There are plenty of musicians, industry executives and music fans who blame Steve Jobs for killing the album. When the iTunes Music Store opened up with a la carte offerings of individual songs, consumers were freed from buying an entire album just to get the one song they wanted. (This was a big, BIG problem in the late 90s; the industry had pretty much abandoned singles, forcing people to pay for full albums to get one song. And they were shocked when Napster took off…)
If I’m honest, I’m more likely to buy just the songs I want and stream the rest because of the cost efficiency involved. It’s been a while since a bought a CD or downloaded an album so I could listen all the way through. Was it Radiohead’s A Moon Shaped Pool? I think so, but I’m not sure.
Given the recent reports on mid-year sales (go here for Canada and here for the US) point to a calamitous drop in album sales, it would seem that the very notion of an album is dead. Or is it? This is from Third Bridge Creative.
For the past decade, the usual cadre of music industry prognosticators—critics, label chiefs, technologists—have been predicting that the album format would go the way of the pocket calculator. The digital music services’ retail model, where songs can be purchased a la carte, put emphasis on individual tracks, while the rise of streaming services such as Spotify ensured that future music fans would discover music via algorithmically engineered, mood playlists based on weather patterns, the time of day, or perhaps the region, varietal, and vintage of whatever wine they’re sipping on.
This was going to be awesome. Consumers would not only get to listen only to what they wanted—foregoing the meddling non-single tracks that frequently pad out pop albums—but they wouldn’t even have to decide what they wanted. Music would be more than a mere cultural/artistic artifact and serve a greater utilitarian good as we all schlepped towards the great tomorrow.
This was also going to be a boon for artists. Creating an album is hard work, and counter-intuitive to our test/learn/iterate millennial mindset. In the new world, creators would release music as they made it—probably sometime between a late brunch and an early tea time—and distribute it directly to their fans, thus satisfying the needs of their tech masters with a steady stream of content for both Facebook’s feed and Youtube’s anarchic sea of audio. There are even those who’ve advised artists to stop releasing albums altogether.
But something funny happened on our way to this new utopia: The album refused to die. Sure, artists like Taylor Swift and Justin Beiber continued to exemplify the traditional, singles-oriented methodology, but there also emerged a new path: releasing thematically cohesive, aesthetically ambitious albums that were a callback to the the long-players of bygones eras, but are distributed in a way that plays into the strengths of the digital marketplace.