The album is dead. Long live the album
With the rise of the single-track download, the web is meant to have killed the LP. So why are musicians still making thoughtfully crafted and themed albums?
Photograph: David Rose/Bloomberg News
The album was born of technology. In 1931 RCA Victor launched a range of vinyl discs that rotated 33 times a minute, which meant they played for about twice as long as the 78rpm shellac-based discs that they succeeded.
The label’s boss, Edward Wallerstein, thought they were a good idea, but the timing wasn’t great: the Depression was in full swing, and not many people had equipment to play vinyl on. The lack of interest forced Wallerstein to take the discs off the market.
By 1947, as Louis Barfe notes in his history of the record business, Where Have All the Good Times Gone? , it was time to give it another go. The Depression and the second World War were over and, thanks to the fine-turning of Peter Carl Goldmark and his fellow boffins at CBS Laboratories, a long-playing disc was ready to go. A cheap player was launched, the hi-fi boom began and the LP ushered in an era of financial success for the record business.
Death of the album
Technology also has a lot to do with the death of the album, a prediction that has been doing the rounds for a decade or so. The arrival of the MP3, iTunes and digital downloads means much of the emphasis is now on individual tracks rather than on collections of tunes.
The statistics back this up. Last year in the UK, sales of single tracks rose for the fifth year in a row, while CD and digital album sales continued to fall. Vinyl album sales are reviving – 4.6 million in the US in 2012, compared with 300,000 two decades ago – but that’s a micro rather than macro development.
On the face of it, then, the album is dead. People have decided they’ve had enough of paying for a collection of songs that might contain only one or two tracks they really want. Add the vogue for streaming, which is tailor-made for skipping from track to track, and you can understand the obituaries for a format that seems to be long past its best-before date.
But the people who make the albums don’t seem to be reading from the same script. Few have asked the musicians if they’re ready to retire the album – and very few musicians have abandoned the format.
For most acts, making music is still about striving to make albums. Many years may pass between releases, but the acts will always tell you that they’re working on a new album, not a new track for Spotify.
Sure, some acts have occasionally used other release models. In 2007 Ash announced that Twilight of the Innocents would be their last album and that all future releases would be singles (although they threw a bunch of those singles on to a compilation album in 2010).
This month De La Soul announced that they would be releasing a single a month. “I think putting out those singles would be more impressionable than dropping an album at this present day in music,” Maseo of the band explained.
But an album from the band is also in the works, so perhaps those singles are not quite as effective as he suggested. Or maybe the singles are being released to promote the album, which is how the industry used to work, and are therefore a marketing tactic.
Most artists still see albums as the best way to present their art. While lots of them stick with the formula because that is how everyone else has always done it, some seek to emulate The Beatles and Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band by making an album that stands up on its own merits.
An individual song doesn’t have quite the same creative cachet. Perhaps Daft Punk’s Get Lucky , which Spotify says broke its streaming record the day it was released, last week, will overshadow the band’s forthcoming album, Random Access Memories . But it takes the album for the full artistic vision to be appreciated.
In an industry hell-bent on turning art into cash, it’s striking that such an old-fashioned format, especially one that many consumers have decided they can live without, still holds sway.
It’s a sign that the music industry doesn’t always listen to the business department. Artists still get to make and release albums and so tick another item off their to-do lists (play first gig, sign record deal, tour, play festivals, sack drummer, release debut album, sue manager, split up).
For the artists, the idea of not making an album does seem like heresy. They may recognise that sales are on the slide and that a hit tune is going to generate more online traction, but bands have been making albums for decades so that’s what they want to do too.
[/CF413]The question of why they continue to do so is rarely asked. When people talk about albums, the financial considerations rather than the artistic imperatives take precedence. What are often overlooked are the creative possibilities in making an album. Kendrick Lamar’s fantastic day-in-the-life story on last year’s G ood Kid, mAAd City album would not have been the same without the narrative colour that the album format allowed him to add.
As with so much to do with the record industry, the album is a fairly recent innovation. Few rock and pop artists before the 1960s were too bothered with the artistic aspect of a release, instead bundling hit tracks and fillers together with indecent haste to cash in on a movie or tour.
But in the past few decades, as rock and pop have become more culturally aware, the album has become the favoured canvas. Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen and Bruce Springsteen used the format to establish their credentials as serious artists and set a template for others to follow.
Not every album is going to be Blood on the Tracks , Songs of Love and Hate or Darkness o n the Edge of Town , but that doesn’t mean an artist isn’t going to have a go.
Life after death: five great albums from the internet age
The Avalanches: Since I Left You
The Australian crew produced an album that even they couldn’t better, as there’s been nothing from them since. An ear-popping road trip into pop culture, Since I Left You (from 2000) features audacious samples and interstellar grooves.
LCD Soundsystem: Sound of Silver
An album (from 2007) that defined where James Murphy and crew were coming from and going to. It had big tunes that still work today – Someone Great, All My Friends, Get Innocuous! – and a supersmart attitude linking together all those Krautrock edges, slinky tones, glorious grooves and punky melodies.
Ali Farka Touré and Toumani Diabaté: In the Heart of the Moon
Two masters at work in a room at Hotel Mandé, on the Niger in Bamako. Between the desert blues of Ali Farka Touré’s guitar and the centuries-old tradition of Toumani Diabaté’s kora, this 2005 album was extraordinary.
Kendrick Lamar: Good Kid, mAAd City
Hip hop has always had a good relationship with the album format – think of Public Enemy’s It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, Nas’s Illmatic and De La Soul’s 3 Feet High and Rising – but last year’s debut from Kendrick Lamar was a step up. Detailed and chock-a-block with tunes.
Arcade Fire: Funeral
The album that set the Montreal band on the road to bigger and better things. Funeral, from 2004, was an album you could believe in, as the band gave their all, and a rarity, as they were up for leaving rock’s comfort zones to take risks.
Artists on albums: ‘It disgusts me how long it takes for us to make a record’
Tim Wheeler of Ash, in 2007
“ With the advent of the download, the emphasis has reverted to the single track. It hasn ’t helped that most people have forgotten how to make a decent album . . . When you ’re tied to the album format, you find yourself waiting six months between finishing a record and releasing it. By leaving this behind, we can record a track and release it the next day if we feel like it.”
Maseo of De La Soul
“I think putting out those singles would be more impressionable than dropping an album at this present day in music . . . It ’s about trying to just creatively have a
bunch of songs in the stable. You have to consider a lot from the administrative standpoint in the release of a project . . . It ’s long overdue. Trust me, man, it disgusts me how long it takes for us to make a record.”
“I don’t want to make records for the sake of it. I remember saying once that there was no obligation on anyone to make another record unless you really feel like it and you can justify it to yourself first, and they were really taken aback by that.”
“That’s the thing with a successful record: you don’t want to stray too far away from that with the next one. At the same time, though, if you don’t try something unfamiliar, you’re not challenging yourself.”
Geoff Barrow of Portishead
“We don’t talk about it; it’s not planned or deliberate; it just happens. We get in a room and play. The ones that are good we keep, and the ones that aren’t so good we keep for the bonus disc.”
“Let’s Dance , by David Bowie, is the one because of the unique way it came together. David and I met when we were without record deals, and it was us against the world. We had no one to answer to but each other, and we did the entire album in just 17 days. Mixed and delivered, done.”
“The album creation is the nicest part: it’s something you always have, and you can use it to work through stuff that’s in your head. The rest of it is vanity .”
Questlove of the Roots
“Making records is probably now my eighth job out of 15 . While it’s not a lifeline for me, I wanted to take advantage of the freedom and make albums I’ve been dreaming of doing but was always afraid to do.”