Friday, February 2, 2007

The “Death of the Album”, or the Revival?

Ever since Apple’s iTunes Music Service has become successful, I’ve been hearing opinions from all over bemoaning the “Death of the Album”. Here’s what people say: since it’s become easier to pick up music one song at a time, rather than having to buy an entire album of 12-15 songs, the album will lose relevance and die out, and singles will thrive. I’m not talking about the distribution model here (downloads vs. CDs), but the album as a concept. These people say that since I can download, say, “Vertigo” for 99 cents off an online music service, I don’t need to spent the 400-odd rupees that I would’ve paid otherwise to buy the CD of “How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb”. This, somehow, should worry the industry. To quote a Tribune article from December 2006:

‘Bob Merlis, a long-time executive with Warner Bros. Records and now a Los Angeles-based music industry consultant, said the iTunes phenomenon of purchasing individual songs "is not healthy for the music industry."

"It doesn't address something that albums and full CDs did, which is having a body of work from an artist," he said.

"It's so fragmented now. You get the song you like but you don't get to know the artist anymore. It encourages this rapid turnover," he added, pointing out that a band like U2 achieved its popularity because fans came to know them through a substantial body of work.

"If U2 came along right now, would they have the staying power? It would be very difficult to maintain that ongoing interest," Merlis said.’

I think they’re wrong – I think it’s great for the music industry in the long term. Somehow, when I think of the ability to download single songs off the net, I don’t think it’s the “Death of the album as we know it” – in fact, I believe the exact opposite is true. We’re in for a renaissance of the album as we know it – which is great news for music listeners.

The CD model as such promotes laziness on the part of the artist and the RIAA. Off-hand, how many albums can you think of where every song, or nearly every song, was great – and, given a choice, would’ve been worth buying stand-alone? The first few names that come to my mind are Dark Side of the Moon, the Wall, OK Computer, Ten, Dream Theater’s Scenes from a Memory…but a bulk of the albums I can think of from the last 20 years seem to fall into the following formula:

a) 2-3 “Star” songs – These get the most promotion, get videos made, etc, and are essentially meant to “carry” the album;

b) 4-5 mediocre songs;

c) Padding. After all, any CD has to have at least 12-13 songs, right?

So basically artists would sell $15 CDs on the basis of 3 songs, and everything was hunky-dory. Till iTunes came. Now, the Star songs will definitely sell – and fetch the band/RIAA $2-3. The mediocre songs will sell, but in fewer numbers. And the padding stays. Net income from the sale of the album: way lower.

So what happens? Bands are forced to innovate. They can either be satisfied with the $3-5 that the aforementioned formula would likely fetch them, or they can start working on making every single song good, so that people *want* to spend money on all 14-15 songs on the album. More concept albums will come in, with a theme tying together all the songs – and more concept albums, in my opinion, is definitely a good thing. There will also be more albums where nearly every song is a joy to hear.

I think the renaissance is already within striking distance. I can think of a whole lot of 2006 albums that I like listening to start-to-end, and not just a song or two: Belle & Sebastian’s The Life Pursuit, The Decemberists’ The Crane Wife, The Hold Steady’s Boys and Girls in America, RHCP’s Stadium Arcadium (coming after two very inconsistent albums, “By the Way” and Californication), Pearl Jam and quite a few more. Partly because of the reasons above and partly because of the rise of Indie bands, 2006 was a great year for music.

I’m hoping for even better in 2007.


Pranay Da Spyder said...

Naah, I kinda (surprisingly) agree with the RIAA.

You see, if I like a song by The Rasmus (for instance) - there is an adventure in going to buy the whole album. There will be 9 other songs I have not heard and I was sure I'd like a couple. It gave me a more in-depth idea of the band and made me a more devoted fan.

Now, with one song, its kinda lost that charm. Sure, its more capitalist, but I think art must be sold/purchased in 'packages' - Packages of creativity - otherwise its not art anymore is it - so singles are fine, coz theyre created 'singly', but albums, they need to explored as a package :-)

Vineet Khunger said...

Oh I totally agree - even I prefer listening to complete albums as opposed to just singles. But choice is always good - If I have reason to believe that there's only one good song on an album, I'm not forced to buy the whole thing!

Oh, and RIAA deserves no credit for that...the album's been around much longer than the RIAA!

ashwin said...

the 'single' concept's been around donkeys years...folks still buy albums for other things like

- having a collection
- artwork no death to albums...but no great shakes on innovation either...status quo...alls good! (extremely jobless...)

Vineet Khunger said...

CDs of singles can't really equate with songs for download on online music services, because singles would be sold for maybe half the price of the full CD, and feature 2 songs or so...too much incentive to upscale anyways!

So they were rather unlikely to shake up the album concept...

(rather jobless too..)

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