Is the Album Dead?

Shift to A La Carte Media Cuts into the Album's Cultural Clout



Boise band Finn Riggins had a lot going on when it put out its Benchwarmers EP in April 2012. Keyboardist Eric Gilbert was working on Treefort Music Fest, drummer Cameron Bouiss was planning a European tour with Hillfolk Noir and guitarist Lisa Simpson was working on various side projects. Though the band had enough material to do a full album, it wasn't just its schedule that drove the decision to make a shorter release.

"It just seems like a bite-size culture right now," Gilbert told Boise Weekly.

Physical album sales have been on the decline for more than a decade because of growth in the digital download market. Even including digital album sales in the numbers, total album sales have dropped by more than half, 330.5 million in 2011, from their peak at 785 million in 2000. And that drop occurred despite the number of songs digitally downloaded increasing from 141 million in 2004--the first full year measured--to 1.27 billion in 2011.

From the moment that CDs were introduced music has moved toward a la carte offerings. It's true that singles and 45s largely drove the market from the record industry's very beginnings, but they still had to be sought out and purchased, whereas streaming audio and video services like Spotify and YouTube have turned the prix fixe album industry into a dim sum audio buffet. Now, an endless supply of new songs, videos, playlists and downloads are delivered instantly to casual listeners.

This has caused some pundits to label the album dead. Op-eds in The Guardian, Gizmodo, Minnesota Public Radio and countless blogs have said so. Radiohead said it would abandon the format after In Rainbows because it was too cumbersome a process.

In an opinion piece on CNET, Shark Tank investor Mark Cuban went so far as to suggest that musicians abandon bundled collections of songs altogether and convert to a television model in which they release songs on a week-by-week basis that listeners can subscribe to via RSS feeds. That idea's not completely crazy or new. They Might be Giants gained notoriety with its Dial-a-Song answering machine started in the '80s, which was updated regularly with a new song. UK beat-boxing artist THePETEBOX gathered his following by releasing a regular series of live-performance videos, and later bundling that audio into an album.

Despite whatever sentimental attachments bands may have to the album format, any current act looking to succeed should ask itself if it would be better off putting its limited resources into high-quality singles and videos, and making the rest of its material exclusive to live performances rather than putting out a full record.

Across the board the answer is, "Probably not."

"I've had a lot of bands say 'this is the model we're going to do,' and then they haven't actually done it," said Jim Merlis, co-owner of Big Hassle Media, a publicity firm representing everyone from Typhoon and Beat Connection to legends Tom Petty and Ornette Coleman.

Merlis explained that, while it seems like less is more, it's actually far less effective.

"With an album, there's always sort of an event," he said. "When you're releasing a single or an EP, it's not as much of an event."

Merlis explained that an album grants a greater level of legitimacy and interest from a promotional perspective, representing a complete artistic statement to journalists, promoters and fans. The album is more of a full meal, not just a snack.

Steve Fulton, co-owner of Boise recording studio Audio Lab, said full albums are also more efficient to record.

"In the last three or four years, there's been more people coming in doing two songs, three songs, and they're not necessarily making a CD, they're putting them out on Reverb Nation, or whatever," said Fulton. "I always suggest that if they're going to take the time to set up and get drum tones, they should track the songs, even if they're not going to finish them. Then they can come back and not get charged for the same setup time."

With studio time costing an average of $60 an hour, setup costs add up quickly. Fulton says the limited resources of independent bands are stretched further by recording in bulk.

Both Fulton and Merlis said that albums also represent complete artistic statements, allowing a musician or band to check those songs off their list, then move on and grow as artists.

But still, album sales are down. Current music industry economics seem to indicate the consumer wants more choice, less cost and wider availability.

Another theory is that what's happening to the music industry has less to do with the death of the album and more to do with the bifurcation of the consumer market. Casual listeners are gaining more ways to listen casually without much time or financial investment on their part, and audiophiles are sinking deeper than ever into their album collections.

"It depends on what kind of experience you're looking for," said Michael Bunnell, owner of The Record Exchange and executive director of the Coalition of Independent Music Stores. "Do you want to have a rich experience or do you want to have a shallow experience?"

Vinyl album sales have quadrupled since 2006, even as quality and price have increased with the introduction of deluxe heavyweight editions of new albums.

"We're seeing people come into the vinyl section that never bought CDs because vinyl is sexy, and they like the way it sounds and they like the ritual," said Bunnell. "I think Record Store Day had a lot to do with the rebirth of vinyl. When that started five years ago, I would guess that 20 percent of people were putting vinyl releases out, mainly indie-centric. And now, you're not legitimate unless you put vinyl out."

Bunnell also said the albums that move the most copies are often sold with value-added content such as posters, T-shirts, digital download cards, additional singles or DVDs.

Often, the value added is the quality of the album itself. Great albums are more than just a collection of songs, they're a unique snapshot of an artist's creative period. And albums that hit that high standard still do quite well, many as expensive deluxe editions collectors covet.

"I think a lot of kids are realizing that experience can be richer, deeper, and there's a cultural side to it," Bunnell said. "It's like we lost them for 10 years, and now they're going, 'That scene looks pretty interesting."

The album's cultural clout may have diminished, but in the words of Mark Twain, reports of its death have been greatly exaggerated.

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