The natural world is filled with hidden wonders and buried treasure. The human world of music isn’t too different—scrolls of undiscovered sheet music created centuries ago must still lay unseen, tucked away in forgotten vaults and lost labyrinths. While the invention of recording technology provided a brilliant way to preserve as well as disseminate musical works, it also led to an interesting double play for the mischievous and the curious, in the wilful concealment as well as the unearthing of lesser-known creations.
The practice of hiding tracks began with long-playing records. Any Beatles fan born before 1980 will remember waiting for Paul McCartney to blasphemously croon, ‘Her Majesty’s a pretty nice girl/Someday I’m gonna make her mine, oh yeah,’ from ‘Her Majesty’, the unlisted ditty that ended Abbey Road long after you thought the album had concluded. The trend continued into CDs when they figured out how to print a song on the disc without it being revealed by a track ID. The children of the ’90s got their surprise happy ending in the navel-gazing, guitar-grinding scorcher ‘Endless, Nameless’ ten minutes after Nirvana’s Nevermind had tamed down to silence. Of course, “Weird Al” Yankovic couldn’t bear being left out. The secret track at the end of his album Off the Deep End featured six seconds of shrieks and roaring cacophony designed to scare any unwitting listener who neglected to turn off the CD player after the last song had ended.
As the technology continued to change, so did people’s listening habits. Bands continued to make albums, but folks paid less heed to the 45-60-minute work and focussed their dwindling attention on just a song or two from the entire record. These were inevitably the radio-friendly singles that record labels promoted, hoping the catchy songs became earworms, leading to greater album sales.
Too many bands began to concentrate on the two or three songs that had hit potential, stuffing the rest of the album with ‘fillers’. So when the separable digital files known as MP3s arrived, online sellers began to offer individual songs as an option to the whole album. The chicken nuggets of music had arrived and people were happy to pop and chew.
But old habits are hard to change even when the culture chugs ahead. Unwilling to feed morsels to the masses, musicians are still putting out long-players of their work. The only problem is, most folks either don’t care or don’t have the stamina to hear them through. As a result, the vast ocean of musical output is rife with undiscovered corals. You don’t even need to dive to find them; a snorkel will do just fine. But you do have to float a bit longer.