A recent feature on Complex raised again the question that has dogged musicians since the CD became the dominant recorded music format in the early 1990s: are albums simply too long?
It noted that albums now often run to 20 tracks. “Minimalism is taking over the fashion and architecture industries, but it seems to have skipped the music industry,” it said.
It’s not a new question. Rolling Stone was asking the same question in 2018; Fact magazine in 2016 was claiming albums were becoming “unbearably long” and that “bullshit new streaming rules are to blame” whereby any track on an album could count as a single and so more tracks on an album gave an act more marketing ammunition; even a discussion on a prog rock fansite – a genre where a song only starts to get going 15 minutes in – back in 2006 was wondering if album running times were getting slightly out of hand.
The obvious reason why albums were comparatively short in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s was down to the format restrictions of the LP. It could only hold around 44 minutes of music (22 minutes on each side) without the grooves being forced too close together and dangerously compromising the audio quality. The storage limitation defined the parameters of the art form.
The arrival of the CD increased disc storage space to around 74 minutes but, for many years, the extra space was not used and the old creative structure of the LP was simply exported into the CD.
In the 1990s, the running time of a CD started to edge up but there was still a lot of unused space. This created the phenomenon of the “hidden track” – a song buried upwards of 30 minutes after the album proper had finished and could only be accessed by fast-forwarding or rewinding the disc.
Some hidden tracks were great, like ‘Endless, Nameless’ on Nirvana’s Nevermind; some were pointless in-jokes that probably sounded funny to the band late at night in the studio (like ‘The Foz’ at the end of The Second Coming by The Stone Roses); and some were downright repulsive, like the self-explanatory ‘Sick Party’ on 1977, the debut album by Ash (warning: it really is HORRIBLE).
Historically there were limitations placed on albums in the US for more complex economic reasons. Restricting the number of tracks meant that there was a ceiling on how much had to be paid out in mechanical copyrights to music publishers and songwriters.
Performance-rights organization ASCAP offers its members an explanation on “controlled composition clauses”, of which this is one example. It talks of the “maximum aggregate mechanical penny royalty limit for an album” that can be imposed by record labels that works as a cap on royalties.
“Under these clauses, the artist or producer guarantees that he/ she will secure reduced mechanical rates on all songs on the album so that the maximum penny rate per album (e.g., 68.2¢) payable by the record company to music publishers and songwriters for all songs is not exceeded,” it explains. “If this maximum aggregate album-royalty rate is surpassed – for example, if the writer/artist wants to put 12 or 14 songs, rather than 10, on the album – the difference is normally deducted from the artist’s or producer’s record, songwriter, and publishing royalties, or, the per-song royalty rates for the writer/ artist or writer/producer will be reduced proportionately.”
So this could be viewed as a form of tax on a prolific output. There were other ways, however, to try and cauterise the creative overload of musicians.
This curse of the fecund was one of the issues underpinning Prince’s legal battle with Warner Bros. in the 1990s. In this case, the record company wanted him to release less music, not more – making this dispute a rare one indeed. The BBC reported that he had some 500 tracks in his studio vault that he wanted out in the market but Warner opposed this deluge of music coming out quickly “believing it would saturate the market and dilute demand for the artist’s music”.
The joke of “all filler no killer” is something that has blighted albums for a long time.
There have also been creative implications, much like there were in the 1990s in the UK when acts had to write and record even more songs than were on the original album to go on B-sides as a means of gaming their chart position during the multi-formatting days of CD singles.
Time was when acts could release an album a year as they only had 40 minutes to fill on an LP, but having to almost double that to fill up a CD used up every scrap they had in the studio. This meant that the gaps between albums started to stretch out to two years, then three years and then even longer.
Yet there are always some unheard tracks to be found when an artist passes away, the quality of which is often up for debate.
Tupac Shakur had completed five studio albums in his lifetime but since his death there have been eight posthumous albums bearing his name. Jeff Buckley’s posthumous Sketches For My Sweetheart The Drunk was a double of mostly self-composed songs when on his debut album, Grace, three of the 10 tracks were covers. The estate of Juice Wrld has recently announced that his second posthumous album will actually take the form of a trilogy.
“We’re simply looking for an easier way to digest music without being overwhelmed with an hour-long project,” pleaded Complex. “If artists genuinely take into consideration what their fans think, they would be wise to reconsider the long album format.”
Digital was the start of the end of the justification for a long album – but creative brevity has proven to take even longer to come to fruition.
The length of albums – these bloated beasts that ran to 74 minutes, packing music into a CD like sardines into a tin – became a commonly cited justification for users of P2P systems like the original Napster at the turn of the millennium. “Why should I have to pay for an album of 15 tracks when I only want the one or two good tracks?” they would ask, forgetting to note that, in using P2Ps, they were not actually paying for any of the tracks they wanted.
ng is finally making all of this feel increasingly irrelevant. Now it is all about the track and how it connects on playlists – where the very architecture of songwriting has changed to load all the hooks at the start so the listener does not skip it. As such, it is a huge ask to expect someone to sit through 75+ minutes of an album.
The record industry has attempted to structure albums with this dynamic in mind, advising acts to “put the best six songs up front” to give the album the best chance of sticking in the streaming world. But it feels like using a bag of flour as a flood barrier.
Ultimately still clinging to the album as a measurement unit, both creatively and commercially, in an age of streamed tracks means that everything starts to feel incredibly anachronistic.
Asking if albums in 2021 are too long increasingly is akin to asking if the mouldboard plough makes furrows too quickly.