What the future holds for music albums

Kirk McElhearn
18 January, 2012
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With the increase in the amount of music sold digitally, more people are buying songs, and fewer people are buying albums. While some have suggested that the days of the album are numbered, I don’t think this is the case. Buying individual songs is nothing new, and while many buyers are eschewing complete albums to get just the hits they want, this is only a minor shift in the way music is sold. So what is the future of albums?

What’s in a name?

First off, what exactly is an album? Back in the days of wind-up Victrolas, a record album was a large book-like object, similar to a photo album (which is where its name came from), containing a series of sleeves as pages, into which you’d find individual 78s. It was meant as a collection of 78s, each of which contained a very small amount of music (around three minutes). The first multi-disc recording was released in 1903, and contained Verdi’s opera Ernani, spanning 40 discs. When recording moved to 33 RPM records, which held much more music, the term album was retained for what was essentially the same type of collection of songs, just on a single disc. But now, as we have gone full circle, songs have once again the basic unit of music consumption, and the album may be on its way out.

In between these two moments, the album held sway as both a container – a collection of songs, or tracks – and concept. An album had a narrative; a carefully crafted album had songs in an order that told a story, and it represented a change in mood. The first track on a side could be mellow, and the songs could progress until the last song on the side could end with strong emotion. Or the first song could be energetic, and the last song could be wistfully nostalgic. One example of this is Bruce Springsteen’s Born to Run. The opening song, ‘Thunder Road’, opens with an amorphous harmonica and piano melody. The last song, ‘Backstreets’, ends with Springsteen’s emotional screams, “hiding on the backstreets.” Side two of this album opens with the title track, the hard-driving rock song, ‘Born to Run’, and ends with ‘Jungleland’, as the music decays into suburban angst.

Then there are concept albums. The classic examples of these are The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, The Who’s Tommy, Pink Floyd’s The Wall, or Jethro Tull’s Thick as a Brick. These albums tell stories, and they often have songs that segue into each other. While artists (or record labels) did release singles from some of these albums, the music was conceived to be listened to in the order on the albums, and in its entirety.

Finally, live albums attempt to replicate the experience of a concert. In some cases – for bands such as the Grateful Dead, Phish, or moe. – an album is an entire concert, usually spanning two or three CDs. For others, a live album may be selections from a specific concert, or a collection of live songs recorded at different venues.

With classical music, the concept of the album is different. Until recent times, ‘classical’ composers did not concern themselves with albums. (Some contemporary composers certainly do compose music with the album-as-constraint in mind.) A classical album could contain two piano sonatas by Beethoven, three string quartets by Mozart, a couple of symphonies, or a collection of songs. In some cases, the length of certain classical works lend themselves to fitting neatly on an album. (And this is even more the case today, where CDs can hold up to 80 minutes of music, compared to the 40 or 50 minutes that fit on a vinyl LP.) So Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony is an album; it fits on a single CD. Schubert’s Wintereisse also fits well on a CD, as it lasts 70 to 75 minutes. Steve Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians, at around one hour, is another perfect fit for a CD.

Changing times

As music distribution has gone digital, the idea of the album has disintegrated. While a large share of digital music is sold a la carte these days from the iTunes Store or Amazon MP3, the album is not dead. However, more albums are sold on CD than digitally. According to Digital Music News, in 2011, 223 million CDs were sold, versus 103 million albums sold digitally. This does not necessarily mean that people who have the choice opt for albums more often, but it may simply be that there are still a lot of people who don’t buy music digitally.

Several artists have refused to allow their music to be sliced and diced and sold by the song. AC/DC, Def Leppard, and Garth Brooks are notable holdouts, while The Beatles and Led Zeppelin eventually gave in to the sirens of the digital cash register.

So what is the future of albums? Several generations of music buyers are used to buying albums yet, at least for popular music, we also bought singles, back in the days of vinyl. CDs managed to kill off singles, because there was no logic to buying a CD single that contained two tracks on a disc that could hold a dozen, and at a price that was designed to dissuade purchasers from buying them and nudge them toward buying albums. With digital downloads, a large share of sales are individual songs, at least for popular music. It is certainly conceivable that the album as we know it will disappear, and other, smaller collections of songs, such as EPs, will be sold more frequently.

I think the CD version of album is doomed to disappear. As downloads become more common, music dealers will still want to sell music in collections, both to sell more music and to provide music in convenient groupings. But it is likely that the album will not remain married to its average 60-minute duration. It may be longer or shorter, and may contain different types of content. We already see many older albums re-released with demos, bonus tracks and live performances, and this diversity of content may increase. With downloads, the flexibility exists to include any amount of music, and even to include extras like music videos (already the case for some albums sold digitally).

While what the album contains will change, I think the concept of the album will live on for some time. The entire current music catalog is based on albums, and the change necessary to move to a different unit of music – other than the song – will take some time. There’s a certain amount of convenience in an album, for recording artists, record labels and music dealers – and even for listeners, who can group music more easily in their music libraries. Some online dealers will change the way they sell music, but getting those who buy and listen to music to change the concept may take a very long time.

3 Comments

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  1. Damian Smith says:

    I totally agree with you on that. I used to buy CD’s even when Napster was big business with file-sharing, but when the iTunes Store came to Australia, I shifted my buying habits and bought albums off the store. I have bough a huge number of albums from the store. What I would like to see is more albums on the sore, even existing albums have digital booklets or iTunes LP’s. That would probably make people who are still buying albums physically to move to downloading. I know you miss the feeling of holding a CD in your hand, etc, but I’ve bought albums like Dark Side… and have listened to that album from beginning to end many times. I think albums will still live on digitally for years to come.

  2. Brennan Arrold says:

    Well done with this article Kirk. I’ve had this discussion often with friends and family and not always convincingly. Now I can point them here for a bit of support :-)

    I do hope that the Album concept remains for some time, as I favour this for the very reasons you have outlined.

    The EP also has the chance to regain the ground it lost when vinyl was replaced. Some great opportunities for emerging artists without the backlog of tracks to fill an album. The Gary Clark Jr “Bright Lights” EP is a good example.

  3. Martin Marszal says:

    As a troglodyte, I miss the days of the vinyl album – that vast, 12″x12″ canvas for great artwork like St Pepper’s or Cream’s Wheels of Fire or the Stone’s Their Satanic Majesty’s Present. Each of these albums loses something when not played in its entirety. Sound became crap, though, after all those plays. The CD doesn’t do justice to artwork. The idea of the album needs to live – it’s not just a collection of songs – it’s a snapshot of an artist at a particular time with particular influences. It’s like a collection of short stories where each story is better than it would be on its own.

    We live in a hanging world, however, and my kids just can’t see the beauty of listening to the Who’s Quadrophenia from go to woe but prefer what is, essentially, a greatest hits album.

    I suppose we need to hail the return of Rip Snorter ’76.

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