Thursday, 4 March 2010

The Album Is Dead?

I'm starting to think the album is dead.., well slowly dying?

Now don't go all nostalgic on me and talk of days gone by when you used to queue outside music shops waiting for the latest release, because I'm not talking about the history of the album but more the future.

I have given this a lot of thought and decided to write these thoughts down in order to make sense of them. I am drawing upon my personal experiences as a consumer of music and, in some lesser way, my limited experience as a recording artist/producer.

An album is simply a distribution model for releasing songs. If the songs follow a common "Theme" e.g. Pink Floyd - The Wall then it makes sense to buy the album in whichever format you choose, Vinyl, CD, MP3 Flac or even Tape.

But another way is to view an album is as a "Snapshot" in time of an artist/band(s) work. This is the case for the majority of albums. An album quite simply is a collection of separate songs where the only common denominator is the artist/band that wrote it and the time when it was written.

But I remember buying singles (7" and 12"). Why? Because I couldn't afford the album? Sometimes.., but sometimes it was because I didn't like all the songs on the album. And I repeat this buying pattern online. I preview the album and if I like all the songs I buy the CD. If I find there are only a few songs I like then I buy the downloads of the individual tracks.

There are few artists making concept albums now. The advent of pirate downloads has stripped income going into the music industry. Once upon a time big record labels used to invest in their artists, nurturing their talent and encouraging their creativity. With less money big companies are focusing on those few artists that have a ready audience (X-Factor etc). They are not interested in the music but are focused on the return they can get from an artist as a commodity / T-shirts / Ring Tones / Endorsements / Products etc. This is how the music industry is shaping up. They cut the lower rungs of the ladder and concentrate on the top echelon.

Yes there are lots of smaller independent labels, but they only act as part of the distribution chain and do little to market their artists other than cross pollinate between their signed acts. The artist signed to the smaller label may sell a few more CDs by association, but the Indie Label will take their slice of the ever dwindling cake for their work.

So Vinyl’s, CDs, Digital Albums or Digital Singles?

Now I love liner notes and album artwork but these can be distributed online as digital products and are often embedded in MP3s. All that info can be found quickly online at the artist’s website.

But CDs give better quality.... yes they do but that's to do with the lossey format of MP3 files. But FLAC and other better quality lossless files are now available and I distribute my own work in lossless formats.

But Vinyl’s sound better than CDs..., yes they do? And they can't be digitally uploaded. I think that's the primary reason why many people are starting to release on vinyl. It is a product that can't be stolen and distributed illegally online. Add a limited version of an unreleased song, some great artwork and the artist regains the exclusive control of the sale of their work.

I own an iPod and it sounds acceptable. I've added some studio quality full size headphones and it sounds good. I also use a nokia phone which has a music player and there is an option to rip uncompressed music files to my phone. Add the headphones and it sounds very good. What I'm getting at is digital does not sound as bad as some people would have you believe.

Anyone involved in music production will tell you that the problem with the sound of modern music isn't the digital format in which it is delivered, but it is in the treatment and mastering process done to those digital recordings to make them commercially viable in today's world. There is a trade off between "dynamics" and "volume" and unfortunately to exist in today’s broadcast world "volume" usually wins over "dynamics".

As you can see there are arguments for and against the different formats.

So when I look at things wearing my song writers hat then things change: Focal Point was a collection of songs that represented important points in my life. There was a theme and I hope that is carried through in the CD.

Now as time has progressed I am starting to see how my digital sales have gone in the first few months of release. Roughly 50% CD Albums to 50% Digital Albums. But interestingly over 2000 digital singles have also been sold. So digital is strong, and even with an album that I consider follows the "themed" package, buyers are still cherry picking their favourite singles.

Now I have been working away on Album 2 and again it was going to follow a theme and should therefore be an album. I have been writing away with specific concept(s) in mind and tailoring songs to sit in place. Now I am conscious that it will take some time to write the full album, especially when I do it all myself. But I have been approaching my work from an "album" point of view.

But I keep getting new ideas for new songs that do not tie in with the theme of album 2. I quickly record these and set them aside to carry on with Album 2. A linear approach of one album at a time.

Now I'm starting to think about working on one single at a time, released digitally. Then releasing CD/digital album(s) as and when my body of work warrants it. The albums would be either "themed" or "snapshot".

The next "themed" CD/digital album would be released when I have approx 50+ minutes of related songs that capture a theme. Not all themed songs would be officially released as digital downloads but would probably be released on my own website.

"Snapshot" digital singles (those that don't follow the theme of album 2) would be released as and when they are finished. I did this with "Christmas Through Your Eyes". Then a "Snapshot" CD/digital album would be released once there are enough singles to warrant it manufacture.

My point is there is a demand for both singles and albums but why does it have to be the creation of an album that dictates the release of songs? I'm starting to question why I, and many other bands, focus on releasing album after album? Why not release single after single? Perhaps many do and I just don't buy from those circles. I wonder what the pros and cons are?

Remember I started saying the album is just a distribution package, whether it be a "themed" or "snapshot" album. Buying an album based on the strength of one or two songs is a great way to discover new and, many times, better music.

In the end the songs are the contents of that package and they will continue to sell irrespective of whether the album format lives or dies.

Personally I like the album format, but I think market forces and cash flow will see a rise in the dominance of singles.

I'm looking foward to reading your thoughts on this topic.


  1. Very well spoken Paul, I''m in the process of researching this very subject for a thesis I plan to do in University. My title being, has the digitalization of music (as a service?) devauled the concept of the album? Something like anyway. I'm trying to convey an unbiased insight into how people actually listen and consume music in their daily lives and what affect this may have on their listening/aestheical experience with music as a product. Could I ask if it possible if you consider allowing me to perform a short interview on you in the near future as part of my preliminaries. I believe you have a point of view that will add another dimension and further discussion to my piece.
    All the best,

  2. Interesting thoughts there Paul.

    A few ideas missing though. One is, why is a CD 74 minutes in length? Answer: because that is the length of Beethoven's 5th Symphony. Modern "rock" albums will fill this CD space, but it's only filler, more often than not.

    Secondly, why release a whole album worth of tracks? Because that gives artists and promoters a set of songs they can take out on the road. Concerts are where the money is now, not album or single sales, but the album needs to be out there to entice people to come to the gigs. Sometimes it's good to hear songs for the first time you've not heard before played live, but usually the punters want to hear something they know. That means an album.

  3. Jem Godfrey of Frost* has said some interesting things on the subject as well. Their contract with InsideOut has expired and he had plans all along to stop releasing under the album format (as he doesn't do concept albums IIRC) and begin releasing single songs digitally as they are finished. i.e. one new song per month or so, instead of waiting a year or more for a new album.

    I like both approaches. The wait makes it worth it, and hearing the work as a whole is a special thing. I'm a young guy, only 23, never experienced the 'vinyl age'. In fact it wasn't until really 3-4 years ago that I started to actually LISTEN to music. And now I can't do it any other way - I actually "spin" my albums from start to finish, regardless of genre or artist. I find its the only way to truly listen for me, at home at least. In my car is a different story, and that's when I create my own mix of singles to listen to.

  4. Paul, how do you view the approach that Steven Wilson is taking with Porcupine Tree, where he sees his latest album The Incident as a collection of songs to be played from start to end, much like reading chapters from a novel.

  5. John, I love The Incident and saw it performed live twice.

    That album is one that keeps getting better the more I listen to it.

    The themed structure can be heard by the repetition of a set pieces of music throughout the whole album, in much the same way as a chorus is repeated within any standard 4 minute song.

    By wrapping the songs up as a concept album, PT gave themself the freedom to develop some musical ideas in alternative directions whilst avoiding the pitfals of repetition.

    It also gave SW freedom to expand on his lyrics within the confines of a theme without being constrained by the limitations of a standard song length.

    I still haven't managed to determine what the story is, but do understand some of the underlying themes.

    But as I said probably one of my favourite albums from 2009.

  6. Firstly, i'm an old geezer (50 last December - still looks weird written down!) so I do remember the thrill of waiting for Floyd's latest waxing outside the record shop!
    I stopped buying singles when I was 11 and could afford the occasional album from my pocket money/paper round.
    With the onset of the digital age however, I find that most of my listening is done while in front of the 'pooter, but I still tend to play a whole album from start to finish, rather than set the media player to random. I find that in order to properly appreciate an artist you need to hear more than one song at a time in order to get a feel for what they are about.
    I have yet to buy a single track in isolation, and indeed do not buy downloads, as they cannot compare to the CD or LP version on a proper hi-fi (remember them?). Try listening to The Incident on a decent system, and follow it up on an mp3 player - no comparison, so much is lost in compression.
    Steven Wilson has said he does not care for the low quality of mp3 files, and from his point of view it must be frustrating to have spent many hours mastering a cd to the point of sonic perfection only for Joe Public to prefer the more disposable but undoubtedly lower quality download version, and that includes FLAC.
    The only time when compilations of tracks on mp3 players come into their own imo is when travelling on a plane or train.
    Paul - love Focal Point and I hope everything you do in the future is released in album form, because I can't be bothered with single tracks.
    Long live the album!

  7. Interesting thoughts. My take on this is that all artistic endeavors are facing revenue-model challenges. This is because how music gets to the listener has changed quite a bit. I started out listening to radio and vinyl, and discovered that the quality of both varied a lot. If you could afford the equipment, vinyl produced the best sound, with a slight fall-off in the bass and treble ranges (usually compensated for by booster circuitry). Radio improved somewhat with FM broadcasts, especially by ignoring the 'song' strictures (3.5 minutes long, with a hook and a break) but suffered from interference, especially when used in a car. CDs had great clarity and convenience, especially compared with cassette tapes. But mixers were not adjusting to the new format and complaints of a brassy sound or too much bass were heard from some listeners. I ended up with a large collection of vinyl albums, CDs and even reel-to-reel tapes that eventually began collecting dust as my personal life took away the time I had had previous to audit them. Then came digital files, and suddenly I was able to listen to music that I hadn't heard in years without secluding myself to fiddle with electronic devices (just one needed, and it was mobile).

    So I buy albums whenever I can. Usually the previews of a song are only thirty seconds long (You are an appreciated exception, Paul). This means I might miss some little gem that wasn't promoted by free download or broadcast (radio is only a shadow of what it used to be). My feeling is an album is what the artist decrees it is, not an objective definition. If an album is only one continuous track, 2 hours long (a DJ relative of mine does those), then I'm good with it. So, albums aren't dead, they've just evolved.

  8. Joshua MutzelburgMarch 04, 2010 10:54 pm

    There is very good technology out there that allows for perfect rips of both vinyl and CD to completely lossless digital versions. I have a mate who buys albums, rips them to FLAC and listens to them through a very good set of speakers, or quality cans. I'm not an audiophile compared to him or my other friends, but I do appreciate high quality recordings. I however only rip CDs in high quality. and with the modern age of hard drive space, people have no reason to rip music to 128kb (yeecchhh).

    As for albums vs Singles, they both have their different pros and cons, The Album allows for a full length exploration into one or a connection of ideas and ideologies (<3 The Incident) but an interesting thing with singles, the CDs are usually released with 3-4 tracks, an Album Version or Radio Edit but sometimes a different way of playing or singing the song.

    The Single for Dream Theater's 'Whither' from their newest album is a great example, it features the Album Version, Piano version, and a version with Vocals by the Guitarist (who wrote the song) instead of the usual singer. You wouldn't have that sort of freedom of expression with an album, and it gives the fans a different outlook on the song. I know from my own band experiences that different versions will be inevitable, and I for one love listening to (and playing) different versions of a song.

    So I guess what i'm saying is that both Albums and Singles have their place, but with a Single, you have more of an avenue to compliment your creativity.

  9. Joshua... I like the idea that DT have adopted... and you're right.., singles and album should be treated as 2 separate entities.

    Both serve their own purpose.