Is the Album Really Dead? – Picking Apart the Question: Part One

“You know the album is dying as a format. We’re so used to it and we’re so old school in that format, but will we get more mileage by doing a few new songs at a time, or do we do another album?’

I read these words in a Billboard interview with Alex Lifeson (of Rush) just the other day. It reminded me of an interview with Roger Glover (of Deep Purple) back in 2012, I believe, where he said that some members of the band didn’t feel making a new album was worth the trouble. Albums cost more money to make than what the band receives in revenue from sales. But Glover himself felt making an album was important. It was like taking a snapshot of where the band is now. I have searched for that interview and cannot find it. But I found this quote here from an interview with Bass Player:

“CDs are just not in vogue right now, so our enthusiasm for doing one (i.e. an album), even though we all like to write songs, just wasn’t there.”

However, producer of Purple’s latest album/CD, Bob Ezrin, had this to say when he met with the band:

“You’re not going to get that big radio hit anymore – finding a catchy riff and banging out a song. Those days are gone. You’ve got to be yourselves and stretch out.”

In other words, make a great album.

From Wikipedia:

“An album is a book used for the collection and preservation of miscellaneous items such as photographs, postage stamps, newspaper clippings, visitor’s comments, etc. The word later became widely used to describe a collection of audio recordings (e.g. pieces of music) on a single gramophone record, cassette, compact disc, or via digital distribution.

…the word was extended to other recording media such as compact disc, MiniDisc, Compact audio cassette, and digital of MP3 albums, as they were introduced.

The word derives from a Classical Latin word for a blank (albus=white) tablet, later a list.”

My experience as a consumer of music has not indicated that the album – a collection of pieces of music – is about to die off any time soon. I have a very hard time keeping up with all the new artists who have emerged in the last decade and are releasing quality albums on CD. photo (1)The day after I read the Alex Lifeson remark, I cleaned up my locker at work and found several post cards that had been inserted into packages containing CDs I had ordered. The post cards were promoting recent releases on their respective record company labels. I’ve been keeping them with the intention of checking out some of these bands but quite simply I have spent too much money (again) on CDs, buying not only new releases but reissues of older classics as well as releases in CD format of albums recorded in the early 70’s but never released by a label. From my viewpoint, the album is doing just fine. So what gives? I search Google for “the album is dead” and found several interesting articles and posts on the first page of hits. Each one had a good point to mention.

The Album is Dead and That’s Finethe learned fan girl

Writer Keidra Chaney questions how many people buy albums and listen to them all the way through. Don’t most of us just find the songs we like and listen only to those tracks? A good quote points out today’s fast-paced lifestyle with short attention spans: “In an era of musical oversaturation and scarcity of time and attention maybe a 10-song format – for any popular musical artist – is overstaying its welcome.” Chaney does not fail to mention that the album format is better suited to rock artists, and it seems that a noteworthy point here is that we may be talking about the death of the pop album, while other contemporary music styles may still do very well releasing albums (e.g. progressive rock and all it’s sub-genres).

So is the single king once again? Chaney suggests a viable middle ground based on what is popular in the K-pop (Korean pop) world and that is the EP. Many artists, who must keep in the public eye constantly so as not to be forgotten as the next flavour of the month comes along, release EPs. Chaney says that people would be more willing to pay for 5 good songs than a more expensive album (i.e. Long Player of 10 songs) that has only 5 good songs and the rest mediocre. Indeed, many independent artists do just this out of necessity because the cost of making a full-length album is high. In my early days in Japan, I preferred exploring the creative indie EPs over the pop-flavoured LPs.

More Questions on “Is the Album Dead?”Alan Cross

In this piece, Cross refers to an article in The Guardian which points to a frightening drop in CD sales, where even Katy Perry can’t sell more than 300,000 copies. The article links to another piece by Stuart Dredge where it is mentioned that in Norway and Sweden, where streaming began earlier than in the United States, music sales from streamed songs and albums are going up. So while there is a marked decrease in CD sales and even digital downloads, sales generated by streaming have not been properly accounted for in the U.S. suggests Dredge. Back to Cross’ piece, “We just don’t know” are the four words that answer his initial question.

If streaming is the new black in music acquisition, then does that mean that the album is dead? Refer to the Wikipedia definition above. An album is a collection of pieces of music. If a band releases a new collection of songs for public distribution – or even private distribution as the case may be – it can still be called an album no matter the medium. And while fans of a few hit songs may only pay for the “singles” anyway, fans of the band are likely to want the whole collection.

6 Reasons Why the Album Format DiedMusic Think Tank

“I think it’s safe to say that we’re at the end of the ‘album age’, and although the format will hold on for a while, it’s clearly waning in popularity.” So begins Bobby Owsinski in his piece on the death of the album. He lists some interesting reasons:

1 and 2: Albums were a visual and informational experience with cover art, liner notes, lyrics, etc. Shopping for albums you could buy one for the cover alone, and the experience went beyond the music as you sat down and took time to study all proffered written details. CDs didn’t have the same impact, he says. Being of the cassette age of the 80’s and the CD age of the present, I can say I do enjoy CD cover art and the booklets that come with some discs.

3: The demise of record stores. Record stores were great places to learn about new music by word of mouth. I think there are lots of ways to discover new music these days such as “Customers who bought this album also bought” on iTunes and Amazon and related videos and playlists on YouTube. There are also sites dedicated to sharing information about certain genres of music. I have found out about most of my purchases in the last year by checking out music suggested to me by the above means. In Japan where I live, there are still many small CD and record shops to be found and bigger multi-floor music stores in Tokyo. Is the crisis mostly an American perspective?

4 and 5: The price and the CD. Albums used to cost $8.98 for a long time. Then in the 80’s the prices started to go up. CDs might cost near $20 for a new release (closer to $30 in Japan). CD packaging was smaller so you lost the visual and informational thrill, and impulse buying went down because 5 inch artwork at $20 a pop didn’t inspire the opening of wallets. I bought quite a few metal cassettes in the 80’s based on artwork alone and the small text that came in cassette cases prepared me for the greater joy of the larger CD inlay card. I missed out on the vinyl album era because by the time I became a music fan in the 80’s, the ghetto blaster and Walkman were the tools of music enjoyment. So for me the move from cassette to CD was an improvement.

6: Too much filler. Previously musicians were limited to 21 minutes of music (or so) per album side. The CD made it possible to release 73 minutes of music (or so) which meant more songs that would have been cut off a vinyl release could be included on a CD.  That means garbage songs are now included on the album. Instead of 40 minutes of quality music we get 55 minutes or more of mediocre music, says Owsinski. Somewhere, somebody noted that musicians tend to think all of their songs as good and don’t think of recording just filler. Deep Purple recorded 14 songs for their “Now What?!” album and would choose 12 to go on. I’m sure they didn’t think they had any “filler” songs. Regarding length of an album, one could assume Owsinski might be equating “album” with 42 minutes of music on vinyl.

Is the Album Dead?New Music Strategies

This piece makes my point very nicely: “I think we’re going to have to redefine our notion of what constitutes an album.” The author goes on to say that there is no reason why a song has to be 3 minutes long or why an album has to be two 22-minute sides or why mixes have to fit within the time limit of a CD. Where the CD format allowed for bands to compose songs over 70 minutes (which Transatlantic did), alternative digital media allow for 3-hour songs (indeed the Flaming Lips recorded a 24-hour long song that you can get if you buy a special hard drive with the song on it). The author also states that while iTunes sells mostly single songs, eMusic sells mostly albums. Then here comes the interesting point that I am surprised Rush and Deep Purple are missing when they say that the album or CD is dying:

albums

“Because albums are more than ‘here are our best 12 songs of the last 2 years’. They are usually considered as single entities, of which the songs form a part… the album is usually constructed to be greater than the sum of its parts.” It’s no secret that progressive rock and heavy metal bands often put out concept albums. Do away with the notion of the album altogether and there will be no more stories to tell in a collection of a dozen songs.

We’ll look into this more in part two.

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