The death of the album?
Since iTunes enabled fans to buy individual tracks at the click of a button, rumours have started spreading that the concept of the album is ‘dead’. Music sales are already sinking drastically on a global scale. Is the album really at risk of extinction?
Requiem for the album.
Not every song is an immediate chart hit or radio favourite. There have always been album tracks surrounding the 3-5 singles, existing peacefully alongside the hits. An album was almost like an artist’s audio-visual business card, defining a specific era of their artistic output, and creating a milestone. Fans loved it – in those days, people could hardly wait for their favourite artist’s new album. There was more creative freedom with album titles, and more free space for experimentation, far from the commerical pressures of radio and media these days.
Albums were usually listened to in one go, usually on vinyl or tape. There was no such thing as ‘Shuffle’ (unless you did it manually), or later on CD players. This is one of the most notable differences between the listening experience of the past and the iPod era.
One of the most important elements connected with the success of the album format lay in the sleeve design. This is where artwork and information merged, visually supporting the musical experience. Vinyl records with interesting sleeves had a certain unique charm, giving them a heightened sense of value. Some of this feeling was passed on to the CD era, but only to a small degree.
Music Listening 2.0
The loving process with which people put on a record and listen to it from start to finish has now given way to a kind of frenzied skipping through thousands of files. People want the biggest music library possible, and easy access to it anywhere, anytime. The process of listening to music has degenerated into an endless compilation… is there still space for the idea of an album in this environment, and can its existence be justified? Who still has the time to dedicate themselves to an artist for more than 4 minutes? Which artists can enchant their listeners for 40 minutes? Does the lack of dynamics in modern music have anything to do with this crisis? (see our post on ‘The Loudness War” for more info.) Or has modern radio simply dictated our ideas and stupefied us with its constant drone of hits?
Singles instead of albums?
Since the beginning of the iTunes era, listeners gained full power over their music collections, selecting which tracks they want to buy, and which ones are they not interested in. The logical consequence of this is that the album tracks which are not hit singles fall by the wayside, one (among many) of the reasons why sales are plummeting.
More and more artists are realising that they can just skip the costly process of making a concept album. They prefer to release multiple singles and EPs in digital format, or to put these singles together in an album – like a ‘greatest hits’ compilation.
Chris Brown recently said: “You can blame downloads if you like, but there’s nothing you can do about the sales figures, they are what they are. Perhaps I’ll release a single or just a song every few months in future, instead of putting out an album.”
Ian Astbury, from the legendary rock band „The Cult“ said:
„We wont be making a new album – probably never again. Albums are dead, the format is dead. iTunes has destroyed the whole idea of an album. It was a crucial part of the music industry between the 70s and the 90s, but it’s been over for years now. It’s simply an old format, it’s just not up to date – and that’s that. It’s great songs that count for me – I’d still play great songs and release them in future.
However, some people maintain that the concept of the album is by no means dead. Singles will come and go, but albums have longevity, and still provide us with a unique type of artistic and cultural milestone.
Perhaps it’s only pessimists who believe that the album was sentenced to death by the introduction of digital technology and the first CDs (i.e the introduction of skipping, and longer playing times up to 80 mins.)
It is impossible to deny the massive decline in recent album sales – just look at the current global stats, even for stars like Katy Perry or Lady Gaga. The album is attracting less attention than previously, and buyers prefer to invest selectively and purchase individual tracks by different artists. The fact is, there are fewer record labels who are prepared to risk making physical copies of an album, or to cough up the funding for studio time in advance. If you believe what the digital music distributors are saying, it seems that digital singles and EPs will only become more established, tightening their stranglehold on the album.
What is your opinion? Does the album still have artistic value? Or is it simply an antiquated format? We look forward to reading your comments and hearing about your own experiences!