Getting shallow in the attention economy

Writer Nick Carr is dismayed by the effect singles may have on the album, but his concerns don't sound quite right to me.

Matt Asay Contributing Writer
Matt Asay is a veteran technology columnist who has written for CNET, ReadWrite, and other tech media. Asay has also held a variety of executive roles with leading mobile and big data software companies.
Matt Asay
2 min read

Did we like music more back when we had to pay for it in bulk?

That's essentially the question writer Nick Carr asks in yet another provocative post on his Rough Type blog. "Slanted and Enchanted" revels in the one-hit wonder but also asks if we are losing something by dumping albums for tracks.

I've suggested that artists may find new ways to more deeply engage their fans by focusing on singles rather than albums, but there's something to Carr's logic:


Today, we're quick to dismiss those ancient days of "scarcity" and to celebrate our current "abundance," but scarcity had something going for it: it encouraged a deep engagement in listening to a particular piece of music, across the expanse of an album, and it also encouraged, in the artist, an interest in rewarding that engagement. I would like to get back the money I spent on records in my youth, but I would not give up the experience that money bought me.

It's the deep, attentive engagement that the Web is draining away, as we fill our iTunes library with tens of thousands of "tracks" at little or no cost. What the Web tells us, over and over again, is that breadth destroys depth. Just hit Shuffle.

There is some truth to this, but I'm not sure it matters as much as Carr implies. For every Blonde Redhead ("Dr. Strangeluv" is a wonderful track) that I casually buy and then will probably forget, there's also the Band of Horses or Arcade Fire that I increasingly find myself deeper and deeper into, track by 99-cent track.

I'm simply not ready to invest in an album yet. But I've already spent the equivalent of an album, tasting around the edges of both bands, getting myself ready to hit the "Complete my album" button in iTunes.

The singles culture, in other words, is making it easier for me to experiment with a band, to "date it," if you will, before I "marry it." It's also letting me go very broad with bands that I already like: to pay the band to experiment. (I've never met a Radiohead /Thom Yorke or Morrissey single that I wouldn't buy, though the quality of the tracks varies wildly.)

I've never believed in albums as a complete "oeuvre" in the way that some artists insist they must be. Albums have long felt like a way for the music industry and artists to sneak in weak songs and get the consumer to pay for them. When was the last time you felt that every song on an album was equally great?

Yes, some like Pink Floyd's "The Wall" or Queensryche's "Operation: Mindcrime" are definitely meant to be listened to as a complete piece, but most albums don't fit this "rock opera" genre, and the singles world, while potentially shallow, is also a great way to enrich one's experience with a band.

Follow me on Twitter @mjasay.