This Magazine

Progressive politics, ideas & culture

May-June 2013

New sound

Mason Wright

Rethinking the album format

After the success of his 2003 album Now, More Than Ever, which reached No. 3 on Canadian campus radio charts and was nominated for a Juno award, Guelph, Ont., singer-songwriter Jim Guthrie left fans wondering when to expect the follow-up. He was still writing songs and playing shows on his own and in bands, but his label, Three Gut Records, shut down in 2005 and his solo material was left with no home. His career highlight in those days may have been recording the “Hands In My Pocket” jingle for a credit card company (which actually stands on its own as a fun and catchy folk-rock song).

That part of the story ends happily this month when Guthrie’s Takes Time is released on Static Clang records. But in many ways it’s how he spent the intervening years that’s most remarkable—and illustrates what happens when an artist is able to break out of the tried, and formerly true, album format.

Today, Guthrie may be as respected in video game circles as he is in the indie rock world. The music he composed for two collaborative DIY games (2011’s Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP and 2012’s Sound Shapes) garnered award nominations, more opportunities to score films, and a comfortable career as a composer.

Composing music for a game isn’t like writing rock songs. Instead of a linear tune, you might use layered melody fragments that loop or randomize based on character movements or actions. Song structure takes a backseat to capturing a mood or feeling, and the final output is something that may never appear on the radio. It was a satisfying shift in perspective for Guthrie, though he still found time for rock music. As he described it to The Verge in a June 2012 interview: “In all cases I’m essentially creating something out of nothing, and that will always be the biggest challenge regardless of the project.”

In the 21st century, Guthrie’s experience is becoming more common. Ever since the long-playing record was invented in the 1940s, musical output has, most often, been meant to be heard in sessions of about 40 to 65 minutes. But industry preference is no longer conveniently reinforced by the limitations of physical media and old-style music marketing.

When a little-known Toronto R&B act calling itself The Weeknd burst onto the scene in March of 2011 on the strength of a few moody slow jams, an endorsement from Drake, and the wagging tongues of music bloggers, it was often casually noted that the unsigned Abel Tesfaye and his collaborators had released a free mixtape.

Dating back to the earliest days of hip-hop, the mixtape was once compiled by DJs and sold on the streets as cassettes. Now, “mixtape” is shorthand for “free, Internet-distributed compilation by one artist,” and is a primary vehicle for new, self-produced R&B and rap artists to get their sample-heavy underground recordings to eager listeners. Even as The Weeknd’s stardom grew, it remained the only way to hear their music.

Increasingly, both emerging and established artists are embracing non-traditional techniques for releasing music to the masses. Alex Day, a young songwriter from the U.K., has stormed the charts by releasing songs only on YouTube. Beck, who has been releasing traditional albums since the early ’90s, recently published unrecorded songs via sheet music. He invited fans to record and share them online instead, evoking a modern-day version of the way music was experienced before recordings were possible.

Historically, the constraints provided by “the album” has proved to be useful. Knowing the parameters by which the game is played lets artists concentrate on content instead of form. For the listener, there is delight that goes along with discovering how an artist has created a story or mood that unfolds over the limited time available. Besides, ambitious artists could always release a double or even triple album to accommodate their vision.

Perhaps that’s one reason why, even as digital distribution over the Internet theoretically frees creators from the shackles of a time limit, album-length releases remain popular.

But the spaces where non-album music is emerging are another sign of an evolving industry. Today we have YouTube sensations, mixtape superstars, and beloved video-game composers. Tomorrow, who knows? With the freedom to create music in previously unimagined formats, it could soon be a very different landscape.

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