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Why won't the album die?

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Tuesday, Feb 6, 2007

As much as I enjoyed her work at the New York Times, Ann Powers is doing even better work at the L.A. Times now, more than ably replacing Robert Hilburn there.  She’s thoughtful as hell and knows how to dig into deep into ideas and concepts surrounding some of the biggest rock and pop acts around today.  Yes, she’s a popist but unlike others of that clan, she’s not snobbish about it and doesn’t dole out pot-shots, instead she’s “just try(ing) to turn Kylie into Dylan, in a lot of ways” (though she’s still a Dylan fan too).  If she’s got any faults, it’s that sometimes, she pushes for a zeitgeist angle too much.  Nothing wrong with that- from her exclusive perch, she should take advantage of it and try to make grand statements.
  
One of her more recent articles got me thinking about an idea I’ve had for a while: LPs? Hold that swan song.  Here, she explores how Arcade Fire, Fall Out Boy and Bloc Party are reviving the album format in their own way and she briefly visits an issue that’s worth exploring more: in a digital age, the whole concept of the album by all rights should be wiped out.


But it hasn’t.  Your favorite and not-so-favorite acts still keep putting out albums.  And why is that?  Good question, eh?  But what’s the answer…  There are a number of reasons:


* Force of habit: it’s been done this way so long now, dating back to the late 1940’s when the format was first introduced. Even major pop singers who thrive on singles are still obliged to have an album out at some point.


* Money: it’s a way to sell singles plus filler songs; also record labels and artists can make more selling an album than a single.


* The concept of an album: this is still an artistic statement for a performer to make (not that you couldn’t do it with a single but this is a grander way).


* An older demographic demands it: and they’ll pay for it just they’ve been doing for decades.


* Nowadays, it’s so cheap that just about anyone can do it (not so in the pre-digital age).


* The alternatives are too confusing: ‘albums’ are still wed to the CD-length concept (80-minutes or less) and though you could have limitless time in digital form, how many artists have flirted with other ideas about how much or little to release?  A: not many.  If you have an album coming out every year or so, that makes it easy for an artist to plan their recording and for fans to buy every so often.


As such, I think it’s a safe bet that we’ll have the album format for some time to come.  But that’s bound to change at some point.  So what’s going to be the next leap in music formats?

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