In the not-so-distant past, music fans were at the mercy of a thin black platter, encoded -- in what now seems like Pleistocene-era technology -- with songs. Each side offered a sequence of tracks, assembled with much thought by the artist. There was an arc to the album, a mysterious flow in the best of them, that demanded patient listening and many return visits.
Songs were like stanzas, memorized in relation to the one that came before and the one after. There were always fussy listeners who manually lifted the turntable arm, painstakingly trying and failing and trying and failing to lay the stylus down in the sliver preceding another track. But most people let the big disc spin, song by song, all the way through.
The idea of listening to an uninterrupted side of music has been on the wane since the advent of the compact disc in the early 1980s, when technological advances supplied listeners with scan buttons, random play features, and skip and repeat functions. We became masters of our musical domains, no longer beholden to an artist's vision of how his or her work should unfold or cohere. Skip the ballads? No problem. Program the single to repeat 20 times? Awesome. Sure, it was sometimes a pleasure to hear an album straight through without flipping it over. But the choice was ours.
Now a new generation of technology is enabling us to take even greater control over when and how we listen to music. The music consumer has, in essence, become the music programmer, rendering the very idea of a full-length album obsolete.
With the push of a few buttons on your computer keypad, songs can be sampled and compiled into customized CDs on countless Web sites, or downloaded via MP3 files directly onto computers. For a couple of hundred dollars, you can buy a CD burner and copy songs from MP3 files onto blank CDs (each costs a dollar or two) for easy Walkman or car-stereo access. In theory, the Internet could replace the record store as the prime source of the music you listen to.
And for the first time, offline music consumers have the opportunity to create custom compilations as well: Music kiosks, which have been in development for several years, are finally popping up in brick-and-mortar retail stores worldwide. At these stations, you can burn your own CD; eventually, you'll be able to download onto your portable MP3 player.
Using a touch screen, customers listen to song samples, select and sequence the tracks, and even choose titles and art for the label. With a swipe of a credit card (they accept cash, too), the CD is recorded. It takes about four minutes to burn 32 minutes' worth of music, at a cost of $6 to $20, depending on the number of songs.
RedDotNet is installing kiosks in Target stores, Sam Goody, and Wherehouse record stores. Liquid Audio just opened a string of them in major European and Asian cities. And Musicmaker.com, which is producing between 3 and 5 million custom CDs for Pepsi's "Choose Your Music" promotion, will begin deploying its own retail kiosks later this year.
The fate of music delivery is no longer a matter of conjecture: The album is on a crash course with the digital future. The recording industry has recently come to this realization; the debate about song licensing, legal parameters and financial compensation will continue for some time. This month, the Recording Industry Association of America won a copyright-infringement lawsuit against MP3.com --which has compiled a vast database of sound recordings that it delivers digitally via computer.
It's the first lob in what's certain to be a long and complicated process during which the music industry struggles to establish a new business model for the cyber-age.
But what implications does the new digital delivery have for the art form itself? As more and more music fans are able to browse titles and personalize CDs with single tracks from massive catalogs offered through the Internet or at kiosks, will the full-length album simply vanish? And at what cost to the vision and artistry that went into capturing -- and loudly proclaiming in a carefully constructed sprawl of songs -- a moment in time? Maybe we just don't have the time anymore. In the high-tech order, speed, convenience and efficiency are paramount. It's undeniably cost-effective, from a consumer standpoint, to purchase two songs you really like rather than pay for an entire CD. Moreover, the idea of sitting still through a dozen tracks when only a few songs really put you over the top simply doesn't jibe with our streamlined lives. In other words, kids aren't whiling away their adolescent years communing with a set of headphones in their bedrooms.
More and more of them are downloading songs onto multimedia portable MP3 players. We're on the go, and in the surge to tailor input and maximize the odds for instant gratification, the notion of an hour spent listening to someone else's idea of a worthwhile musical experience is sorely out of date.