Scarcely a day goes by without some music industry commentator arguing that the album’s popularity is on the wane, that sales of both physical and digital collections are falling, that we all might as well just stick our songs up online one at a time, as we record them, a steady trickle to maintain a constant stream of traffic. A good currency for harvesting email addresses. After all, it might lead to t-shirt sales if we’re lucky.
Yes, the times they are a changin’ and the long player teeters on the brink of the pit.
BBC Four is commissioning documentaries with titles like The Golden Age Of The Album, which sounds worryingly similar to When Dinosaurs Walked The Earth, while big retailers like HMV – their species a major feature on the high streets of every town for generations – are now in administration.
Where does this leave the album? Everything hints at extinction. The evidence is falling together with a neatness that usually only hindsight affords us.
Or are we getting ahead of ourselves, distracted by the irresistible lure of tragedy?
The public’s attitude to the album is shifting in two key areas: one seems to centre on a confusion over dominant formats and the other concerns itself with the wider notion of ownership itself. Neither issue is restricted to the music business, though. File sharing/piracy got major headlines with the Napster free-for-all controversy of 1999, which meant that everyone became predisposed to seeing the MP3 as a a thing of little worth. The subsequent glut of torrent sites and the grudging too-little-too-late major label treaty with the likes of Spotify have only muddled and muddied things. But still, this is not peculiar to music. The film world is struggling with the same developments in technology and now the streaming services that are shaking the music market are taking similar bites out of cinema attendances and DVD sales. Not even good old trusty books are sacred. It’s only a matter of time before Kindles manage to simulate that lovely smell of old once-damp paperbacks.
It’s an on-demand society we’re moving into and people are travelling light. The idea of owning the physical artifact is becoming increasingly irrelevant.
And though I like artifacts of all kinds, I must admit that I’m encouraged by these developments. Particularly in music, the field in which I work. I like options. What works for one artist doesn’t necessarily work for another and, finally, after years and years of a single music business model – focused largely on a one-size-fits-all product that is expected to be as relevant to every kind of genre that each sequential youth movement can dream up – we at long last have choice. Albums don’t make sense for everyone. They never did. A pop act sticking a couple of singles in amongst an uneasy assortment of studio filler was always strange behaviour. So people don’t buy as many albums as they used to – well, maybe they just don’t buy as many bad albums? The way pundits are talking about it, one would be forgiven for assuming that someone had just burned the last surviving copy of Pet Sounds.
I’m hoping this shift in consumer behaviour will mean artists are encouraged (and indeed expected) to choose their own paths rather than fall into the same over-ploughed furrows. I know too many talented people pinning all their hopes on one great piece of work when really they should just be diving in and letting their minds get changed. If the LP is a delivery system that works for you and your audience then don’t let the pundits undermine your resolve. If, however, it’s just a PR prop, then maybe rethink where you’re investing your time and money.
Many albums mean far more to me than the artists who recorded them. Like a great gig, a great album is a moment in time, but one that endures beyond the treacheries of memory. That is its beauty. Sometimes those moments become cultural touchstones and sometimes they remain private indulgences. Moments rarely make sense in isolation, but they become part of the palette with which we colour our take on the world.
Format-wise, the entire debate about whether or not albums are now irrelevant is itself now irrelevant. When CDs took over, that was a decision made by labels based on manufacturing cost. They replaced the format and so the consumer had no choice but to replace their collections or fall behind the times. (It’s funny how often one hears the mid-90s cited as the glorious comparison to today’s paltry sales figures – but of course there were a lot of units being shifted then, because people were buying stuff they already owned!) But when MP3s started to take over, that was the decision of the public – a decision based on what was convenient for them as opposed to what was convenient for the labels. Now that the influence goes both ways, it almost feels tidal. The internet has made music distribution into a conversation rather than a transaction. If an artist or label says “I will only release this album on CD” then sooner or later someone in the audience will say “actually it’s not up to you anymore” and promptly convert the information on that CD into whatever their chosen device prefers. And in the same way, if enough people on a band’s mailing list express an interest in getting the songs printed as old piano rolls then that band might as well entertain the idea.
The shift we’re witnessing in the recordings market is not a development, nor is it evolution. It’s much more poetic than that. It is change.
But however these collections of songs are consumed – whether in a rigid linear narrative dictated by the artist or as a kind of aural pick-and-mix grazed on by the listener – the compulsion to create these works will not desert those that want to make them. We may change the way we access and engage with these records but, just as theatre and books have survived the onslaught of technology, so too will the album. There are some messages that can only be expressed over the course of a dozen songs with a slightly boring bit around tracks five and six – that’s just the way we’ve engineered our society to be.
‘Experts’ will always need to expound on something. The Death Of The Album is as relentlessly dull a subject as The Death Of Guitar Bands. It’s what music journalists churn out when they have a hangover. Most people tend to live their lives based on what makes sense to them and their existing templates; music fits around individual lifestyles, now more than ever before. Experts once thought movies would kill theatre, they thought TV would kill movies and now they think streaming will kill albums. But we’re just getting more options, that’s all. We’re spreading our chips around a bit more. I like the fact that I can arrange a bunch of my favourite songs into whatever order I like and save that playlist under the title Walking To Work #4 or zoom straight to a certain bit of a track and loop it all afternoon. My great pleasure when consuming music, however, is much the same as when consuming all sorts of art and entertainment: the moment when one can surrender oneself to it utterly and allow the artist to plot their own course.
So just as a label declaring “you must consume our products the way we want them to be consumed” is now met with a deafening “says who?” it’s only fair that when the pundits all go “the album is dead” the response should be exactly the same.
The relationship we have with albums is so often autobiographical. That’s the ownership issue here – not one of purchase, more one of partnership. An album is a fixed point, it is a monument immune to weather, it has a permanence that no artist can sustain in themselves. To paraphrase Shakespeare: “age cannot wither the album, nor custom stale its infinite variety.”