Eulogy for the Album

A eulogy for the album.

It’s not dead yet, but it’s not doing well. Digital is really doing a number on it and it’s not long for the world.

The album was born 1948. Sorta. What we think of now as an album: “a single piece of media which contains multiple songs by the same artist recorded for release together” became technologically possible in ’48. You could already sorta kinda buy these sets of singles that looked like big books that had thematically related songs and those were called “albums”, so the name carried over, so if you want to be a stickler ‘albums’ predate ‘albums’, but really ’48 was when the modern album was born.

Think about that, that means albums as a concept didn’t functionally exist pre 1950s. Nobody wrote music or even understood music in that context. People just wrote songs, performed songs, recorded songs, and then sold songs. Songs existed as isolated entities until put on a collection.

Classical music did have symphonies and those averaged 20+ minutes (though can go into hours), and you could say that the movements are basically individual songs, but now we’re quibbling definitions.

It’s surprising how fast the idea of an “album” enters cultural norm. One wonders what it was about the length that worked for people. At a max of a 44 minutes it was longer than a short tv show, shorter than a long one or movie. It’s about as long as you’ll go in a play before intermission I suppose.

(The max length kept getting made longer over time until CDs bumped it up to 74 mins, supposedly to fit all of Beethoven’s 9th).

The adoption is first cause of Elvis, then the Beatles. Moreso the Beatles. Yes, Elvis albums sold like crazy, but his label also knew to also release every one of the songs as singles cause not everyone had an LP player at home yet. By the time the Beatles came along though is when we progress to “Album as a single piece of art”, and also make singles sales almost irrelevant.

The math is the math. Elvis’ debut album ended up selling over a million, but the Heartbreak Hotel single sold almost double that. Decade later Sgt Pepper sold somewhere in the ballpark of 20 million and there was no singles from it (or from that recording session).

That weird qualifier above is cause you have to keep in mind that singles were not on albums. A fun trivia question is “what album is Strawberry Fields on?” cause the answer is “none”. It was released on the “Hey Jude” compilation, but it was from near the close of the era where any song meant as a single was kept off the album. That era died with somewhere about “The White Album” in 67 or 68, I’m not gonna google it. They released O-bla-di O-bla-da as the single despite it also being on the album.

I googled it, 1968.

From there the reign is supreme: everything is albums. Music is understood in ~45 minute chunks. It’s fine and works for the income model: write for a while, record for a while, release all the songs together, tour to promote the set of new songs, repeat.

Then internet. The first shot over the bow was napster and that since there’s only 3 good songs per album if that, why even have the rest? Do you really need to listen to a second A-Ha song? Then digital distribution (like iTunes store) made it possible to pick and choose them legally, though those were never remotely close to dethroning CD sales.

No, what it really is killing is a global attention shortage. Not attention like “we can’t sit still for 45 minutes”, but rather “an artist can’t disappear for a year to write and record” kind. When youtube celebrities have to have a new video ready every day this becomes the standard for interaction frequency. It’s mostly limited to pop now, but it’ll come to everything else too. Recording costs are low and getting lower, so the idea of booking a studio for a single track at a time is not nearly as absurd as it was pre-digital. And iTunes / Spotify frankly work better with the release-often format.

Soundcloud helped. Did you want to be big on soundcloud? Hope you posted early, and posted often. And the website went out of its way to punish albums and reward popular singles. And soundcloud mattered, our current pop soundscape is massively influenced by that weird little website.

I don’t think it’s bad or good. I like albums, but I prefer novels to short stories too. And frankly, I’m not crazy on concept albums. Yes, The Wall is a masterpiece, but for every Pink Floyd there’s a Limp Bizkit. Btw, did you know that “The Unquestionable Truth” was a Limp Bizkit concept album? It’s ok if you didn’t. Frankly it’s probably good if you didn’t even know it existed.

And yes, post skews heavy to rock culture, cause there always existed an active anti-album current in dance/techno. In a setting where DJs brought a box of singles to performances it made sense to release everything as one or two tracks per side, and that culture is much more ready for the digital.

It’s not that rock is going to go to this “per song” digital approach anytime soon I think, it’s just that “pick songs you like for your playlist” makes a lot more sense to most people most of the time, so it will win eventually. Spotify automatic playlists aren’t “here’s some albums to check out”, it’s “here’s a custom list of tracks for you specifically to run to”. It’s fine, why not. Nothing wrong with shuffle. I like it fine some of the time.

For it to happen the big change will be when the culture shifts away from understanding music as parts of albums. And people don’t change, they never did and never will, it’s just that new ones show up and old ones become irrelevant. So the album probably has at least another 10-20. And 80 years is a good run for an entertainment medium. Nicely done, frankly.

Mad A-Ha fans about to tell me to study deeper into their discography below this line: