In all its forms–vinyl, 8-track, cassette, CD, download–the album has been the main product of the music industry since the early 60s. When it was first introduced in 1948, it offered artists time and space to expand their art. No longer confined to the four-minute length of a single, artists were then able to give us long, immersive works like Sgt. Pepper and The Wall.
The album also became the foundation of the modern music industry. Instead of being geared to releasing singles, albums became the coin of the realm around 1965 and stayed that way for the next half-century.
But the album started feeling unwell in mid-1999 when Napster hit the Internet. After a decade of being strong-armed into buying an entire album to get just one song (and frustrated with CD prices remaining stubbornly high), music fans freaked out by going a la carte with their music selections. Want just that one song? No problem.
The situation was exacerbated when Steve Jobs convinced the recording industry to adopt iTunes with its menu of individual songs for 99 cents.
Suddenly, the notion of a carefully curated and exquisitely sequenced collection of songs seemed in danger.
Streaming hasn’t helped, either, reducing many artists to single songs instead of unified collections.
The very concept of the album is in trouble. Rolling Stone goes deeper.
Make no mistake, the album is fighting for its life.
Sales of music’s most beloved format are in free fall in the United States this year. According to figures published by the RIAA (Recording Industry Association of America), the value of total stateside album sales in the first half of 2018 (across download, CD and vinyl) plummeted by 25.8 percent when compared with the first half of 2017.
If that percentage decline holds for the full year, and there’s every indication it will, annual U.S. album sales in 2018 will end up at half the size of what they were as recently as 2015. To put it more plainly, U.S. consumers will spend around half a billion dollars less on albums this year than they did in 2017.