The Finch Formerly Known As Gold

18 June 2003

45 and holding

Sahar Aktar has a piece in Salon that grouses about Apple's iTunes and any successors it may spawn. This is the tag for the article:

As songs are increasingly sold one by one online, the musical creativity and risk-taking associated with the album format will decline.

This makes the startling assumption that musical creativity and risk-taking are actually associated with the album format, a proposition impossible to defend, especially with statements like this:

In the 1950s and early '60s, the 45 was the medium of choice for popular music. The problem, at least for innovation, was that the 45 only allowed up to three minutes of recording on each side. This limitation on space sent the marginal cost of selling music soaring and forced record labels to view the B side as another vehicle for mass-appeal music, and not as a stage on which to experiment. Since there were only two pieces released at a time, B sides were targeted for radio play and for popular consumption in the same way that A sides were.

This is demonstrably false, and can be refuted in two words: Phil Spector. America's favorite insane record producer was so intent upon getting you to listen to the A side that he would toss throwaway instrumental noodlings (with "titles" based on the names of the sidemen, such as "Tedesco and Pitman") on the back. And away from the Wall of Sound, yes, occasionally a B side would overshadow the A, but it usually took a fairly horrid A side (say, the Tokens' "Tina", which ultimately gave way to "The Lion Sleeps Tonight") for it to happen.

More to the point, albums, as writer Dave Marsh pointed out in the late 80s, remain essentially "singles separated by filler"; regardless of intent, very few albums can be viewed as a coherent whole, and even then, there's going to be something of a hierarchy among the tracks, the stronger ones suggesting themselves as, well, singles. And with 80 minutes available on a CD, too many acts feel compelled to fill up as much of the space as possible, further reinforcing this process.

And then there's this:

There's more than just anecdotal evidence that the B side is where creativity lurks. A sides are faithfully more standardized than their counterparts. Out of a sample of 200 popular singles released in the fall of 2000, B sides, sometimes as short as 30 seconds and as long as 22 minutes, were much more varied in length than the A's. Out of another sample of more than 20,000 singles, the number of professional songwriters employed for the A's was higher than 1,200, whereas for B's, fewer than 300 pieces were the work of professionals.

Oh, yes. God forbid anyone should record anything that isn't self-written. To hell with all those Tin Pan Alley hacks like Rodgers and Hammerstein.

Creativity lurks all over the damned place. The problem with folks like Sahar Akhtar is that they believe it lurks only in the places they prefer to look; those plebeians who download hits from iTunes obviously have no taste — "How can this be any good? It's played on a Clear Channel station!" Scratch a critic, find an elitist.

Posted at 12:00 PM to Tongue and Groove


What use is a critic? Are we so stupid we have to have people to tell us what to like and what not to like. I prefer to think not.

Posted by: Woody at 5:06 PM on 18 June 2003

Critics exist to put a journalistic gloss on entertainment industry press releases.

Not that I'm cynical or anything...

Posted by: McGehee at 6:05 PM on 18 June 2003

"Scratch a critic, find an elitist"

Well said Charles.

Posted by: Marc at 7:06 PM on 18 June 2003

Woody - are we that stupid? Surely the government believes so, if every law out there created to protect us from ourselves is any indication.

Posted by: Vickie at 5:01 AM on 19 June 2003

Critics, I should point out, are not entirely without value: they can direct you to things you might otherwise have missed, and once in a while you find one who actually knows his subject.

Posted by: CGHill at 7:03 AM on 19 June 2003