Friday night I stood for two-plus hours in awe as I watched The Appleseed Cast perform their entire 2001 double album Low Level Owl. The Lawrence, Kansas emo band played to a packed crowd at Chicago’s Bottom Lounge, and gracefully played the criminally overlooked double album, with a brief intermission breaking up the two volumes and a cover of The Van Pelt’s “The Speeding Train” during the encore offering the most noticeable differentiations between the record and live performance.
The Appleseed Cast’s choice to tour behind an album they produced nine years ago is hardly unconventional. In fact, since ATP launched its Don’t Look Back series in 2005, playing an album in full has become de rigueur for musicians. And it’s not just an ATP thing either.
And the list goes on.
The odd thing about the rise of the playing-an-album-in-full phenomenon is the so-called decline of the album. These “death” pieces in music journalism are kind of like child’s play, it’s the quintessential opposite of a trend piece. The funny thing about the “death of the album” is that while some bemoan the decline of the album, dozens of acts have found that fans will come out in waves to hear their favorite record’s played in full.
A bit of a paradox, is it not?
If anything, the “decline of the album” is merely a decline in the realm of music marketing and casual listenership. With digital sales, record labels realize they can make an easy buck off of a hit single now more than ever. Whereas people in the industry used to be able to flog a full length LP for $18.99 on vinyl or CD knowing that people may have only wanted to hear a couple of chart topping pop tunes, now anyone can go online and pick and choose what they want.
This isn’t a sign that today’s musicians are worse than those of decades past. It’s a sign that the music industry has become a buyers market. And those who are really buying in the market aren’t the casual listeners anymore: It’s the smaller, niche of mild to hardcore listeners. From the people who vie for that limited edition print of some obscure band to those who simply want to support an artist by purchasing their album, these are the individuals carrying the music industry today.
If anything, the “decline of the album” is simply a quality issue. Again, that’s not saying that musicians today are lesser than their elder peers. It’s merely saying that a large part of the one-hit wonders that the big labels used to peddle to the masses and were able to find a nice spot on the Billboard 200 no longer stick like they used to.
True, it all seems like perfect sense. That’s why it’s so odd as to why people are constantly declaring the album “dead.” If anything, it’s just a reflection of the deflated state of the music market. Since then, smaller and independent acts have made their way to the top of the Billboard 200, largely on the backs of their dedicated fanbases. It’s not because they focused on making great singles, but because they made albums, works that last from the first song to last. I may not be a Vampire Weekend fan, but I do realize there’s more than one song that has resonated so much with that group’s audience that allowed Contra to hit No. 1 on Billboard.
Still, they say the album is dead. Yet, all people need to do is see how, say, Jimmy Eat World sold out all 10 Clarity shows. Yes, sold out concerts for an album that Capitol originally shelved. Or take a peek at how The Pixies charged close to $50 for a live rendition of Doolittle and people showed up by the baleful.
So, while it seems like the physical form of the album is six feet under to many online commentators, many acts have discovered the album is alive and well on stage. Here’s hoping others catch wind of the same notion.
The Appleseed Cast performing songs from Low Level Owl Vol. 1: