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Will Downloads Kill the Album?

USA Today offers some interesting insights from within the recording industry about the future of the album, which they represent as the pinnacle of artistic expression within popular music. They are arguing that several trends – most notably the rise…
December 6, 2003

USA Today offers some interesting insights from within the recording industry about the future of the album, which they represent as the pinnacle of artistic expression within popular music. They are arguing that several trends – most notably the rise of downloads (legal and otherwise) – point toward a generation more interested in singles than in albums.

Here’s two interesting comments from the article:

”The entire game is changing,” says singer Rob Thomas of Matchbox 20. ”I can handle the fact that artists are selling fewer records and making less money, but you can’t take away our albums! It’s a conscious step toward disposable art. On an album, the artist creates a full work of art with songs that fit together and create a mood. If we become a single-minded nation, where careers depend on hits, you won’t hear challenging music that takes risks.”

”The disappearance of the album as an entity would be sad, but anything to do with the evolution in how people access music excites me,” singer Alanis Morissette says. ”I’m very album-oriented, and my highest preference is that people experience my album as a whole, but I know people can gravitate to a certain song and listen to it ad nauseum. That’s their right. It’s about freedom of choice.”

We need to keep in mind several things: prior to the 1950s and 1960s, almost all music was released as singles, not as LPs, so in the history of recorded sound, the album may start to seem more and more like an anomaly rather than as a dominant practice. Lots of great songs came out of a period when the single dominated the market. Second, relatively few contemporary artists are producing the kinds of themed albums which were so popular in the 1960s and 1970s. So, the shift may be less dramatic than some people might imagine and this may account for why younger consumers are less interested in albums.

While albums may be less common in the future, a certain number of artists will be likely to continue to produce them and new forms for delivering that material are likely to emerge. Let’s think in terms of bundled units of songs rather than in terms of the album as a single unit of recording. Perhaps, one simply offers a discount for buying a bundle of songs rather than buying each song seperately. People who really like a recording artists aren’t going to stop wanting to seek out as much new material from that artists that they can get their hands on, so there will still be an incentive in terms of publicity for releasing a cluster of songs together rather than putting them out one by one. The single, on the other hand, may allow people to sample more artists in their search for those they really like. (There may be other artists who will seek publicity by releasing a song a week and that will be an interesting trend to watch as the album breaks down).

People are arguing that some songs on an album grow on you over time and these more difficult songs may be less likely to be produced in an all-singles marketplace. On the other hand, there may be an incentive to improve the quality of each individual song when so-so songs can’t be sold as part of a take-it-or-leave-it package. So I can see the quality question cutting both ways.

The key point to make is that the album will not die out altogether as long as it serves a culturally useful function but the form in which we consume this bundle of material may shift dramatically with shifts in the delivery mechanism.

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