By Kirsten Nelson On April 16, 2007
There was a time, not so long ago, when songs were associated with "sides" of a record. "B sides" delineated the lesser tracks that were affixed to singles, but more substantially, "Side Two" of an LP often held a mood or an aesthetic all its own. Producers arranged tracks in anticipation of when the needle would be lifted, the platter turned over, and the album's second act commenced.
This type of listening set the pace for how albums were made. Even when they weren't supposed to be "concept albums," music grouped on LPs had a cohesive feeling or led a listener through a series of rhythms and ideas in an intentional structure. Audiocassettes mimicked this arrangement to an extent, but soon enough, the CD totally did away with the audio intermission between sides. This altered the arrangement of tracks to reflect one continuous album play-through.
Today, of course, albums are hardly ever heard in their entirety. The shuffle function on digital music players has all but eliminated that experience for listeners with short attention spans. Now that music is everywhere, portable on an entirely new level, and often purchased as single tracks, listening isn't a focused act anymore. There is hardly time for sitting in the "sweet spot" and letting an album play.
Despite these trends, many musicians are still making albums that are meant to be heard as one "long play" creative work. Unfortunately, most albums are heard the way they were intended to be only once or twice before they are sliced and diced into individual tracks in a random context.
Paradoxically, the same technology that is putting albums through the slicer is making other aspects of our lives more cohesive. The process of integrating electronic systems for increased control and automation has benefited tremendously from the influence of digital technology.
Furthermore, with each passing year-or even month, or week, or day-additional enhancements brought by IT technologies are making more seamless the connections between pieces of the systems puzzle.
In an ideal world, we'd all have time to sit back and listen to the first half of a record and flip it over for an additional 15 or 20 minutes of an artist's visionary efforts. As this is not always possible, and LPs are not as widely available as they once were, maybe the best thing we can do is listen more closely to an entire album in any format, seeking interrelations between lyrics and song structure and examining arrangements for meaning.
This exercise is reminiscent of the perspective that should be taken in systems design and installation. All the pieces can fit together in a way that makes sense both technically, in a way similar to where a song is placed in a group of tracks, and also from an operability standpoint, the "human" side of an album's effect on a listener. If songs are placed in a compelling order, the effect can be mesmerizing. Similarly, if a system operates as seamlessly as a well-orchestrated album arrangement, value has definitely been added for the client.
Reality dictates that shuffle will always have a role in the way we listen to music and in the way we work. Multi-tasking is an increasingly complex experience comprised of numerous media, tools and their respective obligations. The ability to jump from one track to the next is certainly beneficial in everyday business, but it shouldn't rule the selection of equipment and the development of user interfaces. In those cases, random is a notion best left to music playing.