It’s one of the great caricatures of crotchety old people that they’re always lamenting the effects of inflation.
In our ageist imaginations, they’ll whine about the good old days, when they used to be able to get into a movie theater for a nickel, have a three-course meal for a dime, or get a rim job for a quarter.
But no one from the 78-rpm era could claim that a penny would buy them a minute of recorded music. Even Rudy Vallee records couldn’t have been that cheap.
Paul Westerberg’s latest release, however, is that cheap. Titled 49, the collection might be the biggest format-buster of our digital, format-busting age. It’s a 44-minute album in which all the songs flow, bleed, bump into, and, at times, collide with one another. Westerberg chose to release the set not as an album, but as a single 44-minute mp3, without any divisions, song titles, or anything else to break up the listening process for our deficient attention spans.
Westerberg released 49 through TuneCore, a digital-music delivery service, and since TuneCore charges artists only $9.99 a year per track (and 49 is technically only one track), Westerberg could simultaneously be looking at the lowest sales price and the greatest profit margin in the history of the music industry. Let’s assume that 40,000 people plunk down their Kennedy half-dollars for this album, a pretty realistic estimate, given the small investment that’s required. That would bring Westerberg nearly $20,000, with a profit margin of nearly $2,000 to 1.
This makes so much sense that it’s a wonder more people aren’t doing it. But, of course, more people will be doing it very soon.
The part that I like best about Westerberg’s new release is the instant-music component. He reportedly finished the album on a Monday, got it to his manager on a Tuesday, and had it selling online on Saturday. Until technology enables us to plug right into an artist’s brain and dissect his or her dreams in real time, this is about as good as it gets.
And what about the music? Westerberg issued 49 with the following warning: “Do not listen while operating a motor vehicle. This product is not faulty — all sounds are valid and intentional as a work of art.”
He’s not kidding. While individual tracks (let’s pretend they have titles and call them “Who You Gonna Marry” and “Everyone’s Stupid”) are pleasant in the rough-hewn, one-man-band style of Mono/Stereo, some tunes pop in and out before you can decipher them, and the effect can be like having a hyperactive 4-year-old rapidly flipping radio stations, only to find that Paul Westerberg songs are on every station.
The big 14-car pileup happens near the end, when a bunch of covers, including The Kinks’ “Dandy,” Alice Cooper’s “18,” Elton John’s “Rocket Man,” and the Partridge Family’s “I Think I Love You” all meet at the same intersection.
Such moments won’t fly for many listeners. But at 49 cents a pop, it’s hard to imagine that anyone will want his or her money back.