Music fans of a certain age and disposition will recall the 80’s fondly as the decade of the concept album; an hour or more of storytelling set to music. This echoed the habit of telling stories to music which began centuries before, when minstrels strode the land strumming lutes and passing history from landowner to serf and back again.
Cacofonix the Bard, where are you now? I’ll tell you. He is alive and well and singing lead vocals for the Decemberists, whose Hazards of Love album recently took me by surprise not just because it is excellent but because it is a concept album for the modern age.
(Note: Hazards of Love was released in 2009 on Rough Trade. I discovered it six years later. I just want the reader to know that I know it’s not new. Just new to me).
Which set me pondering the reasons for the genre going out of fashion. I reckon its decline finds its roots, like many other social phenomena, in the rise and rise of electronic media and the general convergence thereof. Let me explain:
There is much more content to consume these days than there was in the 1980s, and it’s pushed at us via many more channels. Yet the time that we have in which to consume this content has remained more or less constant (we live as long now as we did then). This leads us to cram more content consumption into each and every hour, with the inevitable consequence that we spend less time consuming each piece of content so that we can fit more in.
The net result is that within a single generation, we have evolved an ability to process information more quickly. There are two ways we do this: one is to spend less time with each piece of information and the other is to try to process multiple streams of information at the same time. A mash-up or convergence of stimuli, if you will. I watch TV these days with an iPad in my hand almost all the time. I see enough of the programme I’m watching to get the gist of it and I also get to keep up to date with my emails. But don’t ask me what I miss; I couldn’t tell you. And I can’t remember the last time I lost myself in a narrative of any kind.
And herein lies the rub, at least as far as the storytellers at Promontory are concerned: if as viewers, listeners, receivers of messages, we’re paying less attention by reducing the time and focus we give to the story being told, should we as storytellers be telling our stories in a diferent way? In sound-bites, in highlights, in précis? Or in multiple media across multiple channels ofering a multi-sensory experience?
I ponder these challenges whilst listening to Hazards of Love, as I look for a client whose Strategic Narrative might best be presented using a concept album in six musical chapters, sparking both a welcome return to an age-old practice and a thoroughly modern storytelling/music mash-up, just in time for next year’s festival season.