You don’t have to be a classic rock fan to celebrate Pink Floyd’s recent legal victory over its label, the troubled EMI. For those who missed the news, a judge agreed with Pink Floyd that EMI may not distribute the band’s songs as individual tracks (as it has been doing on popular outlets like iTunes) but as part of complete albums only. As a band spokesperson put it, “This is an art debate, not a commerce debate.”
Well, I’m not so sure I agree completely.
On the one hand, as an unabashed Pink Floyd fan, I am glad that a judge upheld the integrity of the band’s work. Pink Floyd’s music is meant to be experienced in album form. The band helped establish art rock in the 1970s, with albums like The Dark Side of the Moon becoming masterpieces, thematically and sonically. Songs like “Us and Them” from The Dark Side of the Moon or “Comfortably Numb” from The Wall are meant to be heard like chapters from a book. Taken out of context as singles, the songs sound powerful, but their meaning is diminished.
Moreover, listeners of digital content compromise the quality of the band’s work. By their nature, digital downloads suffer from sound distortion and degradation in order to make musical files portable. Sound distortion can occur with compact discs, but more so with digital downloads, as Rolling Stone reported in 2007. I suppose distortion isn’t a tragedy if you’re listening to “My Sharona,” but “Hey You” is another matter. So I hope publicity around the Floyd/EMI flap inspires child of the digital age to discover the Floyd on vinyl or CD.
But on the other hand, how many consumers really care about the album as an art form — and how many artists can afford to do so? By now recorded music has become so commoditized that any band hoping to succeed today has to look at touring, merchandising, and licensing for legitimate revenue streams, with the recorded product used to simply raise awareness for the musician. Moby has famously licensed many of his songs to musical soundtracks — a shrewd business move that at the same time has made him a singles act. Can you blame him?
And lest we forget, in 2001, Pink Floyd itself cooperated in the release of its songs as individual tracks on an anthology, Echoes: The Best of Pink Floyd. To be sure, producer James Guthrie took great care to present the songs thoughtfully, even providing a surprise: a new mix of “Shine on You Crazy Diamond” that blending Parts 1 and 7, which appear separately on Wish You Were Here. But a singles collection it was.
I don’t think Pink Floyd is guilty of hypocrisy. Rather I think the legal victory over EMI is a matter of artistic control from the band’s standpoint — and artistic integrity from the fan’s standpoint. In that sense, I think the Floyd has scored an even bigger victory especially for lesser known bands. Integrity is a matter of interpretation and debate between an artist and its fans. But for the debate to even happen, control of the content must reside with the artist.