Album sales are down, talented musicians are raising their doubts about the future format, and the listening mode of choice is the ‘shuffle’ button. Is the album on its way out?
The facts from the BPI would suggest so. In 2008 album sales were down 3.2%, which at least had slowed from 2007′s 10.% decrease. Digital albums are growing at a phenonmenal rate, selling 65% more in 2008 than 2007. However, digital sales still only account for 7.7% of the albums market. So whilst its unfair to blame the album demise on the internet and mp3s, there’s no doubt that there is a link.
Its seems that the concept of what an album is has been lost. The coherent story telling of a musician’s thoughts, a holistic entity, a unit of songs. Rarely are albums whole albums, but a collection of songs. By this I mean that they don’t tell a story, form a narrative and take you on a journey, whether this be one of your soul or mind, but all too often are a collection of 11 songs. Typically 1 to 3 rock, things cool down for 4 and 5, no one listens from there anyway, so the next tracks can be shocking, number 10 is good as a reward for the loyal fans who’ve stuck with the record, and the final tends to be a long drawn out affair. Artists and their desire to take the album format to extremes may have bitten itself in the foot. Long rambling pieces sold for £18 aren’t going to make the sales charts, and even less so now.
This idea of a whole isn’t how society works, today is all about pick and mixing the best bits. The album wasn’t built for today’s rush in and rush out, bite size pieces society. Text messaging is the way to communicate, news is streamed in RSS feeds, ‘K’ is the only really acceptable response to an enquiry about one’s well being. Our attention spans are not trained for the length of an album.
Not only will out minds not allow the attention to be cast to a whole album, neither does our technology make this easy. Mp3 and downloading mean that rather than pay for the whole album, and , it must be said, risk some filler, customers can pick and mix the tracks they love.
The internet has allowed people to become more diverse in their music tastes, as the next new song, band or genre is only a click away. Beatles to Bhangra, Chopin to Chop Suey, Britney to Bon Iver, all in a few clicks. It is simply not possible for someone to pay for an album for all artists they are hearing on their virtual tours of the music world, so a few tracks is all that can be purchased. Playlists are how people listen to music, music for a certain mood. With one click of the shuffle button any hope of unity and story telling on a record is over.
Is that the tell tale sign, the word I just used? The words ‘album’ and ‘record’ are inter changeable. But of course it’s not a record. A bit of plastic with some grooves on, which you stick a needle in to make a sound?! That all sounds a bit old fashioned, and things are changing. Because the materials are changing does the formation of how songs are presented need to change?
It isn’t fair however to link digital and demise, or albums with talent and singles with tosh. Albums are essentially a way of presenting songs in a creative format. Surely creativity is always evolving. Freedom from the rigidity of the album format may allow bands to be more creative, putting out quality music as and when it is ready, rather than working to filling an hour long record with incoherent tracks because it has been a long time since the last one. Songs when played alone may sound perfect, but together they clash horribly. Similarly, songs that alone seem, well, lonely, can weave together with an album to create a piece of true art.
Smashing Pumpkins frontman Billy Corgan said in December of last year that albums are on their way out, “People don’t even listen to it all. They put it on their iPod, they drag over the two singles, and skip over the rest. The listening patterns have changed. So why are we killing ourselves to do albums? Our primary function now is to be a singles band. We’ll still be creative, but in a different form.”
In May 2008 Matt Bellamy of Muse spoke of his excitement in the new novel ways that bands are issuing music (think of Radiohead fans donating for ‘In Rainbows’, or The Charlatans giving away ‘You Cross My Path’ for free) and said that if the songs they write don’t fit together as an album, a piece of coherent creativity, they will be released individually.
With MySpace’s prolificacy the idea of a blog format of releasing does not seem so far fetched, with bands simply posting, in return for some remuneration I would imagine, their latest songs as and when they are ready. Marit Bergman, a Swedish artist, allows fans to subscribe to her, in return for one new song every month.
Apple have set up a ‘complete my album’ functionality, which allows people to complete the album they may already have a few songs for, without repurchasing those songs. This repurchasing has been a problem for many years, and rightly so. It hardly seems to be rewarding loyal fans by reissuing an album a couple of months after its original release, only with a bonus never before heard track. Apple’s prominence in the digital music world which so many see as the death to ‘real’ music shows that the two are not at odds.
Maybe the economic crisis will lead to a plethora of new albums. People have more to say when things are going badly, rather than rushing between new projects, spending their cash at whim. The recession of the 80s and the economic toil as a result led to Trainspotting, Oasis’ What’s The Story Morning Glory, Massive Attack’s Unfinished Sympathy, Damien Hirst. It’s not just recently but hardship has always been a precursor to art. Not only may artistic output increase, but how customers wish to engage with this output. If people can not afford to buy cars, why not CDs. The thrill of shopping will still be there, and the serontinin levels are more easily hit when the consumer holds the purchase in their hands.
Surely the album will live on, as real music lovers everywhere extol the beauties of listening to a masterpiece from start to finish. However, as a snapshot glance at the UK Top Ten at any one time will tell you, its not music lovers that drive the high profile sales.
we7 is an internet campaign set up to boost recognition of less well known albums. The group extols the virtues of the album format as one that truly allows the music as an art to shine through. Like with anything, the more time you spend on it, getting to know it, the more you understand it, and the same goes with any musician or band. It’s only by taking that time and going on that journey that you really understand the music and the listening process is made a deeper experience.
It’s not just romanticism that makes the apparent demise of albums sad, it’s what it signifies, as part of the whole disposable five minute fame sweep that has come over music. However, if it does mean that bands really concentrate on producing 3 minutes of pop perfection, rather than 63 minutes of musical malady, just because its time for a new album, then maybe the new trends will be less restrictive. It’s all about talent and innovation, and be it CD or digital, album or single, guitar or triangle, whatever allows musical creativity to shine should be the direction music moves in.

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