When I was a kid, I spent a lot of time in hospitals. While recovering from one of many surgeries, my eldest brother remarked on my ability to require nothing more than a portable CD player, a pair of headphones, and a small case of CDs to occupy myself for hours. Noting how confused I was by his interest he explained, “I listen to music passively. It’s never like, the one thing I’m doing.” Then I started writing music reviews.
Much like my brother’s fascination with how much focus I could put into leisurely enjoying a record, I think most people underestimate the focus it takes to actually write about an album. It looks like all I’m doing is staring off into space, and sometimes feels that way. Recently, I find inattention is a trap I often end up falling into. It took some time, and a mild existential crisis about the nature of review writing, the future of music journalism, and whether I should be doing it anymore, but I’ve found the source of the problem. Any album with more than ten songs always drags somewhere and even the most intense listener will get lost. Personally, there are two reasons for this and they have a symbiotic relationship, blurring the line between cause and effect.
For one, the internet has made music too accessible. Over the past decade or more, a big deal has been made of the economic effect this shift had, but little has been said about its effect on music as an artistic medium. In some ways it seems to have raised the bar. The ability to find the exact mix of influences you’ve always wanted, then almost immediately be suggested bands that are similar, has made it easier to soundtrack any given mood. This infinitely increases the emotional satisfaction gained from any one music listening experience and naturally, has made even the average listener more discerning in their taste.
The downside to this, as is usually the case with most human experiences, involves choice. While we now essentially have access to every band ever, there seems to be a never-ending stream of mediocre, generic bands vying for recognition and success. In spending plenty of time listening to bands like this, I’ve been able to analyze and uncover something interesting about that impression.
Being generic isn’t always a bad thing. Sometimes, the most impressive thing a band can do is competently insert themselves into a musical tradition, seamlessly imitating a sound, and maintaining a caliber of songwriting achieved by many before them. In my experience, this is as much as most bands are capable of, and the satisfaction these songs can provide is indicative of music’s emotional ability to comfort a listener with its familiarity. However, even in these overall average albums, gems inevitably stick out. There’s usually four or five, and therein lies the heart of my second point.
If bands reduced the length of each individual release, the experience of listening to a record would be more satisfying. Not only would listeners have more time to explore different acts, the time it would take to become familiar with, and form an emotional bond to their output, would be greatly reduced. Time is often disregarded when art and consumer culture collide, and I’d like to see that change. Reducing the length of individual releases not only helps remove pressure from the people musicians are attempting to entertain and extract money from, but it would be better for bands as well. If each release is shorter, more bodies of work can be released in a year and that would help stave off what feels like every band’s inevitable descent into irrelevancy. If you plan to release only four songs at once, the ideal EP length in my opinion, then more time can be spent making each song become the best possible version of itself. Then, even if a band decides to do a second release in the same year, the total amount of songs they release decreases the odds of any of those songs being sub-par.
Also, I believe this will lead to greater experimentation. If a band has less opportunities to woo a listener, they will likely pull out all the stops and focus on the kinds of songs they want to be writing, rather than make sure their full-length has something for everyone. Other than touring, the digital music revolution has made recording songs the only substantial financial burden on releasing music, and going into a studio with four songs rather than ten would likely make that experience cheaper as well.
So bands, do us all a favour and be more discerning with your track-lists. Give us only the best songs you’re capable of writing now and, when you come up with more, feel free to hit us up again. I promise we will be more likely to pay you, and your art, the attention they deserve.
Written by Brian Charles Clarke
*edited by Danielle Kenedy