In the first section of this article, I described the importance of album structure and how artists routinely agonize over playlists so that their albums achieve the right momentum. But we are, as they say, in the Digital Age, where MP3s and streaming have largely replaced physical formats and cloud-based databases are threatening bookshelves of CDs. This has far-reaching implications, many of which I’m sure you’ve been beaten to death with every time you’ve opened up a music magazine (or webpage) for the last decade. For our immediate goals, I’m going to discuss one of these implications: the perceived “death of the album”.
To be a tad reductive, the “album is dead” theory posits that since digital music files easily allow for consumers to buy and listen to music on a song-by-song basis, no one is really listening to albums as a whole anymore.
On the surface, this argument makes sense. Singles were always available to buy in a physical format, but with the advent of digital music stores and file sharing, buying single songs became both cheaper and more accessible, so they sold better. Plus, for the first time, it wasn’t just limited to officially released singles: Virtually every song on every album became available for individual purchase (or streaming or, if you will, theft). Because of this, and because people are now making their own playlists and listening to albums in fragments, the concept of the album as a definitive artistic statement is supposedly in peril.
Well, it’s been nearly ten years since the iTunes Store was launched and changed the way people buy music, and the album’s still here. And I don’t think it’s going anywhere, at least anywhere in the foreseeable future. I may be in the minority here, and I completely understand and even agree with many of the arguments on the other side, but I have a dissenting theory I’d like to float instead.
The album isn’t dead; it’s just changed.
Because it’s no longer the dominant or sole way to consume music, artists are taking advantage of the Internet to release music in new, inventive ways. Some musicians, perhaps also assuming the album is dead, have toyed with the idea of putting out only EPs or singles rather than albums. But most notably, the Flaming Lips have really stretched the limits of how they release music, distributing everything from a 24-hour song to a flash drive lodged inside a gummy skull.
Yet, these instances are the exception; nearly all artists still churn out albums because nothing has successfully replaced them as vessels for major artistic statements. The fear the album is dead stems from the idea that all the kids these days are just picking and choosing what they want from albums, so they are listening to albums in a way the artist never intended. And while I’m sure that’s the case with a sizable chunk of people, I still don’t think that mindset is widespread enough to knock out the album entirely.
For one, there will always be diehard music fans willing to buy complete records, if for no other reason than to just own more music from the artists they love. Whether they are fans of Taylor Swift, the Melvins, or Big Boi, they will listen to these albums late at night, absorbing the music and words, and playing it in their cars for their friends. Also, since when is the ability to skip songs on an album new? CD players allow you to easily skip, shuffle and program which songs you want to listen to, something people were doing years before an iPod even existed.
Moreover, although singles sell better than ever, it’s singles that drive album sales: A casual Adele fan may have bought “Rolling in the Deep” and “Someone Like You” when they heard them on the radio, but how many of those people went out soon after and bought 21? Well, I’m guessing a hell of a whole lot, considering that as of this date, 21 is certified diamond by the RIAA—and that’s not even counting all the copies illegally file-shared.
There are a lot of cool, gimmicky release methods out there, but given that these Intro and Outro categories I’m listing are still relevant to current records, it seems artists are still putting the time and effort into playlists and structure. They’re pledging their support to the album, which may be going through some stuff right now but isn’t down for the count quite yet.