You’re probably sick of hearing about The Life of Pablo by now, but indulge me here, because if nothing else, Kanye West’s ever-evolving opus — and the manner of its release — demonstrate one fascinating point: the survival of the album format as we know it is by no means assured in the 21st century.
The album is, of course, a creation of the 20th century, a product of essentially arbitrary constraints that became industry standards. The nature of albums was, at least to some extent, decided by their format; the concept of splitting an album into two musically or thematically different sides (David Bowie’s Low is a great example) only exists because music was released on two-sided vinyl discs. The advent of CDs removed this limitation, but introduced another: the length of a CD is 74 minutes because a Sony executive wanted to be able to fit all of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony onto one disc.
Regardless of exactly why these limitations existed, exist they did, and artists worked within them. Just as importantly, for a work to be released in one of these formats, it had to be declared finished at some point. In some art forms, the idea of a finished piece has always existed (although some artists have always needed to have pieces prised from them): painting, for instance, or sculpture. You make a thing, and then it’s done, ready to hang on a wall or sit in the center of a room. In others, though, only the advent of suitable technology has enabled and/or required artists to pronounce their work complete: the printing press for writing, the recording process for music. Before that, stories and songs were ever-evolving things, passed orally from artist to listener, and then often re-told with some adjustments by that listener, never existing in a definitive form.
By the end of the 20th century, pretty much every art form in existence had a corresponding physical format that required (and defined) a final version. And that means that in the early 21st century, we take it for granted that we can own the definitive version of whatever art we buy. We buy an album, we get a set of finished songs, frozen in time. We buy a book, we get a set of words that are the definitive text. We buy a DVD, we get a film. That’s not to say revisions can’t be made — director’s cuts of films, deluxe editions of albums, new editions of books — but they’re a) clearly labeled as such and b) represent another finished version to replace (or supplement) the original one.
By now, we’ve been trained to consume culture in the form of discrete time capsules, so much so that we rarely question this practice. But times are changing, and the reason they’re changing is, of course, the Internet, which allows for constant and endless revisions of just about anything. The version of this article you’re reading might not be the version you read next week, because somoene might pick up on the typo in this sentence. Or perhaps they’ll tell me that the story about the Sony exec and Beethoven might be apocryphal, and request a correction. Or perhaps I’ll see a statement I could have phrased better, and rework it. Or maybe I’ll just decide that I’ve gone overboard in starting sentences with the word “or.”
On the Internet, nothing is ever final. Even on the Internet, though, albums have continued to exist until very recently as discrete entities, for the simple reason that they’ve been sold that way. It doesn’t matter if you bought My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy from the iTunes store or the record store; in either case, you handed over your cash and got the songs.
The difference between then and now is the proliferation and popularity of streaming services. It’s Tidal that’s allowed The Life of Pablo to be released in such haphazard manner, because as long as The Life of Pablo remains a Tidal exclusive, no one will ever buy the album itself. They buy a subscription to Tidal. And there’s no guarantee that what that subscription gets you today is what it’ll get you tomorrow.
This means that, in theory at least, Kanye is free to tinker with The Life of Pablo until the cows come home. And thus far, he’s shown an inclination to do just that: the album’s tracklisting changed multiple times in the run-up to its “release,” and also between its premiere at Madison Square Garden and its appearance on Tidal. Why stop now? Next time you log into Tidal, there might be a new version of “Wolves” awaiting you, or maybe Kanye will have pulled down a couple of songs he doesn’t like, or changed the sequencing, or whatever.
This raises all sorts of interesting questions, not least this one: at what point does The Life of Pablo cease to be The Life of Pablo and become something else? What if Kanye changes half the songs? What if he changes all the songs? Philosophy students will recognize this as the classic paradox called the Ship of Theseus: how much of a ship can be replaced before it ceases to be the ship it was and becomes another ship entirely?
Of course, Kanye hasn’t shown any inclination to take things to these sorts of extremes as yet, but the idea of being able to tinker with things indefinitely is a disaster for obsessive perfectionist types, of which he is most certainly one. Surely it’s only a matter of time until someone releases an album and proceeds to fuck with it forever, uploading an endless series of new versions that effectively erase the previous one. If an album’s songs and sounds are forever changing, then what does it even mean to call it an album?
Apart from the philosophical aspects, which are fun to think about, there are also practical questions. The first is what this means for consumers: what if they don’t like their art being tinkered with from afar? As it happens, there’s an example of this already: video games, which are constantly updated in ways that have both positive and negative effects for consumers.
On one hand, this model allows developers to continue to expand the worlds they’ve created (just like millions of others, I’m waiting impatiently for the final expansion pack for The Witcher 3) and to fix unforeseen bugs, redress issues with game balance, etc. On the other, it means that half-finished products are often rushed to market on the assumption that any problems can be patched in due course, which at best makes for a disappointing gaming experience and at worst is occasionally disastrous. It also means that patches might break mods, mess up savegames, and generally make the game worse than before. This has been a particular issue with the advent of automatic patching; some services (like GOG’s Galaxy client) allow you to turn off automatic patching, but some don’t.
Depending on exactly what art form you’re looking at, there are other questions raised by the ability to revise forever. In journalism, for instance, there are ethical questions raised by invisibly correcting mistakes or other undesirable aspects of articles once they’ve been published. In the past, this required a formal correction; today, you might read something that makes you raise your eyebrows, only to find that the sentence in question is gone by the time you forward the URL to a friend.
The same ethical considerations don’t really apply to music, but the other implications are fascinating. In many ways, the 20th century, when recorded music suddenly became hugely important, is an anomaly in a model that’s otherwise remained essentially unchanged for centuries. The album as we know it has really only existed since the 1960s, and commercially viable methods of distributing music since the late 19th century.
In absolute terms, then — given that music has been around as long as humans have — the whole idea of creating recorded versions of songs is still very much in its infancy. Regardless of anyone’s opinion on its artistic merit, The Life of Pablo might one day be seen as one of those works that’s forever tied to the introduction of something important (Sergeant Pepper and multitrack recording; Brothers in Arms and the CD; Beyoncé and the surprise release).
Perhaps the potential decline of the album is another example of the music industry returning to its natural state, where musicians make their living through live performance, and their songs are only ever as finished as the version they played last night. Or perhaps the album as we know it is evolving into something new: a living, evolving document as opposed to a time capsule. Or perhaps in ten years we’ll all look back at this and laugh because the album’s going as strong as it ever has. Who knows? It’ll be interesting to find out, though.