Albums are the musician’s artistic statement to the world as well as the soundtracks to our lives. But is the album nearing the end of its relevancy in today’s music market? According to an article from The Guardian, it is only a matter of time before the album is rendered a relic of music culture. As a whole, CD and digital sales are declining. Of course, there are some recent exceptions (Adele’s 21 and Taylor Swift’s Red, anyone?) but even some of 2013’s most buzzworthy pop artists (Katy Perry’s Prism, Miley Cyrus’ Bangerz) are falling short of expectations for their initial sales numbers, despite massive promotional pushes from their teams. They can roar and break down those walls all they want, but it has become a major challenge for musicians to reach their album sales goals.
All we hear is how illegal file downloading and audio streaming are killing the industry, and how the quality of today’s music is subpar, but really, it all comes down to the fact that the way we listen to music has changed. In order to save the state of the album, we need to look at how our consumption habits have transformed in the twenty-first century (with the rise of digital) and how these factors affect our purchasing decisions.
- ACCESSIBILITY – In the past, you had to buy CDs in order to hear all of the songs on the album. Because you had bought the CD, you felt compelled to listen to the album in its entirety, and you eventually grew to enjoy a majority of the songs. Did that sound familiar? Now, thanks to the internet, music has been made much more reachable. We can listen to music anywhere – on our phones, on our tablets, on our laptops – and everywhere, at our convenience. Streaming services such as Spotify, Soundcloud, and YouTube, along with exclusive premieres and album leaks, allow us to preview full albums free of charge, and often unlimitedly too.
- CUSTOMIZATION – We have the ability to organize our music libraries any way we like. Using iTunes, Spotify, and 8tracks, we arrange playlists according to our personal preferences; online radio services such as Songza and Rdio offer customly-crafted stations by mood, theme, and occasions, and serves as a reputable tool for music recommendations. Giving consumers the choice to select the music they want is crucial to the state of music today. Songs need to have replay value in order to be considered worth the investment; people don’t want to pay a lot of money if they only like part of an album.
- TIME – The world has become a 140 character, 6 second video type of place, and frankly, we don’t have the time (or want to dedicate the time) to listen to a musician’s full length, hour long statement. This is partly why The Single Model has dethroned the album – to better capture the intrigue and interest of the audience with one impactful hit. A prime example of this trend is Miley Cyrus – her singles “We Can’t Stop” and “Wrecking Ball” soared and stayed at #1. As The Guardian reports, if the music industry’s TEA (track equivalent albums) measure, which counts ten track sales as equivalent to the sales of one album. is used, Bangerz, which sold 245K in its first week, would have seen its sales triple.
- STAR POWER – A new album is the central marketing vehicle for the promotion of an artist. Who can forget Britney’s Oops… era and Christina’s Stripped years in the early 2000s? These days, there are lots of female singers in competition with each other to be at top of the pop charts – Katy, Miley, Britney, Gaga, Rihanna, etc, and more examples can be made of musicians in other genres. How do people decide who to listen to? Fans will give their support to artists to whose talent AND personality they consider to be favourable – likability is a key factor in building a loyal and dedicated fanbase. While this has been known for decades, maintaining a musical and personal connection with fans is especially important in ensuring longevity in today’s overwhelmingly oversaturated market. People will buy music from artists they can count on.
- QUALITY – There is widespread distrust among consumers with the music industry’s current business model. Fans have to wait for artists during their hiatuses in-between album eras. When they re-emerge for their comeback, the strike-while-the-iron’s-hot ideology encourages labels to capitalize on their artist’s popularity right away, resulting in overexposure, rushed albums, and the compromise of artistic vision. While I don’t ascribe to the view that the quality of music as a whole has hit rock bottom (every decade has its good and bad music), I believe this displeasure has more to do with the selection of album tracks itself – many full length pop albums have 2-3 great songs surrounded by lots of filler, which isn’t a wise purchase to make. If the industry sees thought-out, cohesive concept albums that tell a story as a risk, why not try out the EP model? A compilation of five single-worthy songs will do the job of holding on to audience interest, and possibly even better.
Personally, I still buy albums. They are among my most prized possessions and I always make room on my cluttered shelves and hard drives for my music collection. I also advocate for the importance of the physical album. Although liner notes (with its lyrics, dedications, and photos) are no longer exclusive to the CD format, there’s nothing like having the hard copy in your hands and appreciating the artistry of the product before you. And if you’re fortunate enough to attend an artist’s concert and get your album signed, it makes for an incomparable keepsake.
Is the album salvageable? I think this downward trend in sales will continue, but since the music industry has a history of moving in cycles of recline and revival, I’m hopeful that the album will boom again with the emergence of a game-changing record, and I can’t wait to hear it!
Do you still listen to full albums? What was the last album you purchased, and why?