Is the album dead?

Is the album dead?

After the New York Times Music derided the album as having no place in the Age of the Song Popoptica editor Sarah Lay looks at whether the format really is dead. 

“The truth is that albums worked as a medium only because everyone was a captive…I wouldn’t be surprised if the next generation of pop stars finds ways to never release an “album” again — they’ll just drip music out, one automated-brain-chip-download at a time.” – Jon Caramanica, Pop Music Critic, New York Times

The brief, blunt and pragmatic (and perhaps even accidental) obituary to the album is a comment on the commercialisation of culture, and how technology has hastened the change in listening habits through presenting control of the format coupled with shortening attention spans and on-demand instant-gratification expectations. It recognises the modern listener feels entitled to edit and curate their own experience not humbly accept what has been served to them (by artist here, but spin it out and it starts to mirror society’s rejection of experts too).

There is nuance in the short statement too; that music for most is now expected to reflect any emotion felt more than elicit things previously unfelt. The music algorithms want to perpetuate rather than jar, they want to keep listeners in comfort zones and not challenge.

This personalisation of music listening and the listener’s part in the creative process is something Peter Hirshberg previously explored in his essay First The Media, and Then Us: How the Internet Changed the Fundamental Nature of Communication and Its Relationship With the Audience. He writes, “In the heyday of the album, the exact flow of one song to another and the overall effect was the supreme expression of overall artistic design and control. It wasn’t only the songs—the album represented 144 square inches of cover art and often many interior pages of liner notes in which to build a strong experience and relationship and story for your fans. It was a major advance over the 45, which provided a much smaller opportunity for a relationship with the band. With the arrival of MP3s, all of this was undone.

“Because we bought only the songs we were interested in, not only was the artist making less money, but he had lost control of what we were listening to and in what order. It didn’t much matter, because we were busy putting together playlists and mixtapes where we (the audience) were in charge of the listening experience.”

Whether it is Caramanica’s succinct summary or Hirshberg’s deeper exploration, viewed through the valid and realistic lense of habit and technology the album is indeed obsolete for the majority.

The minority – musicians themselves and those involved in the creation and release of music, bloggers, deep music fans – continue to resist. They insist those claiming the album’s demise don’t understand the format and in the hottest takes those people who don’t get albums don’t really like music at all. Album lovers are submissive to the artist-curated experience and recognise the creative effort made for long-form releases. They are willing to support music as a culture with their money and their attention and are perplexed others wouldn’t choose to sink deep into the experience instead of paddle in the superficial shallows of playlists, and are only interested in single hits and TikToks.

It’s surely no accident the New York Times led on social media with the quote about albums. From a much longer conversation piece between critic and editor it was the most likely to enrage those passionate about the format (and of course enrage is the key to sought after engagement). But stepping aside from cynical snapshots, hot takes and reactionary tweets the truth is perhaps that both pragmatic derision and emotionally-driven passion for the album are both right.

The album is dead: long live the album.

Born of necessity and turned into an art form

Hands flicking through records in crates for an album in a shop by Florencia Viadana

Albums can be separated from vinyl as a format but so often aren’t, and knowing this we can say the album began not as a creative vessel but as a format born of necessity. In the analogue age the length was set by the limitations of vinyl, and vinyl was the way of allowing people to buy and own music. It is almost accidental that this industry-driven process became entwined in the creative and artists played with different possibilities for delivering their visions in this way.

So established was the album as collection and not just a format that little changed as cassettes and CDs offered different ways to get music to people. The latter extended the time constraints but for the most part this led to lack of focus creatively and lacked the refinement and focus finite format space gave – the filler Caramanica alludes to took up the extra time. Whatever the format undoubtedly some albums are more indulgence for creator than meaningful for the listener.

Despite advancements in playback format as we understand albums now they began with vinyl and continue to be intrinsically linked. Listeners may have been tempted away by the shiny but eventually enough have realised vinyl albums their link to the format is emotional as much as practical.

Tom Corson, CEO of Warner Records, told Rolling Stone vinyl is, “a sexy, cool product. It represents an investment in music that’s an emotional one” and Dr Jennifer Otter-Bickerdike echoes this in her 2018 book Why Vinyl Matters, stating the conversations in the book prove the format has as much to do with our connection as the music. She said she had found from the conversations with musicians, industry folk and fans captured in the book, “how identity, friendships, careers and lives are created and shaped by records.”

Song vs Album

Caramanica is far from the first to call out the album’s death. Like the format itself we have come somewhat full circle and in the Age of the Song returned to singles being the focus for listeners, many artists, and certainly a large part of the industry. In a 2018 piece for Forbes Bobby Owsinski wrote: “We live in a singles world today. No longer does anyone consistently sit down for 40 or 50 consecutive minutes to listen to an album from front to back like they used to. In our portable music society today where streaming music from Spotify or Apple Music is the king, there’s no reason to be tied to the music playback system or to listen to songs that we don’t care to listen to.

“If that’s the case, why should an artist even bother to spend the months it takes to create an album? It’s not like people are consuming them in any great numbers, and the costs involved can sometimes put both the artist and record label in financial jeopardy.”

As a species our attention spans are getting shorter – they’ve shrunk by a quarter in 15 years, coinciding with the rise of social media, and are now at around 8 seconds so it’s no real surprise that 60 second TikToks, soundbites, and infinitely skipable playlists are de rigour and singles have risen in the listening charts again.

In that recent New York Times piece Caramanica says, “As awful as it sounds, an album is simply a data dump now. That doesn’t mean that some artists won’t continue to aim to be auteurs of the form — say, Taylor Swift or Adele — but the minute albums hit streaming services, they are sliced and diced and the songs are relegated to playlist slots, and everything after that is a crap shoot. The truth is that albums worked as a medium only because everyone was a captive. When you look back at your favorite older albums now, I’m sure you see the weak spots that you’d happily have programmed out if you had the technology then.”

Those auteurs of the album form don’t have to be big household name stars but for many creatives from the grassroots up the way a collection of tracks flows is as important as each individual part. The purpose of an album, the flow of songs across the two sides (even when it plays as one piece on a format other than vinyl, the concept and circularity of a collection of song are as much a part of delivering a creative vision than making a song piece of music which hits the spot in a three-to-four minute burst.

Given this we’re right to resist letting go of the art of the form even if we recognise the convenience technology enables in the attention-deficit era. We should – not just in music but in the delivery of everything digitally – be taking more control as individuals and collectively over balancing convenience and seizing the opportunities of progress without losing the best of what we already had.

To all things a time and place

The Age of the Song may well be upon us again, but perhaps this time around we can recognise it is no longer either/or. The scales have tipped toward favouring singles, driven partially by playback format again, but this doesn’t have to mark the end for the album.

There continue to be those who consider music as art more than a product, who want it in the foreground now part of the ceaseless background noise of life, and are willing to invest in that deeper experience. For those people a well crafted album, delivered in a physical package, means something quite different to the ‘Alexa, play me pop music’ listeners.

Without songs there would be no albums, and without the commitment needed for an album we may not appreciate the convenience and accessibility of a song. It doesn’t make for a great Twitter soundbite to rile up engagement to preach for co-existence, to recognise nuance and that from music to all things there is a time and place but it is the more rounded view.


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For what it’s worth we don’t believe the album is dead. We even put together a list of our Top 40 albums from the year – check it out here.

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Sarah Lay

Sarah Lay is editor of Popoptica.
A long-standing music journalist she's also co-founder of independent record label Reckless Yes, an author of novels, and when not messing around with words and music, a digital strategist.
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