Everyone is freaking out about the death of the album, but they’re both overestimating how important albums were in the past and underestimating how important they are now.
It’s impossible to overestimate how much the internet is changing every aspect of our lives. As its reach continues to expand at a bewildering rate — about 230 million new people gain internet access in their home each year — every industry is freaking out adapting to what might be the most important technological shift in history. The music industry, of course, is no exception, as everyone involved is trying to figure out exactly what its new sustainable business model looks like (and asking if there might be more than one sustainable model). But as streaming services become the predominant way we access music, more and more people — critics, artists, industry people — seem to agree that albums probably won’t be around for much longer. They’re a leftover from the pre-internet era, they say, and within a few years they’ll be completely gone.
I’m pretty skeptical about this because musicians have been threatening to stop making albums for years and I can’t think of one who’s gone through with it. But I can admit that it’s hard to not be sympathetic to the idea that in a few decades we’ll look back at albums as being archaic. Here’s the line of thinking: albums started to lose their sheen when people started downloading them. There was a certain appeal that came with holding a physical object that we bought from an actual record store. Once our albums became collections of intangible mp3 files they lost the sense of being a complete package. And as our attention spans continue to get shorter and shorter in the internet era, coupled with how easy its become to pick and choose anything we want to listen to at a moment’s notice, albums seem less appealing than ever. Asking someone to listen to a single artist for 45 minutes straight is like asking someone in 2016 to read War and Peace. There’ll always be a brave few who take on the task, but the increasingly restless majority won’t be able to sit still long enough. As a generation who consistently looks at two or three screens at a time, aren’t we gonna get bored after the 11th straight Sia song?
And the numbers seem to back this up. In a recent study, it was found that people only go to albums 22% of the time they listen to music. Most of the time they’re listening to either single songs or curated playlists, the industry’s big new trend.
This is either wonderful or awful depending on who you ask. For some artists, like Chance the Rapper, who gleefully declared this past week that albums are obsolete, albums are simply an archaic tool used by record labels to make money. For him, the death of the album opens up tons of possibilities in creating and promoting music in new and interesting ways, away from the out of touch dinosaur labels that run the music industry.
But for many music fans, the disappearance of the album would be more than just a shift in the industry, it would ruin music as we know it. For the past 50 years, the album has been recognized as the pinnacle of artistic creativity, where artists can create cohesive masterpieces that are more than simply a collection of songs. We’re incredibly defensive over the cannon: no matter the genre, we hold up classic albums like Illmatic, OK Computer, Sgt. Pepper, and Innervisions with holy reverence. That’s why calling someone a singles artist is such a hurtful insult — until you make a classic album, you haven’t truly reached greatness in the world of music.
I’m an album person myself, so I get why this is such a big deal. But while everyone is freaking out about the death of the album, they’re both overestimating how important albums were in the past and underestimating how important they are now. The recent studies that show that we only listen to albums about one-fifth of the time aren’t revealing anything new, they’re simply giving us stats that reflect how we’ve always interacted with music. The majority of fans have always wanted different types of listening experiences and as much as we value albums, they’ve never been the primary way we’ve experienced music.
But just as much as we love when curators shape what we listen to, we also, at other times, want the exact opposite experience of taking control of our music and shaping it ourselves. Obviously, now that we can make our own huge playlists and change songs instantaneously this is easier to do than ever — thankfully, the days of getting off the couch and hitting next on the CD player, or, God forbid, fast-forwarding a cassette is a very distant memory. But many critics are being short-sighted in thinking that our ability to create our own listening experiences is killing the album. Fans have been making their own playlists for decades, whether it’s by making mixtapes or burning CDs. But it’s never been just about cherry picking our favorite songs from the albums we bought and discarding the filler tracks we didn’t care about, although that’s part of it. It comes down to wanting to create something of our own, a brand new creation that’s different from any album that’s been handed to us.
But in the same way that mixtapes and burned CDs didn’t kill the album, neither will our ability to make playlists on streaming services. We continue to put a lot of faith in DJs and playlist curators, but we care just as much, if not more, about how artists intend for their work to come across. This taps into something deeper than music — we feel this way about all forms of art. We’re obsessed with experiencing artworks the way the artist originally intended for them to be experienced, which is why when someone alters a famous painting, or makes changes to a classic play, there’s an uproar like someone desecrated a religious monument. Similarly, it bothers us when record companies force artists to alter their albums, it comes across as incredibly insulting to both the artists and their fans.
Artists will always want to combine their songs into bigger projects and in the same way there’s a certain allure with hearing a curated playlist, there’s an even bigger allure in hearing the artist’s vision for how they want their work to be heard in a larger whole.
Of course, this is only sometimes true because sometimes we really don’t care what the artist thinks. It’s important we try not to get too romantic about this and pretend that we always held up albums as some untouchable, pristine objects. Even when traditional album sales were through the roof, fans would often buy albums just to listen to the singles. Just look back at some of the best selling albums from the 90s, when albums sold particularly well. Do you really think most people that bought the Chili Peppers’ Blood Sugar Sex Magik album actually regularly listened to the whole thing? Of course not! It’s 74 minutes long! Most people just listened to “Under the Bridge,” “Give it Away” and “Breaking the Girl” and buying the album was the easiest way to get those songs. Since most of us spend at max ten dollars a month on music nowadays, it seems kind of ridiculous that millions of people would weekly go to Sam Goody and spend 20 dollars (!) on a new album to only listen to three songs from it, but we all did it. It’s one of those weird, irrational cultural phenomena, like how people buy tons of books they’ll never read. For God’s sake, the Titanic soundtrack went diamond, and that’s just “My Heart Will Go On” with an hour of orchestral music from the movie. It’s just what people did back then. Even when albums were the most important and celebrated way to get music, they weren’t nearly as important as we remember them to have been.
The funny thing is that for all the doom and gloom about the fate of the album, what 2016 has shown us is that, in a certain way, albums are thriving more than ever. Although the surprise album trend has at times seemed like a gimmick, the fact that many of the biggest artists are choosing to drop entire, complete albums as events, seems to me to reflect that albums are being listened to in their entirety more than they have since the 70s AOR (album-oriented rock) boom. Up until very recently, big albums would have huge rollouts with a first, and even sometimes second, single months in advance. Because of that fans would already know the songs they were going to flock to before they put on the record. Now, fans are instantly absorbing albums as a whole and discussing them in their entirety on social media. And yes, many fans will then pick certain songs off these albums that they like more than others and put them on their custom playlists. If the stats are correct, they’ll be doing so about 78% of the time. That sounds about right.