11/09/2013

The enduring appeal of the album


It’s getting on for fifteen years now, possibly longer, that people have been predicting the end of the album. By 2013 albums (or LPs or records as we used to call them) were not supposed to exist, instead we would just download individual songs and a whole generation of musicians and consumers would not even think about releasing or buying an album. Instead something odd has happened. While more people now download music than buy a physical product, the album as a concept has endured. People can re-arrange the tracks or scatter them about but they still buy albums. Highly touted young artists and bands still talk of releasing their first album as if there were no alternative. Even those no longer signed to big record companies who release their own music still bundle tracks together and call it an album. 
Once upon a time buying music looked like this

The fact is that despite all the technology and all the predictions the album is still the universally accepted measure of an artist. It is something of an achievement to release a collection of songs rather than drip feed them over months. It remains a recognised method of showcasing an artist, something than can be analysed, collected, rewarded. Something that gives you the measure of what their music is like. For the artist it is a body of work that feels more substantial than releasing songs here and there. Albums also become signposts of an artist’s development; recently for example you can see the way Arctic Monkeys’ musical journey has developed over the course of five albums. Plus, if you like a song by someone then it stands to reason you’d like to hear another one. And another. Surely it is cheaper and more sensible to band together about 12 of them at once?

Some albums develop a cultural significance to the point where their artwork becomes a recognisable icon like say Dark Side of the Moon or else they represent a moment of change like Never Mind the Bollocks. The art form was exploited to some extent during the 1980s when almost every song from an album would subsequently be released as a single. While that practice has become largely redundant now we have the ability to select a track in isolation to buy there is still a focus on the best songs; these have become the singles of today. They perform the same function which is to draw attention to the album. Besides, even in the 70s or 80s many people would only buy albums and not bother with singles which were comparatively more expensive per track.

The one thing that has been lost is the art of the running order. In the old days an album would be set in stone; without manual intervention track 1 was always tract 1 and so on. You could skip or go back to a track if you wanted but the artist would decide the order in which they felt the songs should be heard and often there was thought behind their choices. I remember people would argue about what would have made a better opening track on an album. Imagine!

The reason the album has endured is because it makes sense. Even by collecting tracks from an artist we are effectively creating our own albums. More than that, it has become a measure of quality and effort. Whatever technological advances have happened albums have remained and look likely to endure for some considerable time yet.

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