KANYE WEST, DAN SUGARMAN And The Birth Of The Living Album

The album format as we know it may be dead.


not dead just resting

If not properly dead, then I believe it to be well on its way. The idea that an artist’s output must be confined to neat little discrete units in one big burst of energy and then nothing for a year, two years, or more, is in my estimation an arcane idea.

Like many aspects of how we live, there are many things we do just because that’s how we’ve always done them. But there was once a time when the prevailing musical formats were something people were willing to sit through in a concert, or something you heard while you danced. For a while, it was how much you could fit on an 8 track tape. The format is an inherent limitation on the artist – and their vision is in part molded by it, even if it’s not a conscious choice. You want to put out an album that people will hear, you put it out on something they can listen to it on, and the prevailing formats become your limitation.

We’ve come a long way – I don’t know how much music fit on a wax cylinder recording, but a CD can fit something like 80 minutes of music. That limitation has subtly determined the upper limit of what a musical artist will typically release in one go – even though CDs aren’t the dominant format anymore.

So why are we limiting ourselves to album-length releases every year or two? All the signs point towards a new era of media consumption – the stream – and yet we still fail to embrace it. We are stubbornly holding on to our horse-drawn carriages while Henry Ford is crafting the future of transportation.

There’s a new format in town that we need to be embracing, and its name is the living album. The idea is that rather than working for a long time on one large-format release, you release songs as you record them, adding to the online album as you go. Or, as Kanye West did, you can take away/modify the contents at will – after he released his album on the streaming service Tidal, he removed it, altered it, then put it back. That was an unprecedented move, and something you could never have done with a previous format (it’s shit like this that journalists say that makes Kanye feel like a genius tastemaker, when really he’s just arrogant and borderline retarded, so if you’re reading this Ye, please just stop).

There are two independent artists that I feel are doing this right (I’m sure there are many more) – Protest the Hero and Dan Sugarman (formerly of As Blood Runs Black). They took slightly different approaches to the same idea. PTH broke new ground with a new service from Bandcamp, offering a subscription-style access to their materials over a period of six months, which included not just a song every month, but a host of extras including behind-the-scenes and other video content that was unavailable anywhere else. Their large fanbase (who raised over $300k for their previous effort) allows them to do such a thing, and in 2016 having a paywall can be a death knell what with the prevalence of Spotify, so be sure to exercise caution in that arena. The subscription model is still, in my opinion, the best thing that will happen to bands a music in the years to come. The ability to subscribe to a band like it’s a cable channel is a superb idea – it’s the best delivery system for exclusive content and you can charge whatever you want! You could charge $1 per year if you want – what fan wouldn’t pay that? You could go for sheer bulk that way.

When Dan Sugarman decided to take his act solo, he chose Patreon as the method of distribution for his living album, titled “Inside Out“. He releases one song a month, and it’s always a collaboration between himself and another artist. This allows him to tap into a brand new audience with every song’s release, and he also donates 10% of the proceeds from each track to a worthy charity, which is just a cool thing to do.

One really great thing about these approaches is that not only can your album go for as long or as short as you like – you could be working on multiple album streams simultaneously. Feel like recording an acoustic song today? Add it to your acoustic living album stream. Going black metal today? Put on your corpse paint, fire up the Playskool casette recorder in your nearest forest at dusk and whip something up for your black metal living album stream. It could easily turn into an ADD playground for some artists, but it’s also a purer, more immediate mode of self-expression. It’s similar to the YouTube model, where the direct distribution allows for instant connection to your audience, with no waiting, and your subscribers get your updates as they drop.

This is the future. You might not like it, it might not catch on right away, but it’s happening whether you like it or not. Like the car was for the horse-and-buggy crowd, it’s already going on, and when it catches hold, you will be left in the dust. If you’re an artist, there’s a place for a living album in your music distribution. Patreon makes it pretty simple for people to subscribe to you and your art, and Bandcamp‘s subscription service, while not yet available to us in the USA, should prove to be useful as well. YouTube pays you for views and subscribers if you’ve monetized your streams, and although people can’t support you directly through it, you can still use it for your living album format using playlists.

Large streaming services like Spotify, Tidal, Apple Music and Google Play are of course already a large source of listening – but these are still streaming traditional album and EP formats. They’re really only different from something like iTunes in that they are streaming rather than paid downloads. And there’s not really an option to change or add to your albums once they’re on there, especially as an independent artist. The living album format is an umbilical cord straight to the artist, whereas these other models are more like a library – the product is a single snapshot of a moment in time, and only of that moment, and you have access to that moment and none of the moments since then. Therefore I posit that the model of the future is not the streaming model per se, but the direct subscription model that includes streaming, whereby you directly subsidize artists, that is the future.

There’s no reason to continue to be a slave to a dead format. I hereby release you from the tyranny of an 80 minute, once every two years limitation – run free!

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As Editor-in-Chief of Gear Gods, I've been feeding your sick instrument fetishism and trying unsuccessfully to hide my own since 2013. I studied music on both coasts (Berklee and SSU) and now I'm just trying to put my degree to some use. That's a music degree, not an English one. I'm sure you noticed.

Latest comments
  • What if you’d like to actually keep stuff that was released?

    • personally, I’m hoping that people recognize the content itself as the thing of value – not the machine-made materials it comes on <3

      • I don’t mean keep in the sense of having a physical copy, just in having access.
        Egypt Spotify only carries the remastered versions of zeppelin albums, fine if you like them, but if you prefer the originals, tough.
        Is every iteration of a living album going to be available?
        I can see how this would work to a degree with a platform like patreon, but with others I’m not sure.
        I have to admit I’m a big fan of the album format when it’s done well, but that wouldn’t necessarily put me off this idea, maybe I just need to know more about it.
        Cheers for the response anyway, I’m already on patreon so ill be giving yours a look :)

        • oh for sure dude! I get that… I think this type of thing is especially cool because I am allowing people to get access to these songs as they come along. At the end of the year when I release everything in the standard album format, I will be at least re-mastering those to give all the songs a bit more cohesion and new life… but all the old songs will be available still to those who are a part of my patreon ;) thats the beauty of the exclusive access thing man… I’m a huge fan of it so far

  • Surely it’s more efficient to mix and master a group of songs all at once than to constantly work on one after another?

    • the first mix became a template for all following songs – changes are made as we go. I’m doing a point – shoot – aim type of method here. correct course as I go and making small adjustments in response to feedback. after the year is up (and 12 songs have been released over the 12 months) I will be compiling all the songs into the standard CD format, along with 12 playthrough videos, video interviews/podcast, tab book, and the whole shebang… I guess in essence, I’m trying to change what the term “album cycle” can mean, if that makes any sense haha

  • I agree that the industry is shifting this way. Ever since the digital format launched, albums have been on a decline and there’s been a shift towards singles. Personally, I look at it like movies vs. TV. If you want to see bits of a story play out over individual episodes that you see at certain time increments (and in this day and age, at your own leisure) or you can sit down and enjoy a full story play out over the course of 2 hours.

    The one thing I don’t like about this, is the idea of an artist constantly tinkering with their work after it’s seen some sort of release. I think back to the South Park episode that made fun of George Lucas and Steven Spielberg adding things to their films for their special editions. Unless you present the updated work as a different version of the original release (like what the Beatles did with Let It Be… Naked) you shouldn’t mess with your work after it’s release. You’d be creating the music equivalent of helicopter parents if we were okay with an artist constantly changing their work after it’s release.

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