The album will never be the commercial force it once was—but it’s a long way from dying out. Here’s why.
The music album is dead. We’ve heard this refrain before, from Rolling Stone, from the lords of Silicon Valley, from legions of analysts, journalists, investors, and other fortune-tellers of the business world. Massive commercial interests are aligned in favor of killing the physical album; though the music industry was slow to adapt to the rise of the internet and redesign their business model to make digital music profitable, that work is now accomplished and physical media are now of little use to the big record companies. If they could get away with it, I’m sure Warner Music Group or some similar colossal conglomerate, or all of them, would rapidly discontinue physical media sales and relieve themselves of the effort and expense (the same thing to a businessperson; time is money and money is time). But the music album—thirty to eighty minutes of music (with rare outliers in either direction) crystallized into a physical commodity, a thing you can hold and that you can own even if you don’t own its contents, has proven to be far more resilient than the prophets of the digitalization of music ever predicted. And even if the compact disc entirely disappears—and there are good reasons to expect it will not—other forms of physical recording from the past have stepped up to replace it. Albums, self-contained works of music sold as physical products, must fulfill some kind of very deep, irreplaceable need for music listeners. In this article I intend to unpack why albums came to be in the first place, why they are under threat, and why, at this point, those threats are unlikely to lead to the album’s extinction anytime soon.
The album, of course, dates back only to the introduction of phonograph records, before which any sort of commercial music recording was utterly impossible. However, even in previous centuries, where all music was ephemeral, conjured from a score, from memory, or from improvisation by musicians in the moment only to immediately disappear the moment it is heard, pieces of multiple movements with an album-like format—dance suites, sonatas, cantatas, the earliest symphonies, and others—entered the historical record almost immediately with the secularization of music during the Reformation and ensuing Baroque period (sadly, folk music of this era has been almost entirely lost as very little of it was ever written down and much of it was impossible to score with the techniques of the era). These pieces originally started out on average fairly short, but grew over time to fit almost perfectly within the usual range of modern album lengths, reaching about forty minutes (the length of an average LP record) at the end of the Classical period and getting a bit longer over the course of the Romantic. Of course there are many exceptions and outliers, and other formats that do not correspond at all to this range, but a set of movements that form a single work that lasts a bit less than an hour is a pattern we see crop up again and again from the Baroque all the way up the present, at least in Western and Western-influenced cultures (which, due to imperialism, now encompass nearly the entire world).
Now the album itself didn’t actually start out that way. The earliest albums from the dawn of the 20th century were indeed albums, a set of individual 78 rpm records, each holding only a few minutes of music due to the limitations of the technology of the era, and were not ready-made collections but mere receptacles into which one would insert one’s own records, to organize them and protect the extremely fragile shellac discs (often sold without jackets of any kind) from the elements, the shelf, and each other. As the price of equipment fell and quality of recordings rose during the 1930s, along with the radio bringing recorded music into the homes of ordinary people (thus spurring more people to invest in record players to listen to recordings on their own terms), record companies began issuing their own sets of up to four 78s, complete with protective binding that contained artwork and often liner notes—the precursors to the modern record jacket. These were usually compilations of previously released work, not unique works, and due to their exorbitant cost and the poor economic conditions of the time they were rare compared to singles and most common in classical music, where they allowed longer compositions to be recorded in full for the first time, albeit with frequent gaps to change sides.
Things changed after World War II brought about extraordinary leaps forward in electronics and materials science, along with the social-democratic policies of Western countries after the war leading to an age of unprecedented prosperity and abundance. Columbia Records introduced the 33⅓ rpm long-playing (LP) record, with a slow rotation speed and incredibly small stylus and groove allowing for over twenty minutes of music per side for only a fraction of the cost of a heavy, bulky, shatter-prone album of 78s. However, the LP first caught on largely with classical, jazz, and soundtrack music, as the pop side of the music industry was still wedded to the single, now sold as a more durable and convenient 45 rpm disc with a similar groove design to the LP. The popular music album began to arise in the early 1960s as an affluent and educated generation of young people, the Baby Boomers, riding a wave of general prosperity, gained power and confidence to envision long works of pop music to rival jazz albums like Kind of Blue and Time Out. Whereas the few pop albums that once existed were mostly compilations like their 78 rpm multi-disc forebears, bands like the Beatles and Frank Zappa’s Mothers of Invention sought to create a new sort of album, an integrated album with a beginning, an end, and a logical flow from track to track in the vein of the classical suites of old—but these were not ivory-tower creations meant to appeal to the sensibilities of Baroque counts and princes, but long-form works of art meant to bring the ambition and subtlety of classical music into a form meant to appeal to the masses.
The impact of this change can hardly be overstated. Within ten years, the pop album evolved from a grab-bag of old singles intended to milk the last few dollars out of commercially spent work to huge, sweeping works of art like Stevie Wonder’s Music of My Mind, Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On and Jethro Tull’s Thick as a Brick, symphonies and suites for the modern era that dispensed with the convoluted theory and aristocratic posturing of classical music while striving to maintain the real erudition that lay underneath the fancy dress codes and fossilized forms of the 20th century symphony. With the massive artistic and commercial success of the prog rock, psychedelic soul, funk, and other new styles of the early ‘70s, the musicians, long the servants of the great record companies, began to acquire more and more control and autonomy. Album budgets rose and profit margins shrank as what would have once been surplus value that accrued to the record companies and their shareholders now was absorbed by the production of the records themselves, to realize the artists’ expansive—and expensive—visions. There was no going back to the age of singles, as truly “going back” to a previous state of being in any aspect of life, economy, politics, or technology is always impossible, and in an age of LP records selling by the millions, 45 rpm singles with only two songs were an unattractive value proposition for many consumers, but from the industry’s point of view, the album—and the musicians whose work was primarily released in that format—had to be brought under control.
The economic crisis of the mid-1970s brought tensions not just in the music industry, but in nearly all industries in the developed world, to a head, and the industry struck back aggressively starting around 1974. While rock and R&B/soul were really two sides of one cultural zeitgeist, the record industry had finally succeeded in separating them in the early ‘70s, and the rift between the two was now an irreconcilable schism, preventing ideas from one side from easily crossing over to the other, stunting their growth—and reducing their bargaining power. At the same time, American imperialism was spreading American-style music all over the world, but American music shut itself off from these reflections—and shut black American musicians off from the international African disapora, depriving them of the cross-cultural influences that continually refreshed African-American music as one style grew stale or was co-opted by white profiteers. Those in the popular music avant-garde with the most mass appeal, like the aforementioned Stevie Wonder or Pink Floyd, managed a few more years of relative autonomy, but for most of the smaller artists, it was go mainstream, go home, or go underground, the latter of which only offered a longer, slower artistic death trapped in one of a kaleidoscope of numerous but extremely restrictive new subgenres defined more as sets of aesthetics than cultural movements. These new subgenres and sub-subgenres produced a plethora of albums, to be sure, but the album, and the music associated with albums, had ceased evolving. The new albums were just like the old albums, but with a this or that sort of singing style, or a distinctive rhythmic pattern, or a characteristic production. It was as if, for these genres, the dialectic of history had somehow been suspended.
The albums of the 1980s may have been compromised compared to the grand visions of the late 1960s and early 1970s, but the album—now available on compact cassettes as a cheaper alternative to the LP—remained the core product of the various genre musics (punk, metal, modern country, R&B-rap crossover, etc.) that had evolved out of the ruins of the old “big tent” rock and R&B/soul movements. Soon to join them was a third main format, the digital compact disc, nearly as small and tough as a cassette but with audio quality that exceeded all but the most luxurious record pressings. The CD took some years to gain popularity due to the price of early CD players, manufacturing defects leading to the infamous “disc rot” that destroyed millions of discs, and various extremely stupid and crass decisions made by record companies—pricing them above LPs for market segmentation despite their much lower cost of production; bulky, ugly, and wasteful custom packaging applied over the standardized jewel cases; and shoddy analog-to-digital conversions that damaged the sound quality of many early CDs severely, among others. However, their combination of the portability of a cassette and the audio quality of an LP, combined with the explosive popularity of the Discman, which allowed people to listen to LP-quality music anywhere, anytime, led to the CD quickly displacing both of its rival formats by the early 1990s. Even record collecting guides of the ‘90s admitted that vinyl seemed like it was soon to die for good.
However, in the ‘90s, something remarkable happened. The people who grew up with LP albums were now middle-aged and affluent, and adopted yet another new technology, the personal computer, and with it a distributed worldwide communication platform, a network of networks, the infant Internet. When server-based software to process credit card transactions became practical, one no longer had to schlep a box of old records around the local stores hoping to get a reasonable trade-in value, but rather those old records could be sold, individually, to customers all over the world, who wanted that particular record (a record they had as children, perhaps, or one they wish they had) and were willing to pay good money, sometimes much greater than its original retail price, to get it. A plethora of record dealers were just an AltaVista or Lycos search away (Google was not yet a twinkling in Sergey Brin’s eye), and anyone with a decent-sized record collection, a dial-up modem, and the money to pay for hosting could get in on the action. While the pioneers of this market were soon driven under or forced to find new markets by the colossus of eBay, the future of the LP as a collector’s item and an object of nostalgia was firmly established.
That was not the only trick the computer had, though. Like the compact disc, computers worked with digital information, and a CD-ROM drive and simple software “codec” could turn any computer into a device for playing CDs—and archiving their contents. While hard drives of the time, rarely exceeding a gigabyte, would struggle to accommodate the contents of even one CD, a German company had developed a form of lossy audio encoding that threw out the parts of a music recording determined by extensive studies to be least important to the human brain and compressed the remaining data, shrinking the amount of space consumed by a music recording by 90% or more. This technology, MPEG Layer 3 or simply MP3, went hand-in-hand with the emerging internet, allowing music lovers to trade their favorite songs and, with the advent of broadband making large transfers practical, their favorite albums, for free, behind the backs of record companies, first on secretive Usenet groups and then on huge peer-to-peer filesharing services like Napster and Kazaa.
Overnight, the entire business model of the record industry, which at the time, though more diversified than in previous decades, still about selling records, whether the discs be large and black or small and shiny, was thrown into existential peril. For the cost of a few kilojoules of electricity apiece, albums could not just be duplicated a few times with increasingly dismal sound quality, but duplicated infinitely, at the highest quality the bandwidth of sharers and service could bear. When the recording industry controlled the distribution of recordings, the capital and labor that went into making an album was recouped along with a healthy profit margin, from the sale of those recordings at prices fixed by the industry. But if digital recordings could be replicated infinitely by people entirely outside the industry, then the effective value of a recording was zero. This time, not only did this development threaten the companies’ bottom lines, but the musicians, the producers, the crews and other helping hands—the entire recording industry, with complete and utter ruin. Perhaps a farsighted, magnanimous country could have anticipated this and socialized the cost of making music with taxpayer money, but the record industry was and still is centered on the United States, the Holy See of the free market, and only a market solution would be possible. The threat of Napster provoked an immediate and furious response from not only the record companies but many of the artists (most notoriously Lars Ulrich of Metallica), who, whatever feelings they may have had about record companies and the conditions they imposed, knew who was signing their royalty checks. Within only six months of its launch date of June 1, 1999, Napster was under litigation from all of the major record conglomerates; by July 2001, it was finished.
It was obvious that Napster wouldn’t be the first such file-sharing service, and its first major successor, Kazaa, launched in March, before Napster’s demise was even complete. But business always finds ways to capture and harness threatening technologies, and during the Napster lawsuits executives and technologists in the music industry were already looking at alliances with tech companies to make the internet music revolution happen on their terms—and found a suitable partner in a resurgent Apple Computer, enjoying a renaissance after its brush with doom in the ‘90s, and hungry for further growth. The strategy of the new iTunes store rested on three developments. The first was a digital rights management system called “FairPlay” that encrypted the audio data so it could only be unlocked with a “key” provided by the iTunes service (thus making it useless, at least inconvenient enough to deter casual infringement, on any non-Apple device or software). The second was the iPod MP3 player, which I trust most of my readers should be familiar with. And the third and most fateful was their new iTunes Store, launched in 2003, which broke down the old industry division between album and single by selling the tracks of albums individually at the seductive price point of 99¢. $12-16 for a CD was a price the young, often lower-income consumers of the hottest popular music had to seriously consider, but the price per track on iTunes was high enough for the middlemen to make a killing (after all, there was no physical product to pay the production and transportation costs of) but low enough to make buying a song an act of impulse.
The iTunes service succeeded beyond anyone’s imagination, growing exponentially from 2003 to 2010 and rapidly eclipsing. In less than two years, between January 10, 2007 and January 6, 2009, iTunes sold 4.5 billion songs. As single tracks rose in popularity, album sales began to crash; the dollar value of CD sales for 2008 was less than half that for 2000, a decline of over $6 billion. The iPod and its imitators helped spur along this development, its different form and functionality from previous portable music players leading to a different relationship with music. Instead of a large collection of discs you had to go out, buy, and keep somewhere, all but the largest music collections could be stored in the device itself, and that music was automatically indexed, filterable, and searchable. A scattershot collection of disparate songs with occasional full-album downloads could be fed into curated or randomly shuffled playlists, a personal radio station that never ends. Certainly, one could buy whole albums on iTunes and only listen to them on one’s iPod from start to finish, but the way the device was designed (and, until the modern streaming apps took off, smartphones as well) pushed consumers towards individual songs as opposed to fixed sequences of songs. The first premonitions of the death of the album came from record company executives and business analysts in 2007, and began to appear more and more in the media over the coming years.
However, by the late 2000s, e-business strategies were already evolving away from a product-driven model. Pioneered by Google, a new way of doing business on the internet was developed around collecting, collating, selling, and trading user data, facilitated by fast broadband connections and massive data centers. Under this model, the putative product of an internet service, the thing it offered to its consumers, was no longer the real product. Instead, the service was a vehicle to acquire users and they, or more precisely their identities, habits, desires, insecurities, personalities, and apparent level of affluence, were the product that brought in the revenue, as this data was sold to other consumer-facing companies, ad agencies, market research firms, and government agencies (including military, intelligence, and law enforcement), among other customers. If this trade in consumer data proved lucrative enough, there would no longer be a need to sell the objects of consumption (in this case, the music), as it could simply be subsidized with payouts to rights owners, and as long as the audio was difficult or at least annoying to duplicate and spread without authorization, the consumers would keep coming back to be monitored again and again. Furthermore, the user data could also be used to draw conclusions about users’ personal tastes in music and, with cleverly weighted algorithms, push users towards music the record industry had decided to promote without users even noticing what was happening (a trick that, it should be noted, is not unique to music streaming but is also used by Amazon, Google, Facebook, and many, many other services).
Like with the previous paradigm of downloads, users moved first. In 2005, three former PayPal employees launched a site called YouTube that allowed users to upload and share video clips, at a time when video streaming was mostly limited to postage stamp-sized RealPlayer embeds that spent more time buffering than playing videos. YouTube enjoyed immediate, explosive popularity and quickly became a medium for users to post their favorite music in addition to their own video content. While the industry had mostly taken a hard line towards Napster, the previous decade of experience had taught them that they would be better off co-opting YouTube and accepting a certain level of music piracy as acceptable—because it had proven impossible to remove all the pirated content all the time, because pirated content could raise awareness of artists and labels and drive sales of official content, and because the pirated content itself could be turned into a supplementary revenue stream for the culture industry by forcing pirates to watch ads before and sometimes during pirated music videos. At the same time, official music channels proliferated on YouTube, both from major labels and from independent artists whose recordings otherwise might not have been heard outside a small group of insiders. While services specifically targeted at grassroots musicians like Bandcamp and SoundCloud have since absorbed many of the independent musicians, YouTube remains perhaps the greatest musical cornucopia on the entire internet, hosting everything from multi-billion-view worldwide pop events to obscurities from the old Soviet bloc never before seen outside of their home countries, and among the main streaming services, is the one where you’ll most likely find a whole album presented intact, often in multiple versions.
The only thing missing was a portable music player suitable for the new age of streaming. The technology was already well-established on the PC, but streaming would not become the cultural juggernaut it is today until the advent of the smartphone, ironically introduced by Apple in the form of the iPhone. While MP3 players were single-purpose devices that played music that was transferred onto it and nothing else, and even laptop PCs were comparatively large, heavy, and tethered to home or office networks, a smartphone was a general-purpose computer that could run all sorts of software, and most importantly, access the internet at broadband speeds from anywhere and, instead of getting everything through cumbersome browsers and websites, was designed around apps, half software and half service with no distinction between the offline and online parts visible to the user (until you drive into a tunnel and the connection goes out, anyway). Spotify, the first of the major streaming services, launched worldwide in 2011, offering a free tier with heavy advertising and restrictions as well as a paid tier offering unlimited access. Spotify’s rise to prominence was Apple’s loss as iTunes sales began declining year-over-year starting 2014, causing Apple to pivot towards streaming itself with the new service Apple Music, but having, uncharacteristically for Apple, lost the initiative, it has been slow to catch on and replace the floundering iTunes Store. With Spotify, Apple, and competitors like Tidal, it seemed like the album was doomed as the industry finally found a way to reconcile the inevitable fall in the value of music recordings with business necessity.
But this revolution has left the smaller and less prosperous artists, the ones without the clout to draw the millions and millions of plays needed to generate enough revenue to support them, without a viable way to support themselves, and many listeners unsatisfied with music that they not only didn’t possess physically, but did not possess at all. At first quietly, and now openly, the album is making its comeback. First came vinyl, reborn from a mass medium to a luxury product directed at exactly the sort of hardcore music fans who typically patronize smaller artists, and then cassettes and even reel-to-reel. While sales of these formats remain quite small, at the elevated price points they command ($20 and up), they are an indispensable lifeline for many musicians and bands; if the album was once merely music, it is now also merch, its physical qualities, indeed its very physical being and permanency in a world increasingly dominated by digital ephemera, being its primary selling point. Even the CD is holding onto a niche among indie and other underground bands, as CD-Rs can now be duplicated in mass quantities in an ordinary musician’s own home without needing to place orders with pressing plants, finding a second life even after Blu-Ray, its own expected replacement, has gone to an early grave largely remembered as a format for PlayStation games.
If vinyl and tapes have come back from the dead, could CDs? CDs have long been derided by vinyl aficionados for their tiny space for artwork and brittle plastic jewel cases—but the same problems apply to an even greater degree to the compact cassette, which also sounds much worse than either CDs or vinyl. Even if most computers no longer accept CDs, most cars do, especially the older cars that most young people are relegated to in our seemingly never-ending economic crisis, and most of those older cars don’t have any way to play from a phone except, if you’re lucky, an aux jack. Not to mention that mobile broadband, at least in suburban America, is still frustratingly unreliable and attempting to troubleshoot on the road is to court death from inattention. It would be a long shot, but stranger things have happened. Perhaps there could even be room for a new format—while optical drives have almost disappeared for computers and never existed for phones, nearly every piece of electronics made nowadays has at least one, if not several, USB ports. Beyond merely being a format, USB flash memory could free the album from having any one format at all, with capacity, audio quality, and even its physical shape being almost entirely arbitrary. A simple software protocol could allow a USB album to play immediately through almost anything that can make sound and has a USB port, and simple adaptations of full-drive encryption techniques would make the album almost invulnerable to any duplication techniques except for playing it back and capturing or recording the audio (the “analog hole”), which produces an inferior copy that must be manually cleaned up, cut into tracks, and tagged, work that many casual pirates are not willing to put in. But in whatever format, old or new, the album, a roughly hour-long musical experience embedded within a physical product, the whole of which serves as an individual work of art, soldiers on, diminished greatly from its height of popularity forty years ago, but with no end in sight.