The album is dead.
After rising to prominence in the early- to mid-1960s, the album spent around 40 years on top of the musical world. But now, it is gone, cast aside like stove-popped popcorn and water from the tap. It was forced out to make way for the music world’s next obsession, the “single”, which is no longer running second banana. Consider it the end of an era.
When I say that the “album” is dead, I don’t mean in the sense of the vinyl album (which has been dead for years). By “album” I mean a complete and cohesive work of music, of art, put together to tell a story and serve a purpose in the musical universe - a "CD" in today's modern world. The album, in that sense, has met its demise. Now, the “single” has finally established its dominance after seemingly waiting in the wings all these years. At last, it has grabbed the album by the foot and sent it tumbling down the mountain, destroying one of the truly great aspects of the music art-form altogether. We might as well consider it a modern day Yoko Ono.
There is plenty of blame to go around for why things have turned out this way. The finger can be pointed in numerous directions. Here’s one: The Album is lying dead on the cold, hard floor of the abandoned warehouse, and the iTunes Store is standing over it, holding the smoking gun. Over the past 3 or 4 years, the iTunes Store has risen to unforeseen popularity in today’s society. Anyone that owns an iPod or has iTunes on their computer has essentially free access to the store, and can use it to purchase a number of different products for their laptop, MP3 player, or iPhone. In early 2008, Apple’s iTunes overtook the #1 spot as music retailer in the United States, and has remained there ever since. This was an amazing feat at that time, especially considering that as recently as November of 2005, iTunes was 7th on the U.S. list of top music retailers, and was still only 4th on the list in June of ’07!
This “Tila Tequilla-esque” rise to fame by the iTunes Store can be attributed to many factors (lower prices than most dept. stores, easy access, simple to use), but the most popular draw has been that of the $0.99 single. Practically any song, by practically any artist, from practically any time period can be purchased for less than a dollar by anyone with an IQ over 7.5. This has led to an immense surge in the amount of individual songs purchased by people across the U.S. (and the world), which in turn has made the idea of creating an album archaic and unintelligent. Why buy an entire album for $10-$15 when you can simply by the one or two songs you like the best for a couple of bucks? Why waste your time and money on the songs you may not like or may not want to like when you can just remove them from the process entirely? Music fans saw an opportunity for instant gratification that was both easy and cheap, and they jumped at the chance. iTunes simply reaped the benefits. Pulling the trigger was that easy.
But while iTunes was firing the gun, the artists and musicians of today kept watch at the exits, all while their producers circled the perimeter, keeping an eye out for witnesses. Once the majority of bands and singers realized that the majority of their fans cared only about them making a few good songs – not an entire album’s worth of high-quality, thought-out music – the artists acted accordingly. They decided they might as well only put out a few good songs, and not an entire album’s worth of high-quality, thought-out music. Why revamp the entire inside of the house when all it takes to sell it is a fresh coat of paint on the shutters? Artists were getting as much fame and fortune from doing 25%-35% of the work that they were before. Their producers realized that a few successful tracks were all that was needed to sell their product, so why bother with everything else? A combination of business-savvy and laziness suddenly made their lives a whole lot easier.
But before you jump to your conclusions and indict iTunes and the artists for what has occurred, you better take a good look at the real culprit. Here’s a hint: they are standing in your bathroom, just behind the sink. That’s right, WE are the reason the album is dead. We the consumers are the main reason why the album has apparently breathed its last breath. iTunes pulled the trigger, but we gave them the gun. The artists kept watch, but we told them where to look. We were the Judas in this whole scenario; we may not have actually done the deed, but we betrayed the Album and put it in the hands of those who did. It couldn’t have been done without us, and now we are going to pay. You might not realize it yet, but in time, you will. The art of music is in no way better off with singles at the forefront. And if something isn’t done soon, the music world itself might just go the way of the album.
Now, I will admit that my opinion on this matter may be slightly skewed and biased, being that I am somewhat of an anomaly for my generation. I am a huge fan of the 60s and 70s era of music, when the concept album was at the height of its power. I’m kind of a 63-year-old man trapped in the body of a 19-year-old young adult (a very handsome body, I might add). I fit in better at an AARP Convention than I do at VANS Warped Tour. Nevertheless, my subjectivity doesn’t change the fact that music is far superior with thorough and methodical albums, as opposed to the contrary. I truly believe that making an album – a complete work of music that holds a theme, tells a story, and has a broader, deeper meaning – immensely enhances the quality of music in our society. Otherwise, we just get bogged down with single after single after single, inundated by endless 3-minute hits with little-to-no creativity or variation. Everything is the same. It’s like living in the Playboy Mansion…you know, the Ugly Playboy Mansion. There is no originality, no imagination. There are very few risks taken, very few ideas explored.
Today, artists just churn out a catchy tune with easy lyrics, and the youth eat it up with a spoon. Then, when it comes time to actually release a CD, the artists take their 2 or 3 singles, surround them with 8 or 9 half-assed songs that they know no one will listen to anyways, and call it an album. Wrong. Sgt. Peppers by the Beatles is an album; The Fame by Lady GaGa is not. A bunch of random songs thrown together masquerading as an album is not truly an album. That’s like comparing a newspaper to a novel. One tells numerous different stories, while the other develops a complete account. And while I agree that newspapers have their place in the world, they don’t measure up to the uniqueness and genius that novels offer.
But it would be unfair to say that no one attempts to make albums in today’s society. The artists of older generations (Dylan, Springsteen, Van Morrison, Elvis Costello, etc.) still put out the same type of albums they were making 30 years ago, and there are still attempts made by other, more “modern” artists to do the same. Jay-Z’s American Gangster, Cold Play’s Viva La Vida, and the recent U2 release No Line On The Horizon are just a few examples of true concept albums from the past few years. Even Kanye West went with a concept album (which failed miserably) in his 2008 release, 808s & Heartbreak. And though these works might not measure up to Dark Side of the Moon, The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust, The Who Sell Out, Abbey Road and other great albums of the past, no one really expects them to. They simply serve as proof that a successful album can be made in today’s world, regardless of what genre or style of music one might favor.
With that said, a new path needs to be taken. We are too saturated with artists that only make singles. The last ten songs you bought and put on your iPod are the same ten songs you will hear if you turn on the radio for about 45 minutes. These tracks are so overplayed and beat to death that it’s almost idiotic to waste your money buying them. YOU’RE GOING THE WRONG WAY!!!
Unfortunately it will be hard to turn around at this point. For this reason, the music business, and more specifically, the entertainment media, wants us to believe that we will be better off with a few good singles every month than we would be with a few good albums in the same time period. I pray that you aren’t this naïve. Remember, these are the same people that tried to convince us that Jim Belushi would be just as funny as John Belushi, and that Crystal Pepsi would be just as refreshing and successful as the original Pepsi. We have all seen how those assurances panned out. Shame on you if you get fooled again.
Eventually, everyone will just get sick of the singles – the one-punch knockouts – and music will become that hated step-child. We as the consumers need to realize how important the concept of a true album is to the society of music, and then hope that the artists, producers, and retailers all get the message. The album needs a re-birth before music becomes obsolete or extinct. If you love music, you will see what the album brings to the table. If you love music, you will see how much creativity and ingenuity it has to offer. A change is needed, and with a little help, a change is gonna come. I believe in you. Now I just need you to believe me. YES WE CAN!!! YES WE CAN!!!
Thanks for reading