January 08, 2005

Single, Song, Mix, Welcome to the Curatorial Era

2004 was another step in the long slow death of the album, a process that started with the invention of the CD. It wasn't an awful year for music, yet there wasn't a single classic album produced. But how many musicians can make 70 minutes of flawless music? It happens yes, but radically less frequently then classic 40 minute LPs got dropped. Its not pure math either, it might just be that the break, the physical and psychological space created by flipping the vinyl, is as important as the problem of filling 70 whole minutes. There are still occasional albums better enjoyed as a unit then a collection of songs, but iTunes sure helps to edit them, doesn't it?

If the album is close to dead, its perhaps time to redefine those units we address our music. The old single versus album dichotomy has actually been dying even longer, at least since the advent of AOR (Album Orient Rock) radio. Album tracks have been slipping into the singles category for quite a while, but now in the P2P-iTunes-mix cd-mash up era the song now reigns supreme and I think we need a bit more distinction.

The single is far from dead but it's not exactly tied to a discreet physical or economic unit. Perhaps instead it's best looked at as something still economic, but far broader, as a song with a promotional machine behind it. Or more often more then one promotional machines. Record label promo departments, PR agencies, radio payola, DJ pressure, mixtape exclusives, advertising exposure. The promotional machine can occasionally rise organically, as a multiplicity, through pure demand and repeated pumping from car stereos (the real American pirate radio). Generally however a song becomes a single via the strategic and skillful use of capital, the skill set that keeps record labels afloat in the peer to peer waters of the 21st.

A proper single soon becomes broadcast across enough networks, airwaves and channels that it enters the mass unconscious. It exists not as discreet occurrence, but as a rhythm, and repetition, a virus even, a sonic that can only be avoid through active effort. It exists in a completely different social space from the average song. A song stays discreet, it generally takes action on the listener's part to here the average song. They need to hunt it on Soulseek or buy it off iTunes, then manually insert it into their sonic rotational medium of choice. The song is more or less a deliberate consumption, although there is a complex micropolitics and microeconomy of songs in which they can take on certain elements of a single within localized contexts. For instance a song played everyday in your local coffee shop or in on endless repeat by your next door neighbor is as potentially infectious or noxious as the latest Ashlee Simpson single. For the purposes of the single versus song distinction then its important to note that a single must achieve a degree of broadcast over a relatively broad space with a decent amount of speed. In other words it needs to propagate over networks.

The rise of the song though does not mean that long form music is necessarily dead. Rather it can no longer be defined by the constraints of the physical media that holds it. One format that has been lurking in the underground for decades, the live concert recording, is a good example. Here clearly the defining form is the performer and the time of the recording. Far more interesting to me though is the DJ mix. Just as DJ's kept the vinyl record vital far longer then might have been expected, it looks as if they might keep the CD vital far beyond its initial uses as well. And while musicians can rarely fill the 70 minutes of a CD without large dose of filler, DJs can bless those 70 minutes with relative ease.

For a year or two in the late 90's DJ's made serious claims to being musicians. And there are a few "turntablists" worthy of that name. But increasingly DJs are looking more like curators and becoming all that more important in the process. The curator essentially engages in an act of filtration as well as an act of recombination. While the recombination must be done well, its the filtration that is truly valuable in an age of rapidly increasing information. A good DJ, or mix creator of any name is a star if they can give you the great shit without making you work for it. Maybe they dig in the crates, maybe they hustle artists for exclusives. Maybe they listen to everything, maybe they just know how to get the hot artist in the studio and let them freestyle. Maybe they lay old beats under new vocals, maybe they just know the sequence that makes it all sound better. Regardless in the past couple years the mix and the mixtape have become essential. A DJ Kast One dancehall mix every few months keeps me as up to date as I want to be. A reggaeton mix, a little OPP (other people's playlists), a frantic cut up of the history of cut ups, an occasional dose of the woozy slowed down Houston freestyle rap. I probably invested less energy into finding new music this year then I have in a decade, and I probably heard more then I ever have. This the curatorial era and I think I'm ready.

Posted by William Blaze at January 8, 2005 11:16 PM | TrackBack

It's interesting to see how this works with hip-hop .. I think the single / album split is a little different in electronic music, where certain genres lend themselves and in fact necessitate an album (ambient, experimental work, improvisational, etc) whereas others favour the single (techno).. although I'd even say that the pendulum has swung back toward the album: longer techno tracks are favouring an overall conceptual approach to the techno album (which isn't a new thing, rather, it seems to be hanging on while it's fallen in hip hop?) .. perhaps this has something to do with the fact that techno gets no airplay?

As for techno djs, they've always been filters -- since 1990 there's been more material than time to play it .. however, for me, the application of skill (turntablism) is necessary for me to fill dialed in by a dj. Having the right tracks can also just be a simple process of ordering them via ebay and forking out the cash for the rare or already-approved cut. In techno, it's pushing the new shit that people don't recognise yet and having them remember it again for the first time -- in an original, unique situation -- yes, where they've never heard it before -- in a manner of subtle skill -- that grants the techno dj the title of techno-turntablist ..


Posted by: tV on January 13, 2005 02:41 PM
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