Is the album dead?

I’m going to go out on a limb and say ‘no’ to this one, just as I said ‘no’ to the one about the CD being dead. That said, I think we’re going to have to redefine our notion of what constitutes an album.

There is no longer any medium-specific reason for popular songs to be a certain length (3 minutes, give or take for one side of a 78rpm shellac disc) nor for collections of songs to be able to fill two sides of a slab of vinyl (around 22 minutes per side), or for mixes to extend no further than about 80 minutes for a standard (red book) CD.

Digital means the death of scarcity in this regard, so you can have 3 hour songs if you wish, or albums with a million songs on them. I don’t think that necessarily means you should tend to those extremes – though I have to admit I’d get a perverse satisfaction if someone did (which is not a promise to actually listen to the whole thing).

But it does mean that you have the freedom to choose.

While many people are buying individual tracks on iTunes, it seems that the majority of purchases on eMusic are of albums. And I think this more accurately reflects the desires and intentions of artists. No matter what the shopping architecture ends up being, artists will tend to want to curate their works into sensible, themed and connected collections.

Because albums are more than ‘here are our best 12 songs of the last 2 years’. They are usually considered as single entities, of which the songs form a part – and whatever the intended articulation of the artists message might be in the atomic unit of the song, the album is usually constructed to be greater than the sum of its parts.

Shuffle-proof albums
When I ran a record label, we foolishly spent large chunks of money in the mastering studio. Not on making the individual songs sound good – but we agonised over the gaps between the songs. When we were satisfied, we brought the finished product back and gave the CD to friends and family, who promptly put it in the CD player and pressed the ‘random’ button.

Nowadays, hardly anyone seems to listen to albums from start to finish. Let alone appreciate the extended breath pause… and… IN to the next track. It’s all shuffle. And you know what? That’s fine. Well-crafted albums will survive that kind of treatment.

Most people I know (myself included) have very good impressions of albums that they have never heard in the desired order – or even sequentially one track after another. Somehow we throw the music into our collections, and add the tracks together in our heads.

But this raises a whole lot of other issues and possibilities. The number of album listening parties I’ve noticed recently for launches is really interesting.

The end of filler tracks?
There’s a popular myth that a lot of bands have 4 or 5 really strong songs, and a bunch of filler material that fits in between at strategic points. Most artists like to think all of their songs are good, and in fact, most artists I know are forced to leave perfectly good songs off an album for the sake of length and thematic consistency.

But if you do only have 5 great songs – that’s 5 more than most people. Get it out there. If it’s shorter than a traditional album, call it whatever you like – but it fulfills the same function: a collected exhibition of works. If you have 20 tracks or 50 tracks – they can all work together as a single album too, if you like.

Make meaning through proximity
The point is that you’re not restricted by the capacity of the medium, so the decision you make about album length can be purely on quality and aesthetics. I know people who are putting out three song packages in rapid succession, and others that are releasing every studio session they record as a single product – whether they get through 1 track or 15.

But by and large, the simple fact is that while the album itself is no longer bound by the restraints of physical media, most people like creating and consuming music in groups. We like to make meaning from music – and individual tracks are often contextless. This is why the first thing we do when we buy them is to arrange them into playlists and compilations.

After all, if you don’t give us an album, we’ll make one of our own.

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20 thoughts on “Is the album dead?

  1. Daniel says:

    For a lot of the artists I work with, what constitutes an album is simply defined by composition. We still sell CDs with a multitude of tracks, which stand on their own. But, generally, we release albums as a complete concepts and composition, and the various tracks work more like movements.

    Granted, we aren’t really doing pop music, where the idea of singles is a necessary consideration. Still, we do electronic music, and the likelihood that we will continue to record and release music as albums will likely continue indefinitely. The lack of old media constraints certainly does redefine the playing field and makes 2 or 3 hour albums (with ambient music, this is ok) more realistic. But, ultimately, we will end up doing albums for a long time to come.

  2. James says:

    I never listen to albums on shuffle, I like to think that the composers have spent a fair amount of time and effort working out what order they’d like the songs to be heard in, because they gel together that way, just like a live set list.

    How many songs albums consist of, and the other options that are available is something that more and more musicians will begin to think about over the coming years…anything that makes it easier for musicians to be more prolific can only be a good thing!

  3. karen says:

    I also like to listen to albums right through especially when I am home, doing chilling out. Not for the same reason as James exactly (because of what the artist intended). I am a rabid fantasist (!) – and I like the journey for far more selfish reasons.

    I have albums which are specifically ‘shuffle’ albums ( for example my friend Nicholas Rogan, a NZ jazz/electronica artist likes to work this way and makes his albums accordingly – and all are freely available on http://www.nicholasrogan.com).

    I’ll also use shuffle when I am out and about, in the car, walking to work etc, but I hope I always have time to chill out and just let an artist take me somewhere.

    I agree the concept of ‘filler’ tracks is usually mistaken. Tunes which don’t have an instant appeal sometimes turn into those special tracks that take a while to ‘grow’ on your ears – and thats a good thing. Although in saying that – I have bought the odd Top 40 type album for the hit song and felt that most of the album was pure filler – admittedly I have not done this recently but ……….. ( I wont make a diss list…although I’m tempted!!)

  4. Andy Edwards says:

    Lots of good points and backs up what has been reported in Music Week this week – which is only two debut artists this year (Duffy and Adele) have gone platinum since the start of the year. Other notable debutantes such as Gabriella Cilmi, Sam Sparro and The Ting Tings have so far only achieved gold status in the UK, despite being well marketed, well regarded and generally creating a buzz.

    Why? Because albums are a tougher sell to a more demanding public with more choices.

    The solution? Albums will still be around; provided they are well written and produced; but increasingly bundles and playlists shall become a stepping stone for consumers who want to discover an act before actually making it to committing to an album purchase.

  5. J says:

    This one is really interesting to me, once again Mr Dubber is a little ahead of the curve. I had already decided that releasing singles for my project was much better that releasing a whole ‘album’. I think most people do overate their songs, or think they’re better than they really are, but it’s also interesting because not EVERY song needs to be a single. I figure if I can get the listeners, it’ll start mattering less because they’ll want to hear it anyway…

    J

  6. Jonny says:

    I don’t think I’ve ever been a buyer of individual songs and singles. When I play music at home it tends to be the full album that gets played in the order that it has come in.

    It feels like I’ve been trapped in a box away from the world for some time now. Listening to music on the move doesn’t really appeal to me but on talking to friends the majority of them listen to their iPods on shuffle. Maybe if I had an mp3 player I would be playing it on shuffle as well so I could have quick individual songs to listen to rather than trying to swallow a long album when I can’t really concentrate on it.

    We have better and more access to music than ever so there is more flexiblity and choice in how we release our material. We can have multiple options for how people buy and listen to music depending on what suits the listener. Albums might need to take a step back but there will always be plenty of room for them. It’s all good!

  7. James Pew says:

    No I don’t believe the album is dead. Or it will ever die. However it will have to share the space with singles and EP’s etc.

    I love it when an artist comes into our studio with a decisive plan to make an album. Especially when we bang it out within a few months. But the reality is so many indies don’t have the time our resources to pull off a complete album all at once. This has led me to the conclusion that, at least for for them, its better to release singles. Nothing says they can’t re-release the songs in an album format after they have enough singles.

    After all the advice I see over and over is that artists must frequently release creative content. Not just songs (blogs, photos, videos, ringtones, etc.). So there is a definite advantage to a singles release strategy.

    Think of it this way. If your record ends up having 10 songs. You can either release it as a record in one shot…giving you only one opportunity to promote the release event. Or you can turn it into 11 promotional event opportunities (one for each singles, and one for the album release).

    Have to admit though my heart will always be for listening to an album in its entirety, in the order the artists intended.

    Down with shuffle buttons!

  8. Peter Blue says:

    Interesting topic. Now that we can have unlimited music (mp3 compilations etc) we are suffering from it at times.
    Back in the days, when a side of an LP stopped after 22 minutes we were dissatisfied. (Especially while in bed with the girlfriend) Our desire for more music was fueled. So we got up to flip the record and were happy to have another 22 minutes of our favourite album. That was an active decision for music. It has something to do with attention span.

    Then came the CD. Listening to the same album in CD format I was missing the pause between sides A & B, but worse, since the customer wants minutes for the money, here come the inevitable bonus tracks.
    Now comes the point when I have to get up to stop! the music, because they spoil the composition of the album.

    I think the limitation to 22 to minutes of an album side created a certain form of art. ( Like a certain form of poem, limited to a certain amount of lines)
    Although the technical limitations have disappeared, I could still think of creating an album in that form.
    It could exist on a CD with the A side beiing one track, then a 10 min. gap and then side B as a single track.
    I could even imagine Andrew with some expensive whiskey and a cigar celebrating side A, then getting up to pour himself another one and then starting side B with the remote…;-) It’s about celebration.

    Yes, I love albums – not for nostagic reasons

  9. I think there are a few reasons that the album is not dead.

    Reviewers and bloggers are critical to generating attention about an artist. It is much easier to get someone to review or talk about an album than it is to get them to talk about a collection of singles or a video you just released. It gives context.

    Also, for some artists, it is actually a lot more financially wise to record a cluster of songs in a studio to save on setup costs and time. Hiring and rehearsing musicians for only one song doesn’t cost much less than hiring them to record 3 or 4 songs. And you will often catch a break on cost when it’s a whole album involved. It may be a bigger pill to swallow at first, but albums have a far longer shelf life than a single.

    An album also defines a certainly level of credibility and seriousness for an artist. If you go to the trouble of pressing 1000 cd’s it means you take your work seriously enough to go to the expense of recording that many songs and to then have them duplicated. That doesn’t mean it’s good, but in a very crowded marketplace full of infinite product, a physical one stands out a little further than a purely digital one (sometimes at least)

    Also, it’s much easier to get airplay on college radio and specialty formats when you have a CD. Not many radio people want to download a song to play it on the air.

    It’s much easier to tour around an album for a variety of reasons. It gives you something to sell at the merch table. Download cards don’t sell quite as well and not too many fans really want an artist to sign the disposable download card.

    It also gives the artist an organizing principle for marketing efforts. This can be hugely important. It’s like creating a brand for a specified time period. You can create a line of merchandise that relates to the album. A website. A storyline using flickr regarding the making of.

    While people may hit shuffle all they want, the option exists for the listener to enjoy an album in the order that the artist intended. That shows that an album can have many purposes for the listener / fan / consumer too. It’s more versatile than a single or an EP with only 4 songs on it.

    The album can be viewed as a work of art. It’s a collection of work that will be defined, however loosely by some sort of theme that helps define what an artist is (or is not) trying to be.

    And lastly, perhaps most importantly, there are segments of the music buying public that simply prefer buying albums. These are the people that LOVE music. They don’t go buy the latest top 10 hits. They obsess over all kinds of new music and talk about it with friends. An album is still a rallying point for this type of music fan. And this type of music fan will recommend their new favorite ALBUM to their friends in a way that people who dance to the latest hit single do not. It’s demographic that is hugely important to the launching of new artists and it’s not filled with just old people. Even teenagers like albums. This demographic may not sell platinum, but they do help discover and launch the careers of many talented artists.

    Just because digital is an easy way for people to get music does not mean that it’s the only way, nor is it the only way that serious music lovers will want to get their music. For these people who often shape the taste of what music is discovered, the album is still king.

    http://www.michaelwinger.com

  10. Julian Moore says:

    We decided to release 3 EPs a year with 4-5 songs on each. Makes sense because we can actually work on that many songs at one time without losing the thread of what we’re doing. It also keeps us current and means we always have something new to promote.

    It may not be possible to keep this up, but right now it works, so we do what works for us now. But because we do everything ourselves we can choose how we do things, so we do what works for us.

    Even if we started releasing albums of 10 songs, it still doesn’t change the fact that it’s almost impossible to write/think/work/produce songs in bundles of more than five at a time. I think we’d have to just start pretending that there were two sides to a ten song album just to get our heads around it.

    And also, if you’ve got 8 songs, why not release 8? Instead of thinking you need to add those 3 songs which weren’t quite good enough in to make up the numbers. It used to be that this would add value to a release as people would see there were more tracks and feel they were getting their moneys worth.

    Now they will just avoid the filler. Don’t blame them!

    No filler. Release what you feel good about. Ditch the rest. Release in ways that suit the occasion. Release regularly. Release appropriate to your success. Move on.

  11. I agree with Julian,

    It is hard to keep your mind all in one place when writing more than five songs – so you kinda need to take a break and then approach it again and make another five or so to complete the album, thus it makes sense to release five then another five in a lot of ways.

    Also, it’s all very well releasing your three hour masterpiece, but consider the time investment required to actually listen to it – if you’re a new artist I haven’t heard before I sure as hell ain’t gonna listen to that!

    I think it’s good to start of releasing singles and EPs, and then work up to albums and beyond – gain listeners attention with the shorter formats and then they will be willing to invest in the time required to get to grips with an album.

    Personally, not a fan of shuffle – I don’t like music coming at me randomly!

  12. Gavroche says:

    I sincerely hope that the album format is not dead! While I enjoy everything that digital music has empowered me to do, I have noticed that many people just play their favorite songs off an album. To me, an album represents the entire palette of an artist’s vision. An album is more than just the sum of its songs. A true album takes you on a conceptual journey from start to finish. The order of the tracks and the songs on the album are carefully selected by the artist in order to achieve a cohesive artistic work.

    So, if you’re just listening to the songs, you’re not getting the full picture. Even if more and more people just pick, a la carte, their favorite songs, the true artists will keep making albums. And, the true music fans will keep listening to music in album format.

    The question is — will the labels stop pushing the album as the preferred method of distro? It is likely the majors might do this to optimize their models. But, there will always be some indie labels that release albums. And, people don’t really need labels anymore, do they?

    Since the release of an album doesn’t necessarily involve printing CDs, I think we’ll see the album survive. If not, I’ll cry.

  13. D says:

    Okay, maybe you guys can help me out.

    I’m a jazz musician . . . and I really want my next project on vinyl. I’ve been working on this project for a while now, and the songs are well . . . they aren’t 3 minutes (One song is almost 14 minutes long). My style I’m is in the Headhunters/Jazz-Funk arena. So even though I have about 10 songs for the new project, I feel kind of risky about printing up a double LP.

    So I’m thinking that I could split the album into two, therefore releasing single LP’s in succession. That means that the cd version will only contain 5 songs (maybe a bonus track). I mean after all, Head Hunters was only 4 songs and is still one of the most popular albums in jazz.

    It’s no secret that these days attention spans are shorter. So I’m thinking it won’t be such a bad thing to sell only 5 songs, especially being that it’s jazz.

    I’m thinking about the long tail model on this, which is what jazz musicians did back in the days of Blue Note/Impulse/Prestige. Fewer jazz albums sold, so they recorded 5 songs, released it and went to the next. This kept them having a steady stream of income over a longer period of time, because hits in jazz were rare.

    And how many songs do you hear in a jazz set anyway? On average 5-6. So why record an epic album that runs damn near 70-80 mins when most folks are still diggin reissues that have 4-5 songs on them.

    So what do you guys think, am I on the right track when it comes to format considerations?

  14. dunc says:

    “Reviewers and bloggers are critical to generating attention about an artist. It is much easier to get someone to review or talk about an album than it is to get them to talk about a collection of singles or a video you just released. It gives context.”

    I’m not sure about this to be honest. I’ve just recieved a massive wedge of 10 albums for one of the blogs I write for. That’s about 10 hours of music + writing time, so I think I’ll get chance to write 2 reviews tops I imagine.

    If I had 10 singles then I could probably do decent write ups for 5 or 6 of them.

  15. Matt@Kurb says:

    The album is dead, all hail the “content product”.

    The album is ready to go home, someone just needs to call it a cab. There’s just a few mitigating circumstances (outside of tradition and familiarity, obviously) like the discrete scarcity of 80min on an audio disc and price breaks on Tunecore and CD Baby for album distro.

    Those who can break a new viable model will set the tone for future content monetization, but you may have to drill deep to extract it, while true innovators will make coin monetizing attention, brands and leveraging C2C.

    A 20th century format wont stand in the way of socialized consumer empowerment. They’ll be making their own (albums, “content products”, Comps, T-shirts, Gigs, Acts) whether you can write more than 5 songs at a time or not.

    That’s not even discussing engagement. Can you really afford to go quiet for 6 months while you work on your opus? If you’re established., maybe, don’t think that’s what new acts who’ll break will be doing.

  16. J says:

    So here’s my question/theory…

    When I go to a new artist or an artist that I don’t know and check their stuff, if I see 20 songs, I’m only going to listen to one or two…I found that (particularly Hip Hop artist) seem to think more is better and usually I find myself bored. Nine out of ten, I want to hear something that makes me like or dislike an artist-I’m not going to explore their catalog if they don’t make a good impression.

    For those who believe in albums-do you find yourself listening to a whole album of a new artist or skipping tracks? Don’t you want to hear something that motivates your choice and won’t that be a single?

  17. After 13 years of composing I recorded my first album. Eight years later I grew frustrated that piano works would remain unrecorded and unreleased for years at a time while waiting and saving up for my next album release. I shifted my focus from releasing project albums to releasing each song as its own project, using a streaming blog entry. I found myself being far more productive. A year later I released the next album, which was a collection of the years recordings.

    This new model combines the best of both worlds for me. I can pace my costs and productivity, as well as connect with my fans each time I release a new song. I am much more productive now because the steps are reproducible, the projects are smaller and the rewards come sooner. My fans may get 10 releases per year instead of just one big one. Even then, after 10 successful songs, I release a new volume in CD format. Eventually, I’d like to expand on this method by adding themed volumes for various needs such as bedtime music, study music, holiday music and more.

  18. “…artists will tend to want to curate their works into sensible, themed and connected collections.”

    Amen to that.

  19. Matt@Kurb says:

    John Albert Thomas sounds like he’s got the right idea. But I would work the niches even further – why stop at bedtime/study/holiday music albums when you can create niche sites for each?

    just in case you missed the ping after a tweet or two i decided to respond to this post and discuss the “content product” concept check it out

    http://tiny.cc/PJ0km

  20. sP says:

    I touched on this a lil while back as well (URL at end of comment) and I’d be surprised if we see the end of the Album format for a decent period yet.

    I like the fact that Estelle re-uploaded her content to iTunes after pulling it for a few weeks to see what effect it would have (which actually saw her album sales rise quite significantly).

    I also think it’ll take more than Kid Rock to make a stand until anyone actually cares for his cause.

    What an awful, awful musician.

    Anyhow. Keep up the good work Dubber!

    http://sentric.wordpress.com/2008/03/31/culling-the-guff-or-help-the-lp-31032008/