Friday, 3 May 2013

What is a concept album?

Let's kick off our discussion about the making of a concept album with a short discussion about what a concept album is.

Well, actually, it is not that difficult to figure out what it is from the name. It however get a bit confusing when you start to look at all the many options, so let's look at all those funny names given to these albums.

If you'd google any musical's name, with the word 'recording', you may find a wide variety of albums. Musicals tend to be recorded and re-recorded many times. It is not so simple as other musical works for which usually only one or two versions exist. Try it out. Go into your local shop and ask for the recording of Phantom of the opera. You are likely to just get a blank stare from your shop attendant, but let's assume for this argument that your shop attendant knows a lot about musicals and musical recordings. If she does, she might reply with "Right away sir. Which album would you like?".

Unless you know a little bit about recordings of musicals and specifically the musical you might be interested in, your shop attendant will at this point be met with a blank stare. Upon such situation, your shop attendant is most likely to hand you the latest available recording, which just might happen to be the 25 year anniversary concert album. Failing that, she would likely give you the original London cast recording.

For most musicals, the most popular and best known recording would be the original cast recording. That is usually either a Broadway or a London cast recording, but might be anywhere else in the worlds as well. This all depends on where the world primiere for your musical was held. The important word to look out for here is 'original'. The album is usually assgned the status of 'original cast recording' and a year, indicating that this is the recording of the cast of singers and actors who initially did the Broadway or London primiere show. Most often, this is the album that may contain the version of the recording of the songs that made it to the hit parade.

But not always.

Sometimes the song that you have heard on the radio comes from any of the other possible recordings. Sometimes you might be looking for the 'studio cast recording'. These are albums often recorded after the premiere is over and the composers never bothered with the original cast recording. Often the popularity of the show exceeded expectations and the composers decided that an album might be a good idea to make extra money, so they got a bunch of session musicians together to record the songs. But not always.

Often the studio cast recordings are done before the premiere and is done with the purpose of creating interest in the show. This is where the concept album often comes in. Jesus Christ Superstar is a great example of this. ALW recorded the songs from the musical with well known musicians to spread the word. The concept album would very often be followed by an original cast album, but not always. The songs on the concept album might often not be exactly the same as the songs in the cast albums. That is the whole idea of a concept album. It gives the composer the chance to check things out and change it to his liking.

Often you will get a demo album recording in the place of the concept album. Often the quality of a demo recording would not be as good as a concept album recording, but again, this is not always so. With recording technology more affordable and in the hands of the average man, quality of demo recordings are pretty good nowdays. The difference between demo albums and concept albums have become blurred and these names are now used interchangebly. Demo albums are usually not available commercially.

We've already talked about the original cast recordings, but there can be any number of cast recordings. If a musical is very popular, you may find that every producer anywhere in the world may want to make a recording of his cast. These albums would usually be indicated with some town and a year.

When a movie is made of the musical, you may find a soundtrack album. In many cases these albums would have the movie actors singing the songs, but not always. It use to be common practise to have session musicians sing the songs and the movie actors just lip sync in the movie.

Another popular option is the concert album recordings. These are when a number of great performing singers perform the songs in a live show. You would most often hear the crowd clapping in the background and between songs. Many Stephen Sondheim shows have very good concert albums available.

There are many other options as well. The songs from.. albums are very popular. These albums often mix a number of musicals from the same composer. You may even find a greatest hits album or often a popular singer sings albums. Barbara Steisand made a number of great recordings singing her favourite songs from her favourite musicals. Often these recordings make it to the hit parades and are more popular than the cast recordings.

Then there are many more variations for fun and commercial gain. There are dream cast recordings, symphonic recordings, highlights from albums, film score albums, karaoke albums, and the list goes on and on.

From this short discussion, you might get some idea of all the variations on the theme available. Have a look at some of the links provided above just to get a feelng. The thirty two pages with 373 recordings of Les Mis on Amazon would seem a bit extreme, but at least, I hope I helped a little bit to help you make some sense of it.


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