The death of the album?

A few years ago, my friend offered to download a song his teenage step-daughter liked. When he asked if she wanted the whole album, she said, “What do you mean?” That’s pretty telling. Not only are today’s young people not buying or listening to albums, many of them don’t even understand the concept. The digital age has definitely had a major impact on music. Is it killing music? That’s what the industry would have you believe. Labels and musicians aren’t making the kind of money they used to. I recently came across an article that raises the possibility that what’s actually going on is the return to a singles model: The state of internet music on Youtube, Pandora, iTunes and Facebook.

As illustrated by the chart above, people are still buying music, but appear to be abandoning the album. It looks like the album model that has dominated the music business for the past several decades was an anomaly. If that’s true, is it a bad thing?

I don’t know that it has to be a disaster for the music industry. Popular music has been singles-oriented before. When my mother was a kid, she and her friends didn’t buy albums, they bought 45s and played them over and over. Yet people were able to make a living in the business.

I think the digital age really has changed the way we think of music. And it didn’t just start with Napster and downloading. The seeds were sown when they came up with the compact disc (in a way the industry asked for it by forcing us to switch to another format to squeeze more money out of us). When the CD met the personal computer, people were bound to figure out that an album didn’t have to be a unit any more. A song is a “file” that can be separated from that album, and an album when you get down to it, has become a “folder” or directory.

I’m still not sure what I think about that. Does it mean musicians will just start doing singles? No more coherent themes, no more Dark Side of the Moon or Led Zeppelin 4, no more 2112? The idea bothers me, because I’m a collector. Anytime I find a song I like, I instinctively wonder what album it came from and if I would like it too. Maybe I just have to change my way of thinking and learn to love a good song for its own sake and forget about albums.

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10 Comments

Filed under commentary, music

10 responses to “The death of the album?

  1. Oh, what a great and pertinent post!
    In the early 70’s one could argue (at least in the UK) that there were two very separate and distinct camps of artists and their listeners. The Glam rock explosion certainly saw bands such as T.Rex, Slade, Sweet, Mud, Showaddywaddy etc, having hit after hit, appearing almost unbroken week after week on Top of the Pops, and almost to a man releasing largely ignored and forgettable albums. The kids that bought these were, in every sense ‘single-minded’. Some bands ‘crossed over’ a little. Status Quo with “Paper Plane” from the successful ‘Piledriver” LP for instance, but the other camp consisted of the likes of Led Zep (no single releases EVER in the UK) Budgie, Floyd, Tull, etc. Nobody was interested in their singles, because we knew albums were what they did best, and I bought accordingly, from both camps. I was speaking to one of the guys from Showaddywaddy recently and he said digital downloads of their singles were selling better than ever, so perhaps the ‘file-sharing demons’ won’t sound the death-knell for the industry after all. You’ll always have kids who, especially fed American Idol and X Factor fodder, wouldn’t know an album if they were hit over the head with it. Do you think Britney fans ever wanted anything other than a ‘greatest hits’ compilation? Doubtful. They’re more interested in whether her top is in fashion than any ideas she might want to explore in depth on an album! I’ll always buy albums, I could never have imagined buying just a single from XTC, for example, they just have too much to offer, and their albums were works of art, but I understand those that just want a smattering of an artist. I’ve made many compilations over the years of tracks I love by bands – Kansas are a good example for me. I really love only two songs by them (no prizes for guessing which ones) and I’m not that bothered about the rest. I do collect digital versions of albums, however, you call me an old luddite, because, for example, the upcoming Black Country Communion release I will buy as a good old-fashioned cd, because I want the actual object!

    I think, in conclusion (finally!) people are different. I’m a little like you, a song that piques my interest will always have me exploring that artist further to see what they have to offer. Sometimes they capture my attention, sometimes not. The technological advances, (and I’m speaking now as a creator of music, as opposed to a listener) does mean I can make more music, faster, and get it out in the public domain easier, than ever before.

  2. Thanks. Excellent comment also. I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to change my way of thinking, at least not totally. I’ll always love the idea of albums. Maybe it will just become a boutique sort of thing for the hardcore collector?

    You mentioned Led Zeppelin being an album band with no singles in the UK. Are they known over there at all? I get the feeling they’re way more appreciated in the U.S. The soon-to-be-defunct band Asylum Street Spankers have a song, “My Favorite Record” that includes bits of different songs that the audience can sing along with at concerts. They included “Four Sticks” at one of the shows I saw and the crowd loved it. They said it totally fell flat when they did that in Europe. I wonder how many British artists are loved here that are nearly unknown at home? I think Robyn Hitchcock is a bit like that. Probably a lot of American artists in the same situation, loved abroad, ignored at home.

  3. Baggy Trousers

    The word is “sown,” now “sewn.”

  4. Zeppelin are of course, known and revered in the UK, but perhaps not by as wider public as one would think. I’ve always felt the UK market was so desperate to chase after ‘new’ and ‘different’ that it too readily discards the classics of the past. One thing I loved about the States was the possibility to actually hear AC/DC, Led Zep, Floyd, The Who, Def Leppard, etc on the radio, when all we get in the UK is dance rubbish, ignoring the fact we’ve produced some of the greatest bands in the world from a population of just 58 million. It does work both ways though. Nobody in the UK knows who the hell Dave Matthews is for instance. They did a feature on him in a magazine in the UK, with a photo of him sat in Picadilly Circus, and nobody recognized him!

  5. Baggy: the word is “not”, not “now” ๐Ÿ˜‰

  6. “..I wish I didnโ€™t know who Dave Matthews was…”

    ๐Ÿ™‚ it’s like trying to put Pandora back in the box!

  7. This seems a good place to ask the question: “Do you like songs, or do you like music?” Likely many would find that an impertinent, snobbish, and annoying question, but to me it warrants some serious consideration.

    If one is the kind of listener who can say, “I do like songs but the much larger concept of *music* has an even greater resonance for me”, then you may be the kind of lister who will always need the album format.

    • I would have to say music, although I do value a good pop song. The hit parade of the ’70s was pretty high caliber as I’ve said before, and good pop songs are being made today, although ironically, those aren’t very well-known or “popular.” I like being taken somewhere by music though. For that you need an album. The thought of all the songs on Saucerful of Secrets being broken up into scattered singles makes me sad. You’d never hear the title track would you?

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