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.