In Space Invaders, the game sped up because the amount of moving elements on the screen overloaded the primitive processors, with the processing speed increasing with each eliminated Invader. Steven Spielberg inadvertently changed the nature of suspense and horror films with Jaws by not showing the shark for most of the film, but only because the robotic shark kept sinking to the bottom of Martha’s Vineyard. Jackson Pollock’s drip technique was determined, in part, by the characteristics of the household paints at the time, which were cheaper and more easily available than oil-based artists paints in the quantities his huge canvases required.
In other words, technological limitations can define artforms.
The reverse is also true: removing those limitations can easily screw things up.
Once upon a time albums had a very finite length: around 45 minutes. That’s because vinyl LPs could only fit about 22 minutes per side (well, until microgroove pressing came in and upped it a bit, but not by much). That physical restriction on the format defined the medium: with most songs between three and four minutes long, pop albums – which emerged in the late '50s – could only manage maybe six songs per side, meaning that albums were ten-12 songs long and clocked in at under an hour. You might have spent years honing your craft in clubs and bars, developing a repertoire of dozens of songs, but when it came time to make that album you had to make some hard decisions about the tiny fraction of your work that would make the cut.
What if you were so gosh-darn talented that three quarters of an hour was nowhere near enough? Sure, you could make the decision to do a double album if you wanted – but it’d cost you. Only the biggest acts did them – the Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, Pink Floyd – because they cost a lot more to make and couldn’t sell for twice as much. Record companies needed to be very, very certain that they’d get a return on their investment with doubles, so that level of financial restriction was as much a disincentive as the physical one: if you wanted more music on your album, you’d better be very, very certain it was worth it. Recorded 20 tracks for your album and they were all awesome? You’d better hope you’d written a lot of potential singles, since they’d all need b-sides.
CDs allowed artists to loosen their grip on the quality control a bit by allowing up to 80-odd minutes (and thereby began the blight on music that was the “secret tracks”, the lamest idea that the '90s came up with aside from nu-metal). But now, in the go-go digital age, even that restriction is gone. Datarock re-released their entire catalogue, plus videos, recordings of live shows and complete artwork, on a single USB, but these days artists aren’t even affected by that space limitation. Today it’s common to have 16 songs on an album. Or 18 on the digital version. Plus some remixes. And a few live tracks. And a radio session or two.
And it’s devaluing the format. And that is why I’m calling for all artists to adopt the Andrew P Street Leave 'em Wanting More Principle: ten tracks per album, maximum. No filler, no extras.
This came to mind while listening to the new David Bowie album, The Next Day, his first effort in a decade. And it’s a hell of a disc. But one thing kept coming up with almost everyone I discussed it with: the 14-track effort starts and finishes strong, and nobody’s favourite songs are in the third quarter of it. Lose those songs from the running order – ‘Boss of Me’ through to ‘(You Will) Set the World on Fire) – and you get a tight, ten-track record that’s the equal of any of his best.
"All artists should adopt the Andrew P Street Leave 'em Wanting More Principle: ten tracks per album, maximum. No filler, no extras"
I should point out that it’s not that those songs are particularly bad, you see, they’re just unnecessary: mainly mid-paced guitar chuggers similar to (but not really as good as) other earlier tracks. Great choices for b-sides, or as standalone songs on soundtracks. Dull moments in the context of the album.
And look, I get it. Most artists record 20-odd tracks when they’re making an album before whittling the selections down to the final running order, and some of the most bitter arguments a band can have are over track selection. No-one wants to see their favourite song die an unmourned death in a mastering suite – but, as with all indulgent parents, lack of discipline makes for bloated, lazy offspring.
Learning how to self-edit is the greatest skill a writer can learn (that, and how apostrophes work) and the same goes for artists. A message is more clear when it’s not filled with waffle. Except here, obviously. When I do it, it's adorable.
Ten tracks. Nothing but A-material. You’ll thank me, music lovers.
Or just bring back the 78 rpm disc as music’s medium of choice. Either’s good.