,” is only 23 seconds long. No savvy iTunes shopper is going to shell out that $1.29 for a 23-second track, but it has to be there. If a new generation of Beatles fans grows up without hearing “Golden Slumbers,” “Carry That Weight,” “The End” and “Her Majesty” all in a row, then they haven’t heard Abbey Road.

Then again, its worth noting that iTune didn’t exactly invent the single.   Even when I was a kid, 45’s were available.   And, aside from a few album rock stations (do they still exist anymore?) radio has always played singles.   In today’s age, most people who buy Beatles CD’s for the first time are quite likely ripping them to MP3 format and listening to them in random order on their smart phone shuffle play.

Somehow, this is also amusing:

As it turns out, AC/DC, now the biggest name amongst iTunes holdouts, has kept their music off of Apple’s digital marketplace for just that reason.

“We believe the songs on any of our albums belong together. If we were on iTunes, we know a certain percentage of people would only download two or three songs from the album,” lead guitarist Angus Young told The Telegraph in 2008. “We don’t think that represents us musically.”

Now, I happen to like AC/DC, especially their earlier work (High Voltage through For Those About to Rock).  But even their most iconic records, Highway to Hell and Back in Black, don’t constitute a symphony when listened to in order.    They’re not exactly Tommy.   Or Abbey Road, even.

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About James Joyner
James Joyner is the publisher of Outside the Beltway, an associate professor of security studies at the Marine Corps Command and Staff College, and a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. He earned a PhD in political science from The University of Alabama. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter.

Comments

  1. The verb tense in the post title is wrong.

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  2. James Joyner says:

    Yeah, it’s been a long time since I was a regular consumer of albums or, indeed, purchaser of new music in any form. (I still use “album” to refer to a collection of music, using LP, tape, or CD to refer to a specific recording and format.)

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  3. I’m the same way on calling them albums..Glad to hear you’re an AC/DC fan. My favorite song by them: If You Want Blood, You Got It.

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  4. sam says:

    I trust we’re all are hip to the final irony of the Beatles being on iTunes.

    The guy does have a point, though. Sgt.Pepper was the Beatles’ response to Pet Sounds, both concept albums (the first), the songs meant, by the artists, to be listened to in sequence to form a unity. I know, I know, singles on the radio and so on. But still, I do think something has been lost.

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  5. Brett says:

    That really blows that AC DC is not on iTunes. It certainly won’t make me buy their CDs.

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  6. DC Loser says:

    I will not buy music online. I prefer the original lossless digital versions on the CD. And I’m old enough to want to hold it in my hands after I fork over the money.

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  7. anjin-san says:

    Very few bands today can produce enough quality material to make an entire album worthwhile. Much of the music from the mid 60’s thru the 70s is best heard in album format, certainly it is true of the Beatles, though John insisted that Sgt. Pepper started out as a concept but was not really executed as one.

    Side two of Abbey Road was a few great songs combined with bits and pieces. Such was the genius of The Beatles that they cooked that into the apex of pop music, never really approached before or since…

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  8. John says:

    @ anjin-San

    Actually there is plenty of great music out there right now, and many great albums-but you won’t heat them on the radio. “Middle cyclone” by neko case, “the suburbs” by arcade fire, “evil urges” by my morning jacket… These are fantastic albums and they are all available on vinyl, which ironically is “hip” again for the very reason you mention – listening from start to finish.

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  9. anjin-san says:

    I have a copy of Fox Confessor Brings the Flood, which is a good record, and arcade fire is a decent band. Can’t say that I feel either approaches the threshold of greatness, but I grew up in an era when truly great records were coming out pretty much weekly, so I am probably a bit jaded.

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  10. anjin-san says:

    Might help to share my definition of “great music”. If it’s great, its power and quality is not diluted by time. Sticky Fingers, Getz/Gilberto or Blood on the Tracks sound just as good as the first time I heard them… timeless stuff.

    One of my problems with contemporary music is that even the better quality work seems to have a fairly short shelf life. Loved the first few Wallflowers albums, but I have no desire to listen to them now – just one example.

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  11. john says:

    Your earlier point, that few bands can create an albums worth of great material, is a good one, but I think it’s as true today as it was in the 70’s….Blood on the Tracks was released during a time when KC and the Sunshine band were competing with the Captain and Tennille at the top of the charts.There are great bands that realease music right now, but they exist in a market place where Ke$ha and the Black Eyed Peas are considered good. BTW, Getz/Gilberto is amazing.

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  12. Two things come to mind:

    1. If someone wants to listen to Sgt. Pepper as a unified whole, they can still do so on an iPod (and I can personally attest to having done so).

    2. I do not understand the logic of bands not wanting their products on iTunes. It is cutting off one’s nose to spite one’s face. The bottom line is that if one wants to make money and reach a broad audience, electronic delivery is not only the future, it is the now. My kids have no concept of a record store, but they get iTunes. And I am at the point where I don’t want to bother going to a physical locale to get music I then have to rip when I can sit at my desk and have it in seconds.

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  13. anjin-san says:

    If you want to get serious with an iPod, this is the way to go. Saw one at CES last year & it blew me away…

    http://www.manleylabs.com/containerpages/stingrayitube.html

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