[17 May 2011]
Sound Affects Editor
In an interview with Sky News during the premiere for AC/DC’s new concert DVD Live at River Plate earlier this month, schoolboy-uniform-clad guitarist Angus Young reaffirmed his band’s still-unwavering stance on not making its music available for sale as digital downloads on iTunes. Even though notable major holdouts from the online marketplace—Radiohead, Led Zeppelin, the Beatles—have one by one acquiesced to digital sales in recent years, the Thunder from Down Under is having none of it. As Young told the interviewer, “For us it’s the best way. We are a band who started off with albums and that’s how we’ve always been… We always were a band that if you heard something (by AC/DC) on the radio, well, that’s only three minutes. Usually the best tracks were on the albums”.
Certainly the veteran Australian rock band is free to distribute its music the way is sees fit, although it’s necessary to point out that iTunes allows artists to make certain tracks “Album Only” purchases. Still that only goes so far, as Radiohead discovered when the retailer refused to honor the band’s wishes to make all its tracks “Album Only”, causing the British alt-rock group to balk at offering its catalog there (Radiohead eventually relented, and now all its album cuts can be bought individually at the store). No, AC/DC wants classic albums like Highway to Hell (1979) and its immortal masterwork Back in Black (1980) to be consumed by buyers as unfractured wholes, and nothing less will do.
The way iTunes insists musicians offer their output on its store isn’t the issue to consider here. The real issue has everything to do with the hallowed status the long-playing album holds in recorded music. In popular music, the album is equivalent to the feature film and the novel in other media: it is held to be the primary vehicle of expression, the one that “counts” in the artist’s oeuvre. Although it originated as a method for record labels to package individually-released singles together after the fact, the LP since at least the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band in 1967 has been elevated to the top level of importance for musicians (particularly rockers), critics, and fans alike. Other formats are considered lesser entities: in the face of the favored LP, singles are considered necessary promotional evils, the EP is cast as a stopgap between “proper” full-lengths, and compilations of the best-of/greatest hits variety are continually held in sniffy disdain by certain quarters for how they grab selections from disparate works (read: albums) and mix them together in a configuration they weren’t intended for (a closed-minded attitude that denies truly great compilations from being considered the pinnacle of a musician’s output—nothing will ever change my mind that the best records Depeche Mode ever put out were its 81-85 and 86-98 singles collections). Even as the digital single garners more of the industry profit pie in the face of declining CD sales year after year, the LP remains the definitive package for the industry.
What’s odd about this notion is that albums don’t function like books and films do. They are more comparable to collections of original short stories all penned by the same author than truly cohesive long-form entities. Traditional album tracks are meant to function as autonomous units for a variety of reasons, ranging from the promotional (radio and video play) to the practical (to give performers breathers between tunes during live performances). As long as they’re divided into distinct units, it’s always been relatively easy to juggle around and recontextualize the contents of the LP, no matter how insistent the author is that it should all be taken in as a larger work. Certainly the beast known as the concept record can only properly function on a larger scale to present its narrative, but the average album doesn’t tell a story, and instead is often tied together by a mood, an aesthetic, or the mere mundane reality of housing whatever the material the musician had available when time came to record in the studio. Skipping around is easy—and encouraged, be it by lifting a turntable stylus or by hitting the shuffle button on an MP3 player. Pick up a novel and start at any random chapter, and you’re likely to be at a loss. Start an album on track five and typically you should be able to get right into it.
AC/DC should be aware of how modular and easy to isolate album contents really are: after all, the band issues singles from its LPs like pretty much every other rock group, and it had no problem mixing cuts from various albums together for last year’s Iron Man 2 soundtrack. And as awesome as Back in Black is, the power of its music is not dependent on each track being listened to one after the other in proper sequence, as any random spin of “Shoot to Thrill” or “You Shook Me All Night Long” on your local rock radio station between slabs of Led Zeppelin and Metallica can demonstrate. Furthermore, the group came to prominence in the glory days of AOR radio, so quite a few of its better non-single album cuts (especially those from Back in Black) are indeed well-known, despite what Angus Young said. I do think it’s pretty lame that iTunes won’t let artists sell albums only as complete works if that’s what they desire, but it’s important to acknowledge that LPs really aren’t the immutable documents we tend to think of them as.