A Vanishing Art?

Hey, remember the LP?

For the benefit of the youngsters, I should explain that this was back in the days when Casey was but a wee sprat. Back then, music was sold on large, flat disks made of vinyl about the size of a medium pizza. The music was recorded on both sides of the disk, so halfway through the album (that’s what we called them), you had to flip it over. The machine to play it, called a “record player”, wasn’t programmable, so the artist (or the artist’s recording label) chose the order of the tracks. That’s right, the artist not only recorded the music, but also built the playlist. Primitive, huh?

(Before the LP album, by the way, there were a variety of formats for recorded music. Most of them were limited to just a few minutes–essentially, one track, or in some cases, one track per side. “LP” stood for “Long Playing”: the very name of the format emphasized that it gave you more music than previous formats.)

A little later, technological improvement brought us the CD. That gave about the same amount of music as an LP, but the physical size of the disc decreased. From the size of a medium pizza, it dropped to that of a personal pizza at a really cheap pizza joint. Better still, you no longer had to flip the disc over halfway through! Best yet, the players were programmable. The artist still established the default playlist, but the listener was able to change it. The technology was fairly primitive: few players would remember the selected order from one session to the next, and even setting it up required a lot of button pushing, but it could be done.

Today, of course, we have streaming services and portable audio players that allow the listener to freely set the playlist, remember it from session to session, and online sellers that sell single tracks: it’s no longer necessary to buy an entire LP or CD with maybe a dozen tracks if you only want a few of them.

Back in the days of the LP, the order of tracks was critically important: the artist not only needed to grab the listener’s attention, but keep it strongly enough to ensure they flipped the disk over and listened to the second side–and don’t forget the need to leave the listener with a good impression so he or she would buy the next album as well. An art arose: the art of ordering the tracks. When the CD came along, everyone thought the art would get easier. Without the need to keep the listener’s attention through the disk flip, you could concentrate on the beginning and end of the album. Turned out it wasn’t that simple. About halfway through the disk, the listener’s attention would start to flag. They would get distracted and go do something else, or worse yet, eject the CD and listen to someone else’s music!

So track order remained as much of an art as ever. Is it still important today? Apparently so. Billboard has some fairly strong evidence that the order of tracks on the CD affects the relative popularity of the tracks on streaming services: essentially, listeners are still getting early exposure to new music via CD, and if they never get to a track on the CD, they’re not going to stream it either.

As I’ve said, track order is an art, not a science, but there are a few rules that are generally accepted:

1. The first track should be the one you consider the second-strongest, but it must be catchy, to immediately engage the listener.

2. The strongest track should be placed last on the first side of an LP, but for a CD it should come somewhat sooner: third or fourth on the disc.

3. The last track must “grab” the listener in some way: upbeat tempo, strongly memorable melody or lyrics, or an emotional peak.

After that, there are more arguments than agreements. Some artists favor a smooth flow from one track to the next (harmonious keys, similar tempos, etc.) while others insist on contrast (“Unless your name is Frank Sinatra, you don’t want three ballads in a row.”) to repeatedly grab the listenere’s attention.

Some artists recommend following a “story arc”, with an early emotional climax, then easing off, before building to a even bigger climax. In contrast, others follow strict rules of based on more-or-less quantifiable characteristics (tempo, key, and mood are most commonly cited.)

So there you go. Any albums you can think of that succeed despite violating the common rules? Any applicability for your personal playlists?

6 thoughts on “A Vanishing Art?

  1. Well, I’d have to spend more time thinking about this than I’m willing, but just off the top of my head, I’d guess that the Grateful Dead didn’t spend a lot of time, choreographing their songs. In the first place, virtually all of the people who bought their records (which were never their main money makers) were Deadheads, like me, who had all their previous albums, were going to buy anything else they released, without question, and didn’t need to be manipulated into turning the disc over; we were going to play it until we wore it out, and then go out and buy another one. True, the boys did pay a lot of attention to their song’s order, but they were pleasing themselves, as to the dynamic of the experience. They knew we, too, would be pleased with the experience and grateful for what they put into it. In addition to a large number of highly regarded producers and studio engineers, the Dead, doubtless, took years off the lives of countless marketing executives, who tried in vain to get them to release LPs that were “more marketable”. Wasn’t what the Dead were about. The Industry never understood.

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    • We’ve noted before that the Dead were exceptional in many ways. It’s probably worth noting that the art of album arranging is similar to–but not identical–to the art of arranging the setlist for a live performance. It’s probably not stretching things beyond the point of credibility to suggest that the Dead’s album ordering owes more to a setlist arrangement than a conventional studio album.

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      • I’ve read that the band did try to make the experience of listening to one of their LPs similar to being at a show- to the extent they could. Except for the (sometimes disastrous) times they were using their own label, the record company usually had the final say about the sequence- although, when it became clear that the Dead were never going to make a lot of money for them, they didn’t really care much one way or another, as long as the contract was satisfied. As you probably know, there are a couple of LPs out there (such as the one titled “A Long, Strange Trip”) that the band had nothing to do with. They owed the company a record, but were uninterested in coming into the studio, so the label just repackaged some of the material they had and sold it, as if it was a new LP. Probably made their money back on it, but nobody’s proud of it.

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      • I’m having a hard time reconciling the concepts of “record label” and “pride”, but maybe that’s my cynical side leaking out.

        I’d be curious whether those responsible for the repackaged LPs made any attempt at selecting the tracks and programming the track order for success, or if they just went with whatever fit the minimum disc length required by the contract and let it go at that.

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  2. Just for the record (ahem), a listener could indeed set their preferred track order on a record player as far back as the 1920s. That generation of talking machines would accommodate a pile of shellac 78rpm records, usually up to 10 or 12, and drop one after the other, (usually) without breaking them onto the turntable to be played. This also applied to the one-generation-later 45 rpm records, but I was never into those.

    So, in my sprathood, the first time I got to hear a Beethoven Symphony or a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta was via an album of 78s. Of course, halfway through, I had to flip the whole pile over to get the rest of the music, but that seemed reasonable. Intermission, remember?

    I admit, I never gave any thought to arrangement of individual tracks beyond appropriate album sequence, but just last week, while communicating with my friend and collaborator who is investigating the production of a CD of the folk-ragtime pioneer Brun Campbell’s music, to accompany my book-in-progress on Brun, he said he would have to give strong thought to track sequence, that that was very important. Well, fine, I thought. That’s why you, and not I, are doing the CD work,

    So, Casey, thanks for showing me what was behind my friend’s thinking.

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    • “Ahem”, indeed. Which simply proves that what goes around comes around (ahem). A stack of single track 78s or 45s isn’t conceptually much different than a iPod playlist: the listener is free to mix-and-match performers, periods, and moods without reference to anyone’s preconceived notion of “correct” order.

      If one is to be strictly accurate, there were a few turntables that could be programmed. I had one myself, actually. It used a beam of light to detect the gaps between tracks on an LP. It was surprisingly accurate, but programming the track order was horribly cumbersome and made one wish for a stack of 45s.

      Glad to be able to cast some light into the darkness. Of course, since I’ve never actually sequenced a CD, this is all theoretical to me. I’d be interested in hearing which schools of thought your f&c belongs to–or if he thinks I’m totally off base.

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