A curious divergent motion: while the ever-increasing rapidity of information flow means that trends cycle more rapidly than ever, in music the typical release schedule has (perhaps until recently, with the decay of the full-length album as primary mode of presentation) been getting longer and longer. Look at any band’s discography from the 1960s, and you’ll see at least an album a year, sometimes more like an album every nine months. Even if you allow for the fact that such albums were often shorter, that’s still a much more rapid release schedule than all but the most prolific acts these days can manage (or are allowed to have), especially when you consider that often singles and (in England) EPs had tracks that were not on the albums. The result is that bands can cycle from next-big-thing to where-are-they-know in the half year between the first mp3’s leak and the first album’s post-buzz backlash.
If you ask me, if the death of big music industry returns bands to releasing “singles” every few months and collections of songs (“albums”) every year or so, regardless of whether any label supports it, regardless of whether such releases are how the band actually makes any money, I’m all for it. At heart I think rock’n’roll, however smart it might be, however subtle its recorded arrangements, still shouldn’t be excessively overthought (and anyone who reads my stuff regularly knows I’m hardly averse to ambition, even pretentiousness). It loses something, and I think it’s far more interesting to be able to hear a band developing its sound in more or less real time.
More than that: an often-underlooked aspect of music is the effect of other bands. Some musicians like to pretend they don’t listen to other bands (or to their own press) or aren’t influenced by them – I suspect they’re also among the five percent of survey respondents who claim never to have masturbated. The history of rock is full of bands being inspired by other bands – to outdo them, usually, for sure: “take that, Hüskers!” scrawled Minutemen on the sleeve of their Double Nickels on the Dime – their riposte to Hüsker Dü’s own double-album Zen Arcade – and the wild feedback loop of late-sixties musical influence is well-known…with Paul McCartney trying (and failing) to outdo the energy of the Who’s “I Can See for Miles” with his own “Helter Skelter” (still a damned fine rocker, though), and everyone trying to outdo Sgt. Pepper and Pet Sounds.
I boarded this particular train of thought because I ran into my own best-of-2004 compilation recently, and noted the following: in the margins of my 2003 list, there was a scrappy song by a Montreal act, I think downloaded from Said the Gramophone, that made me pay attention when that same band released its debut the next year. That band and album received huge amounts of acclaim that year: it was Arcade Fire and Funeral. Too much acclaim – it was that year’s indie-rock Jesus, and it could never live up to the hype. Sadly, the band seemed to buy it: what on Funeral was a sort of homegrown striving after U2-style bigness became, on their follow-up Neon Bible, well-funded studio-wise gigantism. And that follow-up took nearly three years to arrive…and does anyone even care what Arcade Fire are doing these days? They would have been much better off, I think, recording and releasing a whole bunch of music, instead of trying to shove all their ideas into a bunch of songs that wouldn’t bear the weight of their ambition.
Even if I’d loved that album, it amounts to the following: less than a single hour of music in five years. I mean, maybe if you’ve been around forever, or are older and burdened with jobs and responsibility, or are truly eccentric and weird and can barely be cajoled into a studio once a decade, that might work…but if you’re supposedly a working band, a bunch of folks in your twenties, where’s all your music? You folks do realize the Beatles had an entire career in the time since your first album?
(Following on an obvious phrase I did not use, I think someone really needs to name their band, or their album, “Rocket Science”…)