A relatively recent court ruling prevented EMI, Pink Floyd’s record label, from selling off the band’s individual tracks, instead effectively forcing the label to sell the whole album. The ruling was especially interesting (as interesting as a court case can get, that is) because Pink Floyd argued that EMI was infringing upon their artistic integrity.
And they won on that point.
This presents several interesting issues, especially fascinating is the concept of the album as a holistic work. First of all, Pink Floyd were not always the high priests of the wholly integrated and complete album. An especially interesting work by them is Atom Heart Mother, which consists of five tracks, which have essentially very little to do with each other, except that they all follow a summer-like theme. (When I edit my photos and choose those that best represent summer, I usually listen to that album for inspiration. For some reason, people see that as a really sublime form of art). At the same time, however, albums such as the The Wall simply work much better when listening to as a whole, even if the individual tracks themselves work better.
Some time ago, however, I was listening to a Seattle-based radio station (as every normal British resident does), and there, all of a sudden, came on ‘Comfortably Numb.’ This is a quite well known Pink Floyd track, the one off The Wall with a trademark psychedelic feel to it. Anyway, for myself a Pink Floyd fan, this could provide potential reasons for an outrage. After all, they are ignoring the album as a consistent product and all that jazz. But, at the risk of hypocrisy, I check my iTunes play counts, and see that ‘Comfortably Numb’ has over twice the plays of the song before it. Slightly trying to justify it to myself, I realise in the end that it is just an awesome track, and there is nothing wrong in listening to it individually.
Now those double play counts do not include live recordings. In live recordings, the whole concept of the coherent album seems to kind of disappear. ‘Comfortably Numb’ is well, kind of lonely. It doesn’t have the same neighbouring tracks at all in the live albums. Likewise, even Roger Waters’ In The Flesh live album contains a single track from Pros and Cons of Hitchhiking, the album essentially being a real-time short story about a hitchhiker. So it is very easy to exaggerate the album as a complete work. In fact, it is very easy to exaggerate the artistic value of anything in any sort of art. Except that then you sound pretentious. And are generally wrong. In fact, if there is an objective wrong in art, you have reached it.
So, I have already shamelessly admitted that even if the album is a holistic work of art, there is nonetheless much to be gained from listening to individual songs. Think of it as analogy to literature. You should know the whole story or collection of stories, but you might enjoy and reread one chapter more than others. So, as long as you know the story in general, feel free to enjoy the individual bits of it. Or, if you don’t want to be acquainted with the whole story, one chapter suffices. But, in reality, the whole case hinged on what I will label as transition tracks. For example, ‘Happiest Days of Our Lives’ (which, curiously enough, can be individually downloaded from iTunes), starts and ends rather spontaneously, following out of ‘Another Brick in the Wall (part one)’ and following into part two. Thus, when listened to by itself, it just sounds bad.
That’s like taking out a single page from a book, and selling it. No author could possibly like that. Likewise, this is a reason why Pink Floyd (except for the live albums) should not be listened on shuffle. It is, in fact, an experiment that I would not even undertake for your sake, dear reader. And that’s saying a lot. At the same time, however, maybe the definition and boundary of a track has been pushed a bit too much. I wrote above how ‘Happiest Days’ integrates two other tracks. What if all three of them were simply repackaged as a single track and sold that way? They would be much more consistent both musically and story-wise. And a good balance would be achieved between artistic integrity for the whole story and consumer demand. And now, if you will excuse me, having solved this issue, I’m off to apply to EMI as a consultant.
Image credit – oddsock