Scanning the Countryside: Right-Size Me

Barry Mazor | October 19th, 2010


You’ve probably noticed the tremendous amount of energy and verbiage being expended online these days, in all sorts of places, by people who feel attached to some ongoing or even, often, some abandoned recording format. The conventionally-sized CD album, regularly derided for years—not less in country than in other musical genres— as often an over-priced dumping ground for unsatisfying filler cuts, is already showing signs in its late stages of transforming into grist for nostalgia, as mono vinyl LPs, 45s, eight-track tapes, cassingles, and 78s played on lo-fi period record players already had before.

We’ve heard some concerns expressed on this site about the length of the oncoming Keith Urban CD Get Closer, which will indeed, as had been rumored, be made available in versions ranging from a basic eight tracks to one about twice that length, with “bonuses” aimed for Target stores. (No; the basic version will not be titled, alternatively, Get Shorter.)

There are, of course, a variety of physical formats being used for country releases now, from downloaded singles, to three- or four-track EPs (Easton Corbin’s A Little More Country Than That pre-album EP, which yielded two successful singles, being an interesting case), to the familiar 10-14 track CDs, extended excursions like Jamey Johnson’s 25-track double CD The Guitar Song, and the “Six Pak” albums fostered by Warner Brothers (Blake Shelton’s Hillbilly Bone and All About Tonight, for examples.) All those appear even as better means are appearing to download albums of varying lengths, art and notes included, and as some make their case that we shouldn’t buy music at all any more, just stay linked to an infinite, omnipresent, and possibly omniscient online “cloud.”

It’s not surprising that in 2010’s complicated, fast changing landscape (recently summarized by Shelton as “the record industry is starting to suck.”) some consumers are confused, and some music lovers concerned. There’s an often forgotten past and, as I see it, a promising future lurking in this situation.

immortal-performances Physical formats have always emerged from a combination of technical possibility, experiments in figuring what music buyers might go for at a price, and also, every now and then, amazingly enough, even what might work best to the benefit of the music recorded. Among the very first country 3313 LPs ever, at the dawn of the 1950s, were the awkwardly titled A Treasury of Immortal Performances: Folk Singers from RCA, a compilation which offered just six cuts from country pioneers Jimmie Rodgers, Vernon Dalhart and their 1920s contemporary, the Southern pop star Gene Austin. And that was an LP album. Another very early entry was Songs of Jimmie Rodgers Sung by Lefty Frizzell, on Columbia, originally with eight cuts; they added a few more a few years later when it turned out LPs sold more at about 45 minutes in length. It was treated as a special opportunity for Lefty to do something he really wanted to, that fans might like, and that mattered, outside the line of hit singles he was then producing regularly. And anybody who’s ever looked into collecting, say, original Beatles releases will see that in the UK, those four-cut big center hole 45 EPs were much more successful and long-lasting than in the U.S. Singles were often not part of albums there, and kids who couldn’t afford LPs at all could get pieces of albums, and sometimes cuts that never made LPs, at a lower price. In short, the size and content of record formats was never written in stone, never automatic—and the variations could be really useful.

While turning to malleable recording lengths is not the “answer for everything,” it holds promise for being an answer to a lot of issues. If, like me, you want to see music be out there and available (especially stuff you consider good, of course), want to see your favorites have a way to reach us with a wider variety of projects they care to do with less time between appearances, and want to see new artists stand a fighting chance to hang in there (as opposed to never getting an album at all, if somebody doesn’t like the numbers on a single), than these new possibilities should encourage you, too. They’re no less pertinent for the digital realm, by the way. There’s not really one “cloud,” after all, or won’t be for long, but clouds—and it’s the size and shape of individual billows that attracts attention.

It’s not an accident, surely, that the Hillbilly Bone “Six-Pak” was relatively thick with country that pounds, and the All About Tonight release with ballads. Between the lines, the former may also have been tilted towards a male audience and the latter towards females. If the cut selection and differentiation was wise, more people were probably made happy. And new Shelton tracks kept coming. That six-cut length also seems perfect for enabling a lot of side-projects and one–offs. John Rich, for instance, is set to release a six-cut collection of outright rockers after the first of the year; if the notorious “Chris Gaines” project had been four or six cuts rather than Mr. Brooks’ next album, it might have been received not with anger and mocking but with the mild laugh in passing which it deserved. The great country traditions of duet albums, Christmas albums, and theme albums of all sorts, which have not been in their prime lately, could see a renaissance for not “interrupting the album flow.” Would, say, a six-track Vince Gill-Patty Loveless duet release (which some have been pining for at some length for years, as both artists know) have a better chance of happening than a 10 or 12 track? Maybe so.

This greater potential latitude for releases has wider implications. As much as many have loved and admired Miranda Lambert’s Revolution CD, some have suggested that it’s sometimes louder and more regulation, radio sound-shaped than they’ happen to like—much of the reason for the approach being the large arena level stage on which the artist can now play. Miranda deals with those issues directly herself, by choice, in her new six-song DVD, Revolution: Live by Candlelight, which is no slapdash affair. It takes the half-dozen songs to the intimacy of an up-close, intimate and finished acoustic studio performance, a whole other, and for me, very welcome way to experience the material. The malleability about finding a good working form extends beyond audio.

Once you start thinking about things this way, other size and scale questions come into focus. Just as stadium shows demand a certain level of spectacle and make the most of that (the intimacy and nuance possible in smaller venues being impossible), there’s a right size—and length—best for every performance. Video meant for your 2-inch mobile phone doesn’t work optimally on your 46-inch flat screen TV, or vice versa. Lets have both. Maybe now, when someone has three or five or 18 tracks that truly fit together thematically, or sonically, or simply as a balanced picture of the variety they’re currently working into a show, singles included, “all killer/no filler” can and will be the right size. It won’t be about some preset length, but about whatever works.

And that sounds good to me.

  1. Ellie
    October 19, 2010 at 10:23 am

    Personally, if I love an artist, I’ll buy the version with the most songs .. the more music the better for me. I also like to see at least 11 songs. When I bought Kenny Chesney’s “Hemingway Whiskey” a couple of weeks ago, I opted for the Deluxe Edition and I’m so glad I did because the best song, in my opinion, is one of the CD’s 2 bonus tracks.

    I also love it when there’s a mixture of emotions ‘organically’ blended into the playlist and song types aren’t necessarily organized by mood. Although if an artist releases a double CD set, like Jamie Johnson, I see the logic in a dark/light CD. I also enjoyed the way Vince Gill organized his “These Days” 4-CD set as well. But when it comes to a single CD, I love a full range of emotions packed in randomly .. and I love to listen from start to finish .. just like the artist intended me to do.

  2. Rick
    October 19, 2010 at 11:45 am

    I just wish MP3 downloads were offered at a 320kps bitrate so that they would consistently sound as good as CD tracks since 256kps is borderline. On the other hand a whole lot of Nashville’s output these days is poorly produced and sounds crappy to begin with even on CDs, and the MP3 versions just magnify the sonic shortcomings.

    I truly hope CDs continue to be offered online by the labels and artists even after the big box retail chains stop stocking them. As long as new album CDs remain readily available somewhere at a reasonable price, then that’s okay by me. It sure is a lot more fun to buy a CD at an artist’s concert and get it autographed than download an album onto your iPod.

    As for the length of albums, I do like the single song download approach to cherry pick the keepers and bypass the filler. If MP3’s sounded as good as CD tracks, then the extinction of the CD format wouldn’t be as disappointing to me.

  3. sam (sam)
    October 19, 2010 at 12:26 pm

    I no longer care how many tracks are on a CD, as I no longer buy them. Single songs, downloaded from iTunes. That way I can get the songs I like and leave those I don’t. That makes the most sense for me.

    I stopped buying music altogether for about five years around 1999-2004, when I got an ipod as a gift. I had grown weary of paying $18.00 for a cd that would contain 1-4 songs I even liked. And even the good songs I grew weary of fast. But with iTunes I can download a song or two I enjoy and feel I’m getting my money’s worth.

    iTunes definitely made me a customer of the music labels again.

  4. Michael A.
    October 19, 2010 at 1:36 pm

    Same here, Sam. Plus, I like that I don’t have to devote physical space in my home to music anymore. It’s all nicely organized on my computer.

  5. Leeann Ward
    October 19, 2010 at 1:48 pm

    I’m still an album buyer if I can at all justify it. I will cherry pick from albums that I know I wouldn’t like, but I’ll always choose to buy an entire album over just buying singles. With that said, the only physical CDs that I buy these days are ones that aren’t otherwise available in digital form.

  6. Barry Mazor
    October 19, 2010 at 1:51 pm

    For what it’s worth, the “right-sizing” possibility applies to downloads; so the point is not so much “where do CDs go from here” or “CDs: yes or no?”… Digital “albums’ of one size or another are feasible now–and for a lot of artists, they’re going to have “right size” appeal.

  7. luckyoldsun
    October 23, 2010 at 12:41 am

    I bought the “Lefty Sings Jimmie Rodgers” record on CD a few years ago. It was a real eye opener. I discovered that when Haggard does Jimmie Rodgers, he’s actually doing Lefty doing Jimmie Rodgers.

  8. agent713
    November 25, 2010 at 9:19 am

    I’m with Ellie. “Hemingway’s Wiskey” is the first album I bought in it’s entirety from iTunes because that’s where I could get the most tracks. It still feels weird to not have a physical cd floating around but I have the music and that’s what counts. I’m a full album girl. No, I don’t listen to all the songs all the time but I’d perfer to have them than not.

  9. Ben Sorensen's REAL Country Australia
    December 13, 2010 at 7:18 am

    I just had that conversation – Quality or Quantity….. CD or MP3…. But in the not to distant future will the new question be MP3 or WAV… as the old question was CD or Records?

    Does the ability to sell only one song via iTunes make more one hit wonders? Or encourage an industry to create better or “more saleable” music?

    So many questions!!

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