Various pundits have been predicting the ‘death of the album’ for a long time now. The popular rationale, advanced ever since Napster, is that since we are consuming music in 3-5 minute song chunks, there are far fewer reasons to purchase and experience an album in one shot. Before the MP3, there is no random access seeks in vinyl recordings, short of knocking the arm across the disc, hence the emergence of the linear album as the dominant presentation by which music may be purchased and experienced.
Digital music has changed the format of this presentation from a single, long form experience to bite-sized, easily digestible snippets of songs. Several songs strung together can tell a story with much more nuance and depth then can a single. Of course, the artist, producer and engineers determine whether or not this story is presented as a seamless entity in it’s entirety. Since the recording industry as a whole has focused on radio-friendly singles, not generally whole albums, it’s easy to extrapolate from history and come to the conclusion of how singles will be the future of music.
However, there are many releases which exist as a whole entity, made up of discrete parts, concept albums for example. You cannot say that because the recording industry will perish that the album as a presentation will not persist. Even in a scenario put forth by Gerd Leonhard, “Music Like Water“, where music is basically a media utility you buy into with a subscription fee, compilations in the form of albums will be much more rare. Collections of songs, however, (mixtapes being the lowest barrier to contribute here) form a gestalt entity, where the whole is greater then the sum of it’s parts, and will never be obsolete.
Looking at some of my favorite albums (forgive my conventional taste in greatness), The Downward Spiral, Dark Side of the Moon and Hell Awaits all have a few things in common. The central themes rotate through various lenses of interpretation, both sonically and lyrically. Albums allow for all the story-telling tricks we praise in the film world, foreshadowing, character development, climax, resolution, peripatia and anagnorisis. The production quality is quite high on all these releases which allows for persistent auditory themes throughout the album. This is the most important part, in my opinion, because it serves as a link between one song and each other in the collection. Yet, there is enough distinction that each song does not sound the same as the others, a sin committed by virtually every pop record produced in 2000.
That’s what it boils down to, ultimately, is focused effort on the part of the artists and producers. If you’re looking at something as a business equation, you want maximum results for minimum inputs. It just hasn’t been worth the effort to make entire albums stand out. Perhaps then album will perish because nobody wants to put the effort into making something which will be appreciated by so few. Since when did the lack of an audience stop an artist?
Albums will continue to be created because there are still musicians on the planet.
Now, the ‘death of the rock star‘ is something I believe will happen, with all certainty. That’s another thought for another time. Until then, thanks for reading, and I welcome your comments below.