In a guest post on behalf of the One Movement For Music festival blog at OneMovementWord.com, Brisbane-based music writer Andrew McMillen examines the digitally-inspired shift in consumer habits away from the long-established album format.
There’s an enormous nostalgia value attached to your record collection, whether in actual LP format or CDs. Few cultural topics are as divisive and subjective as one’s music taste. The goal of this guest post is not to write off the album in its entirety; that’d be foolish and erroneous. But why is it that you fondly fondle some albums, and not others? To use a cricketing metaphor: why do some releases hit you for six, while others barely make the length of the pitch?
To elaborate on the latter example: picture the average album you’d buy from a store – perhaps not in this era, since both CD shelf space and CD merchants continue to dwindle – but ten years ago. Hypothetically, the disc is likely to be front-loaded with some great songs. They’re the ones that you’re likely to have heard before you bought the album. These strategically-placed songs are the ones that either – or both – the band and record label wanted you to hear first and enjoy first.
Then you’d get to the second half of the album and, more than likely, you’d find a dramatic reduction in the quality of songwriting. As with any conversation regarding music, this is an entirely subjective topic of discussion, but there’s not a music fan reading who hasn’t experienced the phenomenon of an album’s proverbial tail failing to wag.
The recorded music industry has revolved around the album format for decades. Record deals, release schedules, pricing structure, the touring cycle, the catchy lead single, album reviews; these choreographed industry institutions are all funneled toward the end goal of selling albums. Music consumers were tied to the album format as a force of habit, since it was by far the most convenient method to listen to music. In the LP era, it was easier to let an album play from beginning to end, rather than painstakingly searching for the groove that contained the beginning of your favourite tracks.
But portability heralded a substantial change in listening habits; the now-ubiquitous MP3 audio compression algorithm was a mere twinkle in German audio scientists’ eyes when Sony released the cassette-based Walkman to the public in 1979. Its portable CD player successor, the Discman, was released in 1984, and allowed a greater freedom from the comparably imprecise Walkman method of fast-forwarding and rewinding through a cassette to find your favourite tracks. But the device was still tied to the concept of the album: while songs could be played in a ‘random’ order – an important precursor to Apple’s iPod Shuffle – it could only handle a disc at a time.
That listening habit was exploded when CD burning technology allowed listeners to compile the circular equivalent of mixtapes, without the cassette-associated fuss. As the audio filetype known as MP3 became easier for the masses to acquire online, consumer attitudes to music further deviated from the past when the first digital audio players became available in the late 1990s. Apple’s success in that market can be attributed to their user-friendly design and savvy marketing. Their devices satisfied a demand for portable music that’d gathered momentum since the Walkman’s debut. The twin Apple successes of the iPod and the iTunes Music Store are evidence that listeners prize portable playlist control, after decades of passively absorbing albums from start to end.
This newfound control is central to understanding the shift from albums as the key organising principle behind music dissemination. Industry analyst Bob Lefsetz wrote on his Lefsetz Letter website in August 2006: “The track has been disengaged from the album. The label wants an album budget, producers, a full-length that they can charge in the neighborhood of ten dollars wholesale for. No matter that no radio station goes deep and neither do the fans.”
He’s hinting at the killer-versus-filler argument that’s as old as the industry itself. While there’ll always be pleasure gained by experiencing a classy, calculated collection of songs from beginning to end, writers like Lefsetz and myself argue that the record industry’s unending fascination with the album as the definitive musical product is misleading and erroneous.
The record industry’s perceived market expectations are the driving force behind the unending push for more albums. This wouldn’t be problematic – for artists, labels, or listeners – if real supply met perceived demand. Instead, album sales have declined worldwide, while sales of individual songs – key singles often released to radio so as to promote an album – continue to climb.
In 2009, artists shouldn’t automatically sprint toward the album endpoint as a result of historical programming. Their creative output shouldn’t be stretched to meet the 45 minute/12 track (whichever comes first) expectation, just so that the parties involved can proudly call it an album. In an era where more music is being written, recorded and performed each day than at any other point in history, an artist shouldn’t throw together words, chords and beats just to meet an expectation built upon a decades-old concept.
The record industry marketplace has fundamentally changed for content creators and consumers. To pound a cliché into your head: the internet has theoretically afforded any artist the chance reach your iPod earbuds. The barriers to entering the recording industry have been lowered, and the costs of bedroom production and online distribution are trending toward zero. As a result, it’s unreasonable for artists and labels to continue propagating an album-release business model that’s so firmly rooted in the past.
This is an abridged version of a five-part series that first appeared in weekly Australian music industry magazine The Music Network issues #744-48, June-July 2009. Read the series in full: part one, part two, part three, part four and part five).
Andrew is also coordinating blog content for an Australian music event, One Movement For Music, which debuts in October 2009. The blog at OneMovementWord.com contains exclusive interviews with artists and speakers appearing at the event, Australian music news, as well as guest posts from music bloggers from across the world.