Is the Album Dying? If You Ask Me, Yes

Albums are almost as old as recorded music. A hundred years ago when the most music a 78 RPM record could hold was four minutes, long pieces like operas or symphonies were broken up over multiple discs. Those discs were then sold in book-like packages that reminded many of photo albums. That’s how the record album got its name.

The multiple disc problem was solved by Columbia in 1948 when in June of that year, they unveiled the 33 1/3 long-playing album.  When RCA countered with the 7-inch 45 RPM single a year later, the LP became the domain of “serious” music–classical, jazz, folk, Broadway show tunes–while the 7-inch ended up as the heart and soul of rock’n’roll.  Adults bought albums; kids bought singles.

Oh, sure, there were rock albums, but usually only the form of a compilation of an artist’s singles. It wasn’t until the Beatles and Bob Dylan came along that the album starting becoming a thing for rock and pop.  And it didn’t take long for the marketplace to adopt albums.  By the end of the 60s, albums were king and stayed that way for the next thirty years.

Along the way, though, the music industry abused its customers, especially towards the end of the 90s. By phasing out singles, the industry forced people to buy an entire album for just one song. When the price of CDs didn’t come down fast enough to suit consumers, they got pissed. VERY pissed. When Napster came along and offer an opportunity to get just the songs you wanted without the filler–and for free!–there was no going back. The breakup of the album had begun.

This breakup was accelerated by the introduction of iTunes. Shopping for music became like ordering Chinese food: total a la carte selection. Playlists made up of some from multiple artists became the thing. And now with the rise of streaming music services, the playlist rules. The album? Not so much.

The album still isn’t dead, though. The record industry is built around staging these retail events where artists sell collections of new songs. Album sales charts are still a major way for the industry to keep score.  Awards shows still honour albums.  Grant organizations such as FACTOR still base much of their funding model on making albums. Bricks-and-mortar music retailers need albums to fill their shelves. And plenty of fans still enjoy the experience of listening to a record front-to-back, especially when it comes to classic records (Abbey Road, Led Zeppelin IV, Nevermind) and concept records (The Wall, American Idiot) since there’s more enjoyment in listening to those albums than breaking them up into their constituent parts.

But the album’s best days–the era when it ruled music sales–are long gone.  Take a read of this post from Less Than 3 and tell me what your thoughts are.

 

Alan Cross

is an internationally known broadcaster, interviewer, writer, consultant, blogger and speaker. In his 30+ years in the music business, Alan has interviewed the biggest names in rock, from David Bowie and U2 to Pearl Jam and the Foo Fighters. He’s also known as a musicologist and documentarian through programs like The Ongoing History of New Music.

5 thoughts on “Is the Album Dying? If You Ask Me, Yes

  • January 12, 2015 at 12:36 pm
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    I’ve been thinking about this for a little while too. Most artists could do well just to move making great singles (and even add to vinyl surge by doing 45s with a ‘throw away’ or ‘album’ track as the B-side).

    I’d say about 80% and then the remaining 20% doing what amounts to extended plays and 40-60min albums as their creative desires push them.

    I have a couple of the 45 album books, I like them. I’d happily collect singles that way instead of iTunes downloads.

    Reply
    • January 12, 2015 at 1:44 pm
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      Well, now that the old model of “record album-release album-tour in support of album-live off royalties for a bit” is dying and artists have to tour constantly to make money, it probably means moving to a similar songwriting model. E.g., tour as much as possible, and record singles as time, inspiration, and other resources permit. It’s probably already happening–I wouldn’t be surprised if there are acts out there constantly recording while on the road.

      Reply
  • January 12, 2015 at 1:41 pm
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    I completely agree. I also see it as a bit of a death spiral… the decline in album sales means less investment in albums… and therefore fewer greater albums are produced. Books such as “Abbey Road to Ziggy Stardust” by Ken Scott illustrate how much time, money and effort went into producing the great albums of the past. Ken produced two on my top ten, “Hunky Dory” and “Crime of the Century”. There’s sooo much more to it than access to recording equipment.

    Reply
  • January 13, 2015 at 10:18 am
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    With recent myriad articles listing the GROWING number of albums being sold yearly – the last being vinyl’s BEST (w/no signs of diminishing) I’m confused by your contrarian view of vinyl album’s real popularity.

    Maybe you’re speaking in terms of of the Canadian vinyl market?

    Reply
  • January 14, 2015 at 12:17 pm
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    100 years ago, edison stopped making tubes (1915)… 78s would not be around yet
    from 1912 to 1929 came the diamond disks. there were other disks that rotated from 70 to 80 rpm, and it wasnt until the 1920s that they started to be standardized as to 78 RPM
    and the LP, as the article points out, was born by columbia in 1948. however their first movement into this format was not the beatles, it was for adding sound to motion pictures.

    The dominance of the single as the primary medium of music sales changed with the release of several iconic concept albums in the 1960s, such as A Christmas Gift for You from Phil Spector (1963), the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds (1966), the Mothers of Invention’s Freak Out! (1966), and the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967)

    Reply

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