One of the additions to the Lexington Music Awards this year is a category that is fairly common to music awards: album of the year.
Sure, the album might have many physical guises now, well into the 21st century: a digital download, a compact disc or a traditional vinyl album that gave the product its name. The concept, however, is the same: a collection of recorded songs that is a lasting musical statement from an artist.
But in an industry that has diversified far beyond tradition in recent decades to present music via streaming services, bite-size sales that allow consumers to listen to and buy pieces of an album instead of the entire product and online sharing of recorded and live music, how important is an actual album in 2017?
Clearly, recording an album held some importance to the four nominees for album of the year: veteran musician and songwriter Warren Byrom (nominated for “Heavy Makes You Happy”), the progressive bluegrass troupe The Wooks (“Little Circles”), blues, rock and Americana stylist Eric Bolander (“Postcards to Myself”) and the self-described “Southern grunge” band All the Little Pieces (“The Legend of Lavinia Fisher”).
“It can work on different levels,” Byrom said. “On one level, I just realize, ‘Oh cool, I have 10 or 12 new songs,’ and I start getting excited about arranging and recording them in a way that’s true to the song, interesting to me, and hopefully interesting to other people. Then I start to pay attention to how the songs work with and against each other, creating flow and tension, some sort of narrative or emotional arc. It’s less about creating my identity as a writer or musician than it is about creating something that has its own identity as a project, like a film or novel.”
There is so much of your heart, hard work and time that goes into a record, and there’s a ton of build-up to that moment when you can finally hold it in your hand.
Rhyan Sinclair, All the Little Pieces
There also are more everyday concerns. All of the artists agreed that having a recorded album offers an instant representation of an artist’s work that can assist in a variety of ways, including getting a club booking or offering a souvenir of sorts to fans at live shows.
“Without some form of professionally recorded original music, it’s hard to sell yourself to a venue that has no knowledge of your performance level and/or sound,” Bolander said. “Locally, it may be a little easier to book with a venue through networking and live recordings, but for any type of travel, it helps even more so. I believe having an album as a part of merchandise at shows affects how an unknown audience member views an artist’s legitimacy. I feel more confident and prepared when I have albums available for an interested audience member.”
“It gives your audiences something physical to take home with them and a way to enjoy the music after a show,” said Jesse Wells, fiddler for The Wooks. “It’s especially nice for the press to be able to get your music into their hands and let them experience what you’re trying to translate artistically. Just with the presence of Web-based media, it’s really a great way to showcase the songwriting talents, the instrumental prowess and the vocal talents of a group.”
“I don’t know if people look at it as a question of legitimacy,” Byrom said. “But they are more likely to know your music and be interested if they can listen to a CD/ tape/ record of it.”
All of the artists extolled the advantages of having an album to sell at their performances, which led to another question relating to format. In a digital age when so much music is streamed and shared online, is there still a relevance to making and manufacturing a physical copy of an album?
“I think there’s a certain timelessness to buying an album and holding it in your hand,” said Rhyan Sinclair, 16, a songwriter who fronts All the Little Pieces. Along with The Wooks, All the Little Pieces released a vinyl edition of its nominated album. “It’s been really cool to see how much people still appreciate that.”
Wells added, “In the bluegrass world, it’s especially important to have a physical project available. I think that is still a genre that hasn’t quite caught up to digital downloads. In our case, it was especially important to print vinyl. I think vinyl has become a very important part of preserving high-quality recorded music. It seems like there is a big base of music lovers who only buy vinyl, and I’m partly guilty of that myself. On top of that, it’s just so nice to have a high-quality piece of art.”
It’s less about creating my identity as a writer or musician than it is about creating something that has its own identity as a project, like a film or novel.
But perhaps the biggest reward of producing a recorded album is seeing the physical representation of music that covers the vision that initiated the songs, and the hard work required to realize them.
“There is so much of your heart, hard work and time that goes into a record, and there’s a ton of build-up to that moment when you can finally hold it in your hand,” Sinclair said. “It’s incredibly surreal. I got to tour Musicol in Columbus, where our vinyl was pressed and pick up the vinyl records. Watching them press those records one at a time makes each one feel so special.”
Wells said, “It’s very hard to relate those feelings. It’s a big relief to able to have that finished project and also the excitement of being able to share it with your friends and family and neighbors. It’s almost like letting your child out into the world for the first time. You’ve put so much passion and love into it. It’s really exciting.”
Bolander expressed those emotions in a series of stages that become cyclical as they unravel: “Anxiety, celebration, joy, hatred, relief, anxiety again, thankfulness, excitement — and then anxiety.”