In 1940 Woody Guthrie released ‘Dust Bowl Ballads’, an album of semi-autobiographical songs about American migrant labourers during the 1930s. This could be considered as one of the first so called ‘concept albums’ where all the songs contained a single theme or unified story.
Flash forward to the 1960s and you have perhaps most famously The Beatles’ ‘Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’, The Who’s ‘Tommy’ and later still (1973) Pink Floyd’s ‘Dark Side of the Moon’. These were only a few of a growing trend by bands to create stories through music, a narrative through a series of pieces put together in order to tell an overall story.
At this time people were more inclined to buy an album rather than just a single. To sit down and listen from start to finish, to soak up the whole experience. Part of this I believe was attributable to the limited channels of content available, in this case something very close to my heart: the format of vinyl records. The fact that once you put the needle on the record you could sit back and listen from start to finish with the obvious of turning it over halfway through (although this I see as the equivalent of an interval in the theatre or a long film). The artwork was also an intergral part of the experience, with the story coming to life further through the pictures or sleeve notes, or sometimes even books that accompanied the record. Some radio stations would even play albums from start to finish, something you would rarely hear now.
These days music seems to come in bite-size chunks. The majority released in a digital format. The very nature of iTunes (or any number of other sites you can purchase from) is the offering of any of the album’s single tracks to the listener rather than the whole thing, thus giving more flexibility and choice for the listener to be selective in their consumption of music. Perhaps a good thing? I’m as guilty as the next person for skipping through new albums only listening to 10 seconds of each song before deciding if I like it or not. The temptation then being to only download the songs that are instantly appealing to you, rather than having something grow on you or slowly learning to love it over time. Strangely, in my experience I have come to realise that it’s often the slow-burning tracks you end up loving the most (or finding most memorable). Again, without the process of hearing the whole story, those are the songs you may not end up with on your hard drive or mp3 player.
In an industry where we are told (and it is proven many times over) that a story is far more powerful than a single message, how can we appeal to the consumer who has less time to stop and listen, who is bombarded with so much information every day that their brain cherry-picks only the things that it instantly deems important? How do we make our ‘Dark Side of the Moon’ campaign? One where people get the whole story, the obvious parts through to the subtleties? The messages that slowly sink in and keep you thinking?
The truth is these days this is rarely achievable through one single experience. Instead we tell stories through different media channels, letting the consumer piece together the full picture themselves. It’s an adaption of storytelling for the modern world and with everyday that passes comes a new and exciting way to tell that story through technology and engagement.
The concept album may be dead (apologies to the exceptions), but its values and storytelling ideas live on in what we do each day. ‘A narrative through a series of pieces put together in order to tell an overall story.’
So next time you are looking for some creative inspiration, dust off your copy of ‘Ziggy Stardust’ and sit back. (I draw the line at Jethro Tull though, some things are better off lost in the mists of time…)
Feature image: http://www.voicesofeastanglia.com/2011/06/inside-the-oxford-street-hmv-store-in-the-sixties.html
Categories: Challenge me