WHAT’S YOUR SIZE?

Recently, the members of a musicians’ forum on Facebook to which I belong were debating the appropriate length of an album. Before the thread veered off into “Who is Kraftwerk?” territory (freakin’ idiot kids), the questions were many, some of them even relevant. How long is too long? Which is better, an EP or an LP? Is a double album even a thing anymore? Do magazines review EPs?

This got me thinking, since my upcoming record clocks in at two discs, 33 songs, and more than two-and-a-half hours. Is that too much? Would anyone listen to that amount of music? Did I really give a shit? The answer to all three of those questions is likely no, but they’re at least worthy of a brief investigation.

In the “old” days, there were only singles. Yes, LPs existed, but they weren’t the preferred medium of commercial music acts. Back in the ’50s, an artist could go into the studio and cut two songs in two hours and have a 45 ready to go out to the radio stations, where the PR folks would pay for a healthy bit of airtime to make the record a smash hit. As the ’60s rolled around, and LPs found their place on the turntables and in the collective conscience of the listening public, more songs — more good songs — were needed to fill up the two sides (about 45 total minutes). Radio DJs played their favorite tracks, sometimes not even the designated singles, and by the late-’70s, some stations were playing full album sides. FM, man.

So, mid-timeline, we can address the main question. How long was too long? For Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention (Freak Out) and Bob Dylan (Blonde on Blonde) — the battle still rages as to who released the first double vinyl rock album in 1966 — an hour-and-a-half was just perfect. They were long albums, with lots of songs, but they still sold. And they set in motion a movement among the more daring of their peers.

Double albums proliferated over the next decade, but slowly died out with the short attention spans of Americans seduced by MTV. By the mid-’80s, double albums were all but dead (excepting live and greatest hits records, and box sets). With the advent of iTunes in the early 2000s, and the proliferation of other online marketplaces and streaming services since, it seems even the single has made a comeback.

So where does that leave us?

According to the many musicians in the forum debate, 45 minutes is still the perfect album length. Some lambasted Billy Corgan for the long-winded, 28-song double-stinker Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness. Others advocated for creative freedom, putting the responsibility on the listener to choose how much of any given package he or she would like to hear. Of concern, though, was that artists rarely know what of their own material is good, and so they’d put all of it out there, thinking they’re prolific pop-songwriting geniuses. (But even the most prolific pop-songwriting geniuses in the history of rock released only one double album, titled simply The Beatles.)

For the smart (or trepidatious) artist, there’s the alternative EP, a shorter collection of songs sometimes released in 7- or 10-inch vinyl format. EPs are normally the domain of young, independent artists just getting their feet wet in the business, learning the ropes or trying to scrape together the cash for a full-length. The EP has always had cachet in the punk and underground markets, and some bands never release anything more than EPs in their catalog. But as it was pointed out in the forum, these rarely get reviewed by reputable publications. Fanzines and punk rags may give a shorter recording a spin, but most name publications won’t even accept unsolicited material — much less a cheeseball EP demo — from locals. So smaller artists seem destined to dwell in obscurity, simply because they don’t have the songs or the money (yet) to create a full album.

I guess this is where I come in. As one forum member put it: “Citrone will review an EP. Citrone will review a colonoscopy.” I probably would, if it were set to music. In my book, length is ultimately unimportant. If the songs are good (or even simply engrossing) enough to hold my attention, pile them on. While some liken music-listening to the consumption of a meal, and can become full after too many courses, I think of it more in terms of traveling. As long as the journey’s interesting, with enough turns and off-roads to spark my imagination, I’ll keep driving. Roll me down the asphalt through Blandsville, U.S.A., and I’ll drive off the road at Mile Marker 3.

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