Why make an album now? That’s a good question.
Times are changing. People’s attention spans are altering. I grew up listening to albums, listening to Queens of the Stone Age’s Songs For The Deaf in my bedroom, listening to Belle and Sebastian’s If You’re Feeling Sinister in a walkman in the back of a car, listening to Franz Ferdinand’s debut during lunch, eagerly discussing the formation of our own band as we marvelled at their wit and their dress sense.
I wasn’t rigidly into any particular genre, about the only consistent thing in my music taste was it was album focused. They weren’t all classics. I bought the Alien Ant Farm album off the back of finding their Smooth Criminal cover to be utterly addictive, gave the whole thing a chance because that was the way it was, and to this day I remember the lyrics to album tracks from that otherwise forgotten release. The advent of the iPod changed my listening habits slightly, I was still purchasing albums but consuming them less and less as a whole, less patient with things that didn’t hit fast and quick.
Times are changing. The customer facing side of the music business is completely different to how it was 15 to 20 years ago. I’ve covered Spotify before [Ventures in Lockdown May 2020] but lets return and consider founder Daniel Ek’s recent comments that ‘musicians can’t record music once every three to four years and think that’s going to be enough’. This is a dig at the traditional album/tour cycle. What Ek would prefer is a constant stream of content to keep people engaged. Arguably, his attitude stems from market research and the notion that this is what the customer would prefer. Even if we cut the cycle of writing, recording and touring down to two years (a fair gap between LPs for most people), is that too big a gap? Will a fledgling talent miss their talent if they take too long over the next thing?
A sonic tradition that still matters
In the face of evidence to the contrary, I’m here to consider whether it’s worth making an album and ultimately to stand firmly on the side of a tradition that dates back to either the late nineteenth century or early twentieth century, depending on your criteria. It’s not easy, there are creative and financial obstacles (especially if you’re one of the majority of musicians not making great money, or any money, from their craft) and from a strictly business point of view there are reasons why it might not be a priority in this day and age. Especially for emerging bands, for which singles and EPs offer a faster ascent of the ladder, and who can sell out venues like the SWG3 and Barrowlands without the hint of an LP. It’s not common these days for an emerging band to release an album within two years of their first gig, and some never get round to it.
To me, that’s a shame. The album isn’t irrelevant in the same way novels and films aren’t. Technological advancement has offered alternative means for creative people to express themselves, in almost all cases these platforms democratise the process of putting your work out there, have made this whole world more accessible, and broadened the demographic of voices that are represented. For all the positives that come with the changing landscape, the album remains important. Writing ten songs to be heard in sequence is a totally different challenge to writing one song. You’ve to consider the sonic side of things, find a sweet spot between cohesion and range. Then there’s the subject matter to consider, the way that the lines between the musician and the literary start to intersect with fascinating results. There’s the playful callbacks, skits, and other detours (I took great pleasure in the car radio interludes on Songs for the Deaf, itself a timeless road trip album). And I like that an album can document a moment in time, whether personal, political or cultural. You can spend your time figuring out what your audience wants from you, but the album can help you figure out what you want from yourself.
Scottish Album of the Year?
The annual Scottish Album of the Year award, which revealed its longlist last night, is our biggest celebration of the form in the country, and for that reason I’m glad it exists. Which isn’t to say that all twenty records are things I think are good (I don’t, and Lewis Capaldi’s doing just fine as it is) and that anything left off isn’t worth investigating (there are plenty gems that, for whatever reason, aren’t considered every year; recent releases by Kaputt, Pictish Trail, Alasdair Roberts and St. Martiins were left off this year’s longlist, all are excellent).
Awards of all kinds are to be taken with a pinch of salt; your work isn’t important because you’re included in an awards ceremony, and it isn’t insignificant because you’re not, and so says a serial non-winner of prizes. The SAY does feel like it has a purpose, though. It’s a celebration of the longform, a way of listening that still endures, rather than a back-slapping popularity contest. Rightly or wrongly the Mercury Prize continues to overlook Scottish acts (as well as songwriting titans like Richard Dawson) and so this is our celebration. Everyone will have their own opinions, but there is a lot to celebrate in this year’s longlist.
Who do I want to win? Our Lost Map labelmate Callum Easter was unstoppable in 2019. His darkly soulful Here or Nowhere is a different beast to his accordion-led live show, a deftly produced collection that, to my ears, have always seemed to articulate an almost childlike sense of wide-eyed wonder whilst remaining sophisticated. He’s an exceptional talent, a magnetic presence both on the stage and on record, and has genuine crossover appeal. Cloth’s self-titled debut earned comparisons to The Blue Nile and The XX, it’s an esoteric, slow-burning journey that rewards repeated listens. And I was delighted, surprised even, to see Comfort’s excellent Not Passing make the longlist. The brother/sister duo make the sort of outsider art that mainstream prizes often overlook, a ferocious critique of gender norms and oppressive constructs, a middle finger to bigotry of all kinds.
Ultimately I’d like to see the kudos, and £20,000, go to someone who could use the boost both in terms of column inches and bank balance at a time when building a sustainable existence as an artist is difficult, verging on impossible. In that sense, all three would be deserving winners and, in any case, I think that the outsiders are making the best stuff.