In a digital word where overspill is everywhere, less is more
There are many unspoken truths in life. Not everyone likes you, and that’s ok. Those same people judge you by your bad grammar. Yes, they do. The number of television sets in a pub is inversely proportional to the quality of the establishment. And bigger isn’t always better.
OK, forget for a moment that last statement reads like a kinky headline from your mum’s Cleo collection. It’s a maxim that holds true across life, sport (the NBA’s Golden State Warriors could trademark this slogan), the written word, the big and small screens. And music.
Sport has a code, a set of rules enforced by judges on the field of play, and off it. Borders are drawn, time is kept. Each sport has a pinnacle, a system where athletes and teams can compete for points, trophies and a chance to rule the world. And, at the elite level, earn a fortune along the way.
Rules used to sort of apply to music, in so far as radio liked its tunes short and sweet, and a conventional compact disc could compress a maximum of 74 minutes of playing time, thanks to the enduring genius of Ludwig van Beethoven.
Fun fact, when Sony and Philips were developing an industry standard for the CD in the 1980s, both parties hit on the idea that listeners and buyers of that new-fangled shiny disc should be able to hear the whole of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony without interruption. So, 74 minutes.
In the digital age the goalposts haven’t so much as shifted, they’ve been upended, smashed to bits and the cavities have been filled in.
Back in the day, an artist could flex their artistic muscles with a double album. Or, for the most daring or pompous, a triple album.
Pfft. Radiohead recently dropped 18 hours of demos and live recordings.
The legendary British alt-rock act apparently triggered the dump to foil hackers. Music sites around the globe covered the news, Radiohead tragics clapped their hands at the prospects of a binge, Stephen Colbert informed his late night audience.
Sure, it’s good to own but will this orgy of Radiohead outtakes inspire a new generation of artists to push their musical boundaries? Or answer any questions that keep fans up late at night? Will anyone listen to those 18 hours without distraction and share with their besties, like they did with The Bends and OK Computer?
When Radiohead took ownership of the planet in the late 1990s, the Smashing Pumpkins were abdicating their throne. Billy Corgan, by all accounts a difficult character, had masterminded some of the great albums of the post-grunge era, either by talent or willpower or sheer bloody-mindedness.
Adore represented the end of the classic era of this great band. Released in 1998, Adore was a 180-degree evolution from early Smashing Pumpkins, from its opener, ‘To Sheila,’ a production masterwork which features, of all things, a banjo, and the funereal, piano-led ‘Blank Page’. Corgan has talked of the problems surrounding the band at the time of this recording, which remains painfully overlooked by fans who like the heavier stuff.
Five years ago, perhaps to address this chronic failure to go noticed, the Virgin team released a “super deluxe” version which swept up the debris from the cutting room floor. It’s right there on your streaming service.
What was once a perfectly-formed, though largely invisible album, is now a bloated mess with dozens of off-key demos and songs which weren’t good enough for your ears in the 1990s. And here they are, bolted onto the end of the album without any clear line of delineation.
Too much is not a good thing. The “super deluxe,” in this one instance, diminishes the finished original product. A fan won’t go back for repeated listens, new fans won’t be turned on.
There are many examples, and they’re not confined to music. Francis Ford Coppola’s war classic Apocalypse Now was accompanied by the unmissable “making of” documentary Hearts of Darkness, which walked us through some scenes cut from the original because, in some cases, they just didn’t work. In 2001, a “redux” of Apocalypse Now did the rounds featuring some bonus footage: those same scenes that were cut out. Again, less is more.
An essential part of the art of creating an album is sweating over the framing, its tracklist and length. “Adding value” by adding tracks can risk killing the art.
This article originally appeared on The Industry Observer, which is now part of The Music Network.