10/10/2012

The Album: Valid or Relic?

Although its existence precedes the '60s by several decades it was not until the second half of the decade that the album became the primary vehicle for artists to disseminate their work, in so far as the realm of popular music is concerned. What's more, it's no exaggeration to postulate it was not until The Beatles released their iconic Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band [Parlophone-1967] that the album truly established itself in this regard.

Previously, the 45 RPM single had occupied that distinction and the album was used simply as a collection of singles by any given artist. But the arrival of Sgt Pepper's changed both art and industry, and for over 40 years albums remained the undisputed medium for both the music and its distribution.The single was still an effective format, but the album remained king of the industry and ruled thusly. Yet, for reasons that could be discussed extensively elsewhere, the single began to lose its importance and began its relegation to a minor role, courtesy of many of the major labels who moved in that direction when the compact disc replaced vinyl as the primary pre-recorded format in the '90s. (Previously, and for a relatively short time, the pre-recorded cassette was the more popular format overall.)

Coincidentally, this was the golden age of the music industry in terms of revenue. And, in pursuit of greater sales figures, the single, according to some observers, was deliberately underminded by the major labels, which would have notable consequences. Traditionally, the single had been the introduction to record-buying for teens and pre-teens and other young people with limited incomes. And with many albums hovering around $18 at that time, much of this youth sector was marginalized. However, the industry was experiencing a level of earnings never seen before and paid little attention to cultivating the buying habits of a new generation.

But with the 21st century's advances in computer technology, as well as easier and faster internet access becoming more pronounced each day, the dissemination of music via the digital realm was directly affecting the dominance of the album. The arrival of the digital descendants of the Walkman, mainly the iPod, and virtual stores like iTunes, meant that the consumer would have the option to purchase their favorite music as individual songs, if they so wish, regardless of whether these were singles or not. This is the world we live in today.

These developments have prompted major artists like Pete Townshend, Elvis Costello, and Billy Corgan, among others, to consider the album a dead format from an artistic point of view, as the possibility of the consumer acquiring individual songs robs the artist of the power to determine how their work is heard, which, in artistic terms, was the album's main role. So the question is, what does this mean for the format? Will artists cease to create concept albums like Dark Side of the Moon, for example? Is the public's attention span no longer enough in this regard? Or will artists continue to make music that requires both time and effort from listeners, despite the new options available to them?

We feel it's important to take into account how the younger generation of music fans' consumer patterns and preferences manifest themselves from here on out. In other words, if consumers start their new musical adventures via albums that are considered classics of their respective genres, it is quite probable that they adopt the album as the format to absorb the work of the artist of their choice. (Provided the given artist still believes in the album as a format, of course.) On a personal note, and for many reasons, we would not like to see the album done away with as a musical statement. But we can not ignore the radical changes that have been carried out in recent years. That's why we believe it will be very interesting to witness the outcome of this particular situation and hope it is not detrimental to the music itself, or to the way its creators face these innovations, in terms of inspiration and approach. Let's see...

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