Albums – A thing of the past?
March 25, 2014 | By: Martin Said
Albums – A thing of the past?
In 1877, the Phonograph was invented by Thomas Edison, the first piece of technology capable of playing recorded sound. The device, also know as a Gramophone, would record sound onto a tinfoil cylinder, which could then be played back by a stylus that would trace waveforms through vibrations as the cylinder turned. Then, at the turn of the 20th century, the Gramophone record was created. A form of analog sound storage, a flat disc of polyvinyl chloride with inscribed spiral grooves around it. By 1948, this evolved into the Long Play format, or the LP. A 12-inch vinyl record made to be played at 33⅓ revolutions per minute (RPM). This would set the standard for all recorded music for years to come. In the early 1960’s, the cassette tape was introduced. A much smaller yet more durable form of music storage, it quickly became an appropriate rival to the vinyl record. Then, in 1982, the Compact Disc, or CD was made commercially available. A revolutionary piece of technology, it acted as a rather “futuristic” version of the vinyl record, yet with clearer sound than its wax predecessor, and the widely popular plastic cassette tape.
These three formats waged war against each other throughout the next 20-something years, until the 1990’s hit and the CD quickly became the most predominantly distributed product, as the record had ceased production by 1991, and cassette tapes were dying out due to their muffled and gradually warbling quality being nothing compared to the compact discs crisp and clean sound. But why is this all important? Well, it’s because of this long winded history of musical storage technology that we now have something that has acted as the centerpiece of the whole of the music industry for so many years – the Album.
The album is arguably the reason that music is such an integral part of society today. Without it, music history would be nothing but a scrambled mess of individual songs by different artists. The album contains the best an artist can offer up and will give it out in one blocked package. 8 songs, 12 songs, 20 songs. It varies greatly, and we have the aforementioned forms of record, tape and CD to thank for it. But as the 1990’s came to a close, the internet moved music accessibility into the digital age. MP3 became the norm and to this day it rules the music industry. And with this, comes a sad fact – the music album is dying.
Very early on in 2001, iTunes was launched by computer giant Apple. The online service allowed users to select a full album, browse and preview all of its songs, and purchase individual songs from it. Nothing out of the ordinary by today’s standards, but back then it was a major thing. If you liked a song on an album, you had to go out and buy the physical copy. Buying a CD or Tape from a store was inconvenient and costly. You’d find the album you want, check the tracklisting on the back of the plastic case and if your desired song was on it, you’d buy it. This greatly fueled sales of music for many years, as the only other people who would commit to shelling out the £15 plus price tag for an artists full length were the dedicated fans and hardcore music lovers. The general consumers were spending a great deal of cash just for one or two songs, but iTunes changed that. Whilst it is a revolutionary piece of technology, it has caused peoples interest in full albums to dwindle. As a dedicated buyer of full albums on both physical formats and online outlets, I’m constantly being told by friends and the like that they “love that one song by that band, but that’s it.” or “I wouldn’t buy a full album by them.” Fair enough, but if the audience isn’t interested in anything but just a couple of individual songs from an artist, then why should they put out anything more than that?
Although this occurrence seems to have gone mainly unquestioned, some big names in the industry have addressed it. Mark Hoppus of blink-182 fame has expressed a desire for his iconic pop-punk trio to stick to releasing strictly EP’s in future, after their success with the 5-track offering Dogs Eating Dogs, released independently through digital services in 2012. Machine Head’s Robb Flynn has also directly addressed the matter, and also discussed how his band could distribute music in the future in a post on the bands official blog:
I used to be a staunch believer that the world isn’t waiting for a quickly-delivered Machine Head album, they’re just waiting for a great Machine Head album. And while I still believe that, in the 10 years between TTAOE, TB, and UTL, the world stopped caring as much about great “albums”. People want great songs, and while great albums are appreciated, they don’t mean what they used to.
…let me put it out to you: How do YOU want Machine Head’s music? Do YOU want a CD? Do YOU want a Spotify stream? Do YOU want the ease of an iTunes download? Do YOU want vinyl with that digital download? Do YOU want a new/different configuration no one has thought about/offered? A guitar that plays the whole record through a USB plug? A calendar-sized booklet with nothing but a download code?
On top of this, popular bands such as punk/electronic hybrid heroes Enter Shikari have shied away from showing any interest in releasing another full length any time soon. The St Albans 4-piece released 3 individual songs digitally over the course of 2013, and claimed they weren’t part of a new album, and that the group hadn’t even started planning their next one, following A Flash Flood of Colour released in early 2012. The 3 songs were strictly 3 songs. No album to put them to. Just quick convenient songs released for their fans to digest, and they were received brilliantly. So is this how music is now? Has the world become too obsessed with quick convenient “fast food” music? Haven’t we got the time for a 50 minute long album anymore? I disagree, but unfortunately this seems to be the case.
And of course, with this comes the fall of what we originally started this ramble with – physical forms of music. Ask your average music fan and they will tell you that digital distribution is the way forward. Truth be told, I can’t thing of anyone off the top of my head that I know will still happily purchase a newly released £10 CD from a shop. I mean just look, even Robb Flynn admitted he’s gone entirely digital. Even the aforementioned Mark Hoppus claims to solely support iTunes:
“I don’t stream or buy CDs… pretty much everything I buy I do it on iTunes. I miss the experience of walking into a record store and find old stuff without expecting to. You don’t get that experience anymore, talking to people in-store. But now, at least, I can buy music at 2am in my underwear. I like that. I like the convenience of buying music in my underwear.”
When it comes to the everyday consumer though, the constant complaint I hear against buying physical music is the price. “I don’t like paying £10 for an album I can just get on iTunes for £5 in a few weeks time.” Is that really the case though? The last CD I bought brand new from HMV was £7.99, which is a more than reasonable price. I have an Eminem CD that was bought in the early 2000’s that still has its Virgin Megastores price sticker intact, one that boasts a £15.99 price tag, with an offering of a 4 for £40 deal. The price of music in 2014 definitely isn’t an issue when you compare it to that. As a former employee of two seperate HMV stores, I can say that during my time working with the company, CD’s seemed to be their leading seller. So maybe it’s not all bad?
Artists have also started to stretch the capabilities of releasing full length albums. Some bands have started to release double albums, and even trilogies. Take Biffy Clyro with their 2013 double effort Opposites which hit no. 1 on the UK album charts. Green Day released their trio of albums Uno, Dos and Tre in 2012 that were a huge success. Other bands such as Stone Sour and Coheed and Cambria have also delved into the double album territory. Bands such as Angels & Airwaves have also explored other forms of media to be released alongside their albums, such as their space epic LOVE, that came packaged as a sci-fi movie, a double album and a graphic novel, with the albums acting as a soundtrack companion to the motion picture. Musicians can claim that all of these extensive products are due to an overwhelming surge of creativity, which is definitely a fair claim. But one can’t help but wonder if these extras are just to tempt in consumers to actually pay attention to their albums, instead of that one You Me At Six song that’s always on the radio.
When it comes down to it artists can do what they want with their talents and that’s fine. I respect that, but I can’t help but fear for the art of the album. Nothing will ever beat the feeling of going to a shop, buying a physical copy of an album, and taking it home to listen to from start to finish. Quick and easy one-off songs are all well and good but I’m always left wanting more. The fact is that in the future, the music industry may have to succumb to the more convenient lifestyles of its audiences to stay working as a predominant factor in pop culture, which means these hour long pieces of art, may be quickly becoming a thing of the past. Pieces of art that define the thing we love most. Pieces of art that artists put years of life and soul into. Pieces of art that have stood the test of time. Pieces of art that people hold specific emotional connections to. Pieces of art that we grew up with, and our parents grew up with. Pieces of art that may not be with our children as they grow up. If full length albums die out, then so will a major part of what makes music such a beautiful phenomenon.