sweet as the scratch

notes on music consumption in the digital age

What is the significance of the album in 2015? Is it still the driving force of the music industry?

These are questions I ask myself often while on the prowl for tunes new and old. Since I want my time on the web to yield a music library that is fun to listen to as well as comprehensive, deciding whether to search for individual tracks or download full-length releases is a tension always at the back of my mind. Based on my own experiences, the difference between these choises is that, while finding a few dope tracks everyday keeps your headphones on blast, listening to new albums consistently increases your understanding of music in terms of history, genre, and cultural production.

Personal anxieties aside, the way we talk about music is definitely still wrapped up in the album. To "prove" ourselves as knowlegeable about anything musical, the first thing we turn to are the discographies of our favorite artists. (Better have that flash-card game proper or else face the wrath of a million condescending bros wylin out about "intelligent dance music" on social media threads and online forums.)

But something about all this seems rather dated. For one, the sheer unknowablity of the music industry after 100+ years of recording, broadcasting, and distribution leaves any itunes account--even that of the biggest musichead you know--with inexcusable oversights of key moments in music history. It is a hard truth to swallow that, even if you listen to two albums a day for the rest of your life, you won't even begin to scratch the surface of everything out there that is worth hearing and cultrually relevant. Why, then, do we insist on using the album as a source of knowledge when it represents a narrative of music history that is exhausted and overwhelming?

What is more, radical changes to music's distribution in the digital age have made the very format of the album untenable. No longer dependent on the cd, record, or cassette for mass circulation, music now is delinked from the material and technological conditions that once contoured its production. For example, in the case of the cd, artists make specific creative decisions (i.e. what order the tracks appear, how to transition between them, how long the album should be overall) based on the technological perameters of the disk. But with the advent of mp3s, automated music databases/algorithms, and audio/video sharing platforms, these decisions become decontextualized within the endless playlist of musicians and tracks brought together by a simple click on "shuffle." Seen in this way, the album, because of its birth in an outdated system of music distribution, reproduces a relationship to technology that is out of sync with the way we produce and consume music today. (Of course, this argument side-steps the influence that the fetishization of vinyl and music collecting in the digital age has on the social and cultural production of music across the world, but this topic deserves its own post...coming soon!!)

All this said, as per usual, I find that it is social discourse and not music itself that is lagging behind. Even though the album remains central to economic exchange within and around the music industry, it does in fact seem to be losing face as a preferred mode of artistic production. Particularly in the world of hip hop and electronic music, full-length albums and LPs are giving way to an endless stream of singles, mixtapes, and free releases unaffiliated with major record labels or manufacturers. With "total plays" and "buzz" on soundcloud and youtube dictating much of what circulates through music blogs and popular culture, the conceptual elements of the album are of little importance compared to the marketability/uniqueness of individual tracks. Thus, rather than spend time perfecting the way groups of tracks interact with one another within the confines of an ordered list, artists are opting for a higher total output of music that will showcase a broader range of skills, styles, and sounds.

One of the syptoms of this shift in artistic production is a "revival" of dj mixes and curated playlists. Since it is becoming more and more difficult to use albums to categorize music across boundaries of genre, location, and culture, the dj mix is fast emerging as one of the premier sites to explore music history. Usually 45 to 90 minute long, arranged by a "veteran" artist, and accompanied by a tracklist, dj mixes select releases from various artists as a way of presenting a snapshot of a micro-genre or scene. This allows listeners to learn about a specific aesthetic or sound without having to plow through endless albums, singles, and record label catelogues.

While the most popular dj mixes are probably those released by big time electronic music blogs/magazines like Resident Advisor, Dummymag, Fact, OkayAfrica, Fader, etc., there are also a ton of artists dropping them independently. Though sometimes difficult to track down, I'd recommend starting with these if you're new to the world of dj mixes as they are usually longer and more carefully crafted. Just try checking out your favorite artist on discogs and seeing if they have any dj mixes of their own--most do.

Dj mixes have been truly formative to my tastes over the past year and have introduced me to obscure music from all corners of the world. In the same time it takes me to listen to a full album, I can play a dj mix and hear a range of artists and musical styles far more extensive than those present on an individual release by one artist. Thus, dj mixes do the work of giving me something that is both fun to listen to and culturally illuminating.

Below are some gems I've found over the past few months thanks to the dj mix. No theme, just good listens:

0:00 "Dynamic Image Hits" - Herva - HTMYO
4:53 "We are the future" - Gemini - Swimming 'Wit' Sharks EP
11:31 "Footworkin' On Air" - Traxman - Da Mind of Traxman
15:31 "The Way I Move" - Jody Breeze - Eezy Breezy Beautiful
19:19 "Tuff Ruff" - Mikael Seifu - (2014)
25:16 "More than Love" - Hawkword - (2014)
28:17 "Dubious Prey" - Lamin Fofana - Dubious Prey EP
34:08 "Submit X" - Gesloten Cirkel - (2014)
37:34 "Heartbeat" - DJ Marfox - (2014)
42:12 "Shallow" - The Clouds - (2007)
46:51 "Tinariwen" - Group Anmattaf (aka Baye) - Music From Saharan Cell Phones Vol. 1
52:21 "Dub Warming" - Fish & Goat At The Controls - Dubhead Vol. Two
59:20 "On the Dub-ble" - DJ Krush - The DJ Krush EP
1:03:53 "Oromo Dub (Cushitic Dub)" - Tommy T - The Tommy T Sessions
1:09:35 "Tshamiseka" - Mualusie - (2015)
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