In this essay, I examine the nature of creative containers in media, and the sorts of things that we need to be thinking about when it comes to the creative process.

At what point do people stop buying musical albums? Even asking this question seems kind of silly to me. As someone who grew up in the 1980’s and 90’s, and whose musical palate was conditioned on artists from the 60’s and 70’s, the album seems the logical base unit of the medium. Albums are collections of songs, and some of them have no identity beyond that. Many albums are artistic statements, however. They stand as constructions architected by musical artists, individuals or groups who wanted to say something.

How long is an album, in a temporal sense? Or rather, how long does an album have to be? 30 minutes? 45 minutes?

Your answer probably depends on when you grew up.

 

The 1950’s stand as the dawn of popular music as purchasable media. While phonograph records had been available for decades by that point, the primary delivery system of music had been single-use, such as concerts and radio transmissions. However, the 1950’s saw the rise of the music single, or “the 45”. These small vinyl records generally contained only one song per side, and sold at a pricepoint that was reachable for almost everyone, even teenagers. Most popular music sales started and ended with the single, so most bands and artists focused on creating singles. The greatest gift of artists like Buddy Holly and Chuck Berry was their ability to reel off a string of hit singles, whereas most of their contemporaries were limited to one-hit wonder status. While there are artistic elements in many of these singles, most of them were designed as one-offs, rather than as part of a larger statement. There may be a thematic connection between Holly’s “That’ll Be The Day” and “True Love Ways”, but the method of physical presentation of these songs reduces the ability of commentators to truly demonstrate an artistic statement being made.

The rise of the album in popular music came a few years later, and changed both the economics of the music industry and the artistic focus of those performing it. Bands who couldn’t string together eight to ten songs in an album format were suddenly seen as poseurs, while true critical and artistic weight was given to artists who excelled in the longer formats.

When they were constructing Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, it wasn’t as if John Lennon and Paul McCartney said “You know, the best artistic statement we could make, the greatest representation of our talent and vision and ethos, would be 39 minutes and 42 seconds.” After all, that was only six minutes and fifty-seven seconds longer than Please Please Me, an album they had released four years earlier and recorded in just a day. Surely John and Paul had far more artistic paint to spread over a broader, longer canvas. But of course they didn’t, because the canvas had a hard end-point.

The average record released in the vinyl age rarely ran over 42 minutes, and that limit was entirely due to the amount music one could compress onto an LP while still retaining the structural integrity of the grooves. An artist could extend past that point only by releasing a “double album”, but in most cases artists were not granted such freedoms by their record labels.

By the 1990s, things had changed somewhat. The vinyl album was no longer the primary container for music, as the CD had taken over in the previous decade. The CD had a much longer runtime than did the vinyl album, with CDs topping out at 74 minutes of recorded music. The broader container created some interesting problems for musical artists, because the temptation was now to extend the musical statement over a wider canvas. The average length of albums crept up towards 50 minutes, but new problems emerged. Many of the artists of the era simply could not create coherent artistic statements that traversed these longer runtimes. While there were exceptions, many albums released in this era felt overlong, with healthy amounts of filler material artificially boosting their length.

Complicating the situation was the dominance of the music video, which took the singles market from the 1950’s and 60’s and breathed new life into it. Suddenly, having a hit single (and a hit video to deliver it in) became the primary focus of many popular musical acts, and the key to achieving popularity for many musical acts that flew below the radar. But still, the vehicle for these songs was ultimately the album, and a band that focused on just selling CD singles of their material was both missing out on huge potential revenues and likely seen as artistic or musical lightweights.

The economics of albums on CD brought record labels and their parent companies the greatest windfalls in the history of the music business. In order to own music and listen to it when you want, you had to either buy a single, which was overpriced, or you had to buy an album, which was also overpriced but at least contained additional materials. New music album prices crept up throughout the 1990s, to the point that many retailers were selling albums for $16 or $17 each – a huge premium to pay for individuals who were only interested in one or two songs from the artist that they’d heard on the radio or seen videos of.

Contrast that with the economics of the industry today. There are two parallel pricepoints that compete with each other. iTunes and Amazon sell songs by themselves, normally for .99 or 1.29 each. Yet a collection of songs purchased in album form will sell for less per unit – for instance, a 12-song album that should cost $11.88 actually ends up costing just $9.99 because it sells as an album.

The question is, are we really interested in albums anymore? Why give a price break on an arbitrary container unit?

It took sixty years of the popular music industry to find ourselves right back where we were in the singles era. While albums as artistic statements are still selling via digital MP3 distribution, the focus is once again on a small number of popular songs. Rather than freeing musical artists from their constraints, the lack of physical containers has created huge amounts of uncertainty about what is considered proper and acceptable in music. If you are a music artist, how long should your album be? Do you utilize the convention of the 1960’s, where collections of songs lasted 35-40 minutes? The 1990’s and their 45-50 minute standard? Do you release EPs, which tend to contain 4-6 songs? Do you put together two or three hour extravaganzas?

 

The obsession with containers is deeply ingrained in all aspects of the creative process, from inception to consumption. No one is to be blamed for this, because for the majority of human history, containers have had to be closely intertwined with the production of goods.

The key to truly grasping the new age that society finds itself in is to slowly rid ourselves of the container mentality. Containers were so important to the creative process that in many ways they became the creative process — the endgame for a collection of songs, the runtime of a television show, the binding which held together an anthology. In short, containers are a great way to organize things, but the flipside of that organization is that the expanse of creativity is sacrificed at the altar of the container to which it belongs.

Human beings as consumers are creatures of habit. We appreciate standardization in our consumables, because large variations in amount or price or quality tend to create confusion. Cereal boxes contain roughly similar amounts of cereal because we are used to that agreed-upon standard. There are ways to purchase cereal in bulk, but the vast majority of consumers would never consider using them.

But in terms of intellectual media such as books, movies, or music, I’m convinced that most of these standardized units are nothing but contrivances, either forced upon the media creators by the hard limits of the medium in which they work, or conveniences foisted upon both creator and consumer by the publishers of work.

Take the written word, for instance. Readers have shown a willingness to consume writing in just about any format that they are able to access, from 300 word blog posts to multi-page magazine articles to books with many chapters. The standard for mass consumable written work has historically been the novel, which comes in book form and which requires a tremendous amount of creative output on the part of the writer. In many cases, 80-90,000 words are required for a novel, or else editors and publishing agents may not take a submission seriously. How much of that is due to the word count increase equating to a greater work of writing, and how much is due to publishers being hesitant to commit the time and effort of publishing a book if it doesn’t deliver a specific amount of pages?

There’s no question that it’s expensive to edit, typeset, and publish a novel in a book format. Publishing houses have been very selective over the years about what they publish due to that level of expense, and having a novel published has come to be seen as a watershed moment in a writer’s life. But the advent of E-readers and digital book technology should have called the value of the content of the words (as opposed to the paper they are printed on) into some question. Take a look at Amazon’s book sales section, and you’ll see most best-selling or popular books retailing in hardcover or paperback for just slightly more than their Kindle versions. In many cases, the Kindle price is 85-90% of the hardcover price. So does that mean that the paper version isn’t really that expensive to produce after all, and the true value of the book is in the written words? Or does it mean that the publishers are trying to establish a value point that does them the least amount of bottom-line damage, without regard for the actual value of the book or its contents?

Much as we’ve seen with the music industry, the book industry should be due for a major correction, and that correction should take the form of shorter, more easily consumable pieces of written work. Free of the container requirement of the novel and its accompanying word count hegemony, it should be possible for publishers to release shorter works, and price them accordingly.

Perhaps the best possible location for this practice is in academia, which has existed for many years under the turgid rule of semester-long textbooks. Rather than crafting insightful and detailed educational works, many publishers push editors and writers of textbooks towards behemoth tomes bloated with sidebars, personal perspectives, and action questions, all of dubious quality. These ideas and concepts for what should make up a textbook rarely originate with the editor or author, but rather emanate from the publisher. Each chapter becomes its own container, too small to stand on its own, but stuffed full of extras that make selling add-on study guides that much easier. The textbook itself ends up as overly long and lacking in detail, but it must be this way because the container known as “the textbook” demands it.

At some point, enterprising scholars and small publishers will begin producing small or single chapter works that specifically focus on a study topic or area, and will be able to successfully market these works to teachers and students. Targeted E-books of 3 or 4 chapters will be far more successful at explicating topics than 16 chapter texts, and these smaller works will be far easier to keep updated as changes in technology and approach alter their subject matter. Eventually, the large publishing houses will come to accept this change in approach, and will likely dominate the field the way that they dominate the current one. But as of now, the small entrepreneur has the advantage, because the small entrepreneur is neither committed to, nor obsessed with, the container.