In our new monthly longform series “Extended Play”, we take a closer look at current issues in the music business that require an in-depth analysis. This month we’re looking into the recent decline of album sales and asking whether the format has a future in the streaming era.
We live in an attention-deficient age, where information, media and art is produced and consumed at an unprecedented pace. Our ever-present screens are constantly updated with new and exciting things to enjoy – for thirty seconds, until the next one comes along. There’s always another video to watch, article to read or song to skip, and with so much instantly accessible content available to us, it’s difficult to give any one thing the attention it deserves. This is but one of the reasons behind the increasingly popular opinion that the album, as a musical format, is doomed. Marking it’s seventieth birthday this year, the album as a concept has evolved from a byproduct of technological restrictions into a universally accepted musical structure, shaping the way that sound has been recorded, sold and appreciated for generations. Some are claiming that the future of the album, as both physical format and creative form, is in question, with album sales threatened by inevitable technological, musical and economic change. We’re taking a brief survey of the arguments on either side, examining the contemporary relevance and historical significance of this infinitely influential cultural phenomenon as we ask: is there a future for the album?
Recorded sound was born in 1877 with Thomas Edison’s invention of the phonograph. Decades later, Emile Berliner pioneered the use of a rotating vinyl disc, spinning at 78 rpm and capable of holding four minutes of music. The album as we know it was born seventy years ago, with the introduction by Columbia of a 12-inch long-playing disc made of polyvinyl chloride (hence the name: vinyl LP). The technological specifications of the format allowed for 22 minutes of sound to be squeezed on to each of the disc’s sides. These seemingly arbitrary numbers went on to shape the boundaries of popular music: four minutes per song, forty-five minutes per album. What was initially a limitation, an accident of technology, eventually became a creative standard, defining the length of compositions in all genres and forming a template for the way that music has been written and received for decades.
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Music expanded to fill the space available. In 1982, the CD arrived, offering a full 72 minutes and making room for bonus tracks, live recordings and alternate takes. Then, everything changed: the digital revolution transformed sound into 1’s and 0’s, intangible files living on hard-drives and internet servers that can store thousands of songs, playable on demand and in any order. It’s difficult to overstate the consequences of this monumental shift, for both fans and artists, and if one were to trace the album’s purported decline back to a tipping point – this would be it. As was the case with the vinyl record and the CD, this technological development was the driving force behind dramatic changes in all aspects of the way that music is created and consumed, threatening the viability and popularity of the album format. Before the digital shift, artists were forced to shape their music to fit within the confines of the medium available – they had no choice. And the medium itself dictated how listeners heard the music: you bought a record, and because you’d paid for it individually and gone out of your way to identify it, purchase it and bring it home with you, you’d probably listen to it the whole way through, treating it as a complete entity and artistic statement. Following the shift from physical to digital, these boundaries disappeared – an album can now be six tracks or sixty, and you can listen to it any way you please.
This begs the question: what really is an album, anyway? The term once referred to a physical object, a disc you could hold in your hands, an item that held weight, meaning and artistic significance. Albums had a beginning, a middle and an end – they told stories, taking you on a journey with the artist into a place of their imagination. Albums had concepts, liner notes, bonus tracks and deluxe editions. An album was a statement, an artwork, a collection of individual tracks bound together by a unified meaning, cohering into something more than the sum of its parts.
Fast forward to 2018. In the streaming age, an album is merely an assortment of files, a gently suggested listening order for individual tracks that float unanchored in the digital ether. It’s no more than a glorified playlist. And this, some say, is exactly the problem: the album has lost its meaning. That special tentative excitement of heading out to a record shop to pick up the latest record from your favourite band, poring over the liner notes on the bus before you get home and keenly absorb each individual song, blessing the music with your undivided attention. How does this experience translate to the streaming era? Yes, it’s still an event when a great artist drops their new album online – a level of excitement remains. But there’s something a little less romantic, a little less meaningful, about queuing up a new album in your Spotify playlist while you have ten other new releases (and twenty unopened tabs on Safari) clamouring for your attention.
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It’s easy to get caught up in this kind of sentimentality and nostalgia, and it’s even easier to sound like a stereotypically out-of-touch grandpa shaking his wrinkled fist and lamenting the state of the modern music industry. People still buy records, and vinyl album sales have been showing healthy numbers for several years now. All forms of culture inevitably change and develop over time. But there’s no denying that the tide has turned, and there’s no going back. UK revenues from streaming platforms rose 41.9% in 2017 to £577m, while physical formats decreased by 3.4% and online downloading dropped 23.1%. Album sales – as hard copies and digital files – have halved since 2010.
The increasing dominance of streaming services is undoubtedly diminishing the primacy of the album, shifting the landscape towards the consumption of individual tracks and playlists that combine songs from a variety of artists. Music is still often packaged and distributed to streaming services as “albums”, collections of seven or more songs that feature a title and an image. But the way that we perceive these albums and the way that we use them is changing – and some have suggested that this will inevitably change the way that music is written in the first place. Music has always been shaped by the technology available: that’s how the album first rose to prominence. And now that the platforms we use to discover, buy and hear our music are changing once more, there’s bound to be another radical shift, with musicians and producers responding to the demands of their listeners. The question is, though: is this a bad thing for the music industry? What consequences could it have?
The music business is just that: a business, driven by economic forces. Until only recently, artists and labels received the majority of their revenue from album sales: from each individual vinyl LP or set of mp3s downloaded. The cost of an album was fairly high (compared to what we currently pay for streaming services) and it was a one-time payment: you didn’t pay every time you listened, you paid once for the chance to own something tangible, to come back to it whenever you pleased. This meant that people demanded more from the album: they wanted thirteen tracks, not just one hit, and they wanted something they could be happy about paying £10-£15 for, something that took time, effort and skill to create.
It’s fair to say that these expectations affected the way that artists made their music. Knowing that listeners expected a complete product and that the value of each track on the album was equally distributed, they were incentivised to produce albums that had a range of ideas and sounds, albums that weren’t only centred around two or three big hits. Because payment was made on a one-time basis – not repeatedly as people listen – there was less motivation to write hook-heavy material that will receive the most listens: artists only needed to write ‘good quality’ albums that each person would be happy to buy once.
Now: consider how these motivations could change in the streaming area. Currently, most listeners pay a subscription fee directly to their streaming service: not the artist, not the label. It’s roughly equivalent to what one album might cost in 2000, but paid once per month – and in return, access to thousands, millions of individual albums and tracks. On top of this, minuscule amounts are paid to the artist per stream, and these amounts only add up to something tangible if the streaming numbers reach a considerably large amount. Artists receive revenues that are paid per track listened, not per album sold, and they are paid repeatedly over time. In fact, to even count as having “sold” one album (in the album charts) a song must be streamed 1,500 times. And that’s not any song: you can stream the lead single 1,500 times, and this counts as one album sale.
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It’s not hard to see how these conditions might influence artists and producers that are seeking economic success. The financial motivation to produce “complete”, good quality albums is disappearing: if listeners are gravitating towards single tracks and playlists, while albums are often divided up and placed into separate playlists by streaming services, where’s the motivation to write a twelve-track album? Streaming numbers show that a staggering proportion of listeners are focused on lead singles and songs that are placed in playlists: the “album tracks”, the hidden gems that we would once have treasured, are being ignored. This will inevitably compel some artists to focus on writing attention-grabbing, hyper-consumable music, aiming to write one or two ‘smash hits’ while having far less economic motivation to produce a fully-formed album. If these attitudes continue to take hold, ten or twenty years down the line, the album could fade away forever.
Though this all seems possible, it’s admittedly a simplified view. Artists don’t only write good music to sell records: they write music to write music, because it’s their art and their passion. It’s not new for pop artists to focus on selling singles, and there’s little doubt that more “serious” artists will continue to write music to their own artistic standards without concern for how it’ll sell. The music industry is constantly evolving -whether we like it or not – and change isn’t necessarily a bad thing. A cursory glance at the new and different ways that music has been presented in recent years shows artists disregarding the album format in favour of innovative alternatives: Beyonce’s Lemonade was a ‘visual album’, while Frank Ocean’s recent release ‘Endless’ was a 45-minute music video. Drake says he releases ‘playlists’ now, not albums, while Chance The Rapper favours the mixtape format. Brian Eno’s 2017 release ‘Reflection’ took the form of an interactive app that produced ‘endless music’: generative, ever-changing sounds and images that evolved according to randomised algorithms each time that the user listened.
So even if the album dies, it’s replacement won’t simply be a Spotify Discover Weekly playlist. Artists will continue to create, to innovate and to experiment, and the same developments in technology that now threaten the album have also created new possibilities, opening the door to a new musical landscape. At their core, albums were simply a way to organise and sell music. Music will always need to be categorised, and organised, but the question is how, and for what reasons: monetary or artistic. In the continuing battle between creativity and commerce, one would hope that the former comes out on top.