The End of an Era: The Death of the Album and Its Unintended Effects

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album covers
In his recent article, music industry analyst Rob Lefsetz expounds on the imminent death of the album release, citing a combination of technological and sociological factors that have rendered the once-predominant business model obsolete.  In a world of digital downloads, streaming, and a 24/7 news cycle, artists must strive to consistently remain within public consciousness, lest they be forgotten.  Waiting a year for the next album release simply no longer jives with contemporary music consumption behaviors. Lefsetz argues that a steady stream of single releases is the only way for an artist to endure in this media-laden world of endless diversions.
What does this mean for artistic development and the listener experience?
A shift in release model ultimately means a shift in output from the artist, which in turn means a shift in what the audience is exposed to.  Transitioning from an album-oriented release model to a single-only release model may precipitate several detrimental effects for artists and consumers.  Arguably, a single-centric universe may result in hampered creativity and expression for the artist, diminished fan loyalty, and increasingly limited opportunity for musical discovery for listeners.
Singles Were the Thing
The modern popular music industry has roots in a single-driven release environment. After World War 2, the smaller and less expensive 45 rpm record became popular with radio stations, juke joints, and teenagers with limited spending money.  The smaller size dictated fewer, shorter songs, usually with one song on each side. As artists tailored their content accordingly, the early days of 1950s rock and roll were characterized by the 45 and the single release (Katz 35).  Not surprisingly, this era placed immense importance on the concept of the hit song.  A song was treated as a commercial commodity; record labels reigned supreme and the concept of the rock star was born.  Songs were a product and adhered to a template – a very successful template that proved seminal for genre as we know it (Burns). Marketing a product was priority over artistic development, and, arguably, fan loyalty was rooted more firmly in pop-sensationalism than in genuine appreciation for talent.
When technology allowed for longer content at higher quality, the studio album was popularized in the 1960s (“About Vinyl Records”). Since the ‘70s, a single was customarily released in advance of an album for promotion.  If listeners liked the single, they’d purchase the whole album. For decades, this was the model that drove revenue for record labels (Seitz).  Why charge two dollars for the single when consumers are willing to purchase the single, plus 9 other tracks, for 15 dollars?  For a consumer who fell in love with a hit single, the record industry had him over the proverbial barrel.
Digital Set You Free
Access to the digital download largely released us from the grip of the album-centric business model.  If the advent of Napster infused one idea into public consciousness, it was that we no longer had to buy the album (Seitz).  If you liked that snappy, up-beat, fraternity-friendly hit single by Sugar Ray but were appalled to discover the rest of the album was actually a collection of hardcore nu-metal, all was not lost.  You could simply bypass the album and acquire the individual track.
Fiscally, it’s true that album releases no longer represent a sustainable business model, because fans are increasingly able to acquire the single separately from the album. The detriment lies not in the financial ramifications of a changing model, but the cultural and artistic effects that a single-only format may bring.
Putting Baby in the Corner
A single-only release model assumes every release must have independent mass appeal. It furthers the notion that every single has to be designed as a hit or it’s not worth the resources to produce, market, and release. This is problematic because it ascribes value only to music that appeals to a broad audience and ignores the experimental and the esoteric.  An album track may possess extreme artistic value and demonstrate ingenious creativity, but might not be viable as a commercial single.  Does this mean it is not worth the effort? Imagine if a concept album like a rock opera or the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band were instead applied to a single-only release format; it simply would not have translated.  In fact, such a work would likely never have been conceived at all.
Accepting that each song must carry itself presents a slippery slope into a mentality that devalues artistic experimentation or deviations from mainstream sensibilities. In the long run, this will stifle artistic creativity as musicians are compelled to conform to a template for mass appeal; this will prevent true fans from experiencing the artist’s full potential, forcing them settle for increasingly watered down and generic fare.
Tunnel Vision is Afoot
A single-only model threatens listener’s musical exploration, even more so in the era of the digital download where there isn’t at least a “B” side to the 45 rpm single. When a single is juxtaposed with other menu items, listeners are naturally inclined to explore them. Even in a digital download environment where songs are presented as an album, if a listener likes track 2, there’s a good chance they’re going to check out track 3. They may even prefer it to the promotional single, despite the track not being commercially viable as a stand-alone.  Regardless of whether they liked it, the listener will have gained exposure to a musical work they would not have otherwise encountered. The single is valuable as an initial draw, but also allows a listener to segue into an organic discovery of music.  Through this lens, a stand-alone release carries less value.
Survival of the Fittest
Some artists are successfully sticking to the album-centric model. Beyonce’s latest self-titled album sold 80,000 digital copies in its first 3 hours, topped the Billboard 200 and was the fastest selling item in the history of the iTunes store, selling a million digital copies in 6 days (CBS News). Sold as a single package, there was no promotional single and zero publicity– which led to the ultimate buzz when fans received the surprise announcement. The ambush release, which included an accompanying video for each song, was a unique release experience that showcased the value of a holistic album format adapted to a new media environment.  Right now, however, only artists of the highest celebrity caliber are likely to benefit from this kind of release model.
Proceed with Caution
Of course, this is relevant specifically within the context of music acquisition and ownership.  Now, as streaming has begun to replace the digital download, it will be interesting to observe how this will impact listeners’ exploration and exposure — or will they target the same things?
Overall, an album-centric release model may not make sense in a 21st century market, but we should consider the implications of this shift on our creative output and musical intelligence.  Removing a song from the context of an album isolates it as a single artistic work when it may have otherwise been only one element of a larger expression. It forces a track to carry more commercial weight, fostering conformity to a song-writing template for mass appeal.  Through albums, artists share a collection of songs that complement each other and showcase musical versatility. Stand-alone releases effectively put blinders on listeners who are more likely to explore music when presented with options.  Becoming acquainted with an artist’s musical catalog allows listeners to understand and appreciate it; appreciation begets loyalty, and loyalty is vital to career longevity.  Shorter career lifespans are likely on the horizon for the modern performer.

Works Cited

“About Vinyl Records.” Record Collectors Guild. N.p., n.d. Web. 15 Nov. 2013.
“Beyonce’s Album Success May Rewrite Music Industry Rules.” Weblog post. CBS News. CBS Interactive, Inc., 17 Dec. 2013. Web. 22 Dec. 2013.
Burns, Joe. “The Music Matters: An Analysis of Early Rock and Roll.” Soundscapes Online Music Journal 6 (2003): n. pag. Web. 17 Nov. 2013.
Katz, Mark. Capturing Sound: How Technology Has Changed Music. N.p.: University of California, 2010. Georgetown University. Web. 17 Nov. 2013.
Lefsetz, Bob. “Katy Perry’s ‘Prism’ a Good Example of How Albums Don’t Work Anymore.” Variety. Variety Media, LLC, 13 Nov. 2013. Web. 14 Nov. 2013.
Seitz, Dan. “Pop Didn’t Eat Itself: Why Piracy Didn’t Destroy the Music Industry.” Web log post. UPROXX. Uproxx Media, 4 Oct. 2011. Web. 15 Nov. 2013.