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Saturday, 19 December 2015

The Death of the Album?

t seems fewer and fewer people listen to albums these days. This may appear uncharacteristically sentimental of me, given my previous rant about why people who buy vinyl records are morons. But this post isn’t about the format you choose to listen to music on, it is about the concept of the album itself.

Album sales more than halved as we entered the 21st century – what was a $14.6 billion industry became a mere $6.3 billion. Many attribute this change to the rise of the internet and digital downloads – this is to a large extent true. Thanks to being bombarded with variety, having to check our smart phones every 30 seconds – our insatiable lust for bite-sized chicken nuggets of condensed entertainment, it seems we no longer have the attention span to listen to a whole album.

Music streaming services are seen as damaging to the music industry by some, with Radiohead’s Thom Yorke describing Spotify as “the last desperate fart of a dying corpse.” But is this attitude outdated? It should be noted that in many ways, services like Spotify champion undiscovered talent, and bring to light album tracks that would have otherwise gone unnoticed. Listening to an album is after all, not the same as consuming one.

The issue stems from the notion that music – that creativity – is a commodity that can be bought and sold like a car. Now that the physical element to music is seen by many as archaic – with few actually buying CDs – we are detached from the idea of music as something one can possess. What’s left is merely a concept, sounds floating in the ether. This is of course a consequence of the capitalist society we inhabit – no one makes art for art’s sake. And yes, vinyl-buying elitists probably play a part in this, creating the illusion that albums are specialist, for musical alpha-geeks only.

While I wouldn’t describe myself as a music expert, there are a number of bands I follow closely. Whenever The Eels, Queens of the Stoneage, Frank Turner (or whatever phase I’m going through) release a new album, I make a point of listening to it from start to finish, before my favourite tracks make it to my playlists. I will hungrily buy entire back-catalogues of new artists I discover. Does anyone else still do this?

Now that many of us consume our music in playlists, on shuffle, in compilations and shared through social media, the album format is becoming increasingly outmoded. Artists used to tell us stories, Pink Floyd crafted albums that conveyed themes and had unified narratives. This ambition is lost – or at least watered down – by modern popular artists. However, some may (perhaps justifiably) view this prog-rock ostentation as the epitome of musical pretension. Indeed, the concept album format was almost deserted before it began – arguably its most famous example, The Beatles Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, abandoned this aim midway through.

Music producers are often forced to cater to our quick-fix temperaments by churning out EPs and singles. The corporate tycoons who sell us pop music are evidently aware that the album is no longer the most commercially effective model. Albums are important, music can be enhanced by its context – where it sits in the band's discography, where it fits in historically, how it charts the development of an artist. It remains an integral part of the listening experience. I hope it stays that way.

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