For more than 50 years, the entire recorded music industry has been based on selling us albums. Although Columbia introduced the long-playing 33 1/3 album in 1948, it really didn’t take off until about 1965 when rock artists began to exploit the format. The industry began to move from pushing 7-inch singles to higher-margin 12-inch albums.
The album had a great run. People bought the vinyl first and then re-purchased their libraries on CD. New forms of marketing developed. Albums became a big retail event and underpinned the touring industry.
Albums were so lucrative to the industry that it began to phase out any sort of single releases in the late 90s. “Want that one song from the album? Too bad! You now wave to buy the whole thing!”
But just as the industry was arrogantly dumping the single, a new thing called Napster appeared. File-sharing had the ability to unbundle any song from any album, turning music into one giant a la carte menu.
That was further exacerbated by the appearance of the iTunes Music Store. Steve Jobs insisted on being able to sell individual songs, much to the annoyance of acts like Pink Floyd who believed their albums needed to be enjoyed as a whole. But within a few years, even they succumbed to trends.
Then came along streaming and its playlists. The trend now is for people to consume individual songs in a curated playlist rather than listen to a full album from start to finish. For many, the idea of the album is irrelavent.
The industry is beginning to realize this, too. If you look at streaming data, you’ll see that the vast majority of attention goes to singles. Album tracks barely register, so why bother recording them at all?
We are clearly entering the post-album era. What will that look like?
- Will albums be relegated to special exclusive releases?
- Vinyl might be the album’s savior.
- Might we see new formats with additional features?
There’s a lot to think about. MusicIndustryBlog takes a look at the situation here.