Will the musical album become quaint as a buggy whip? That's the question being raised by many observers as the marketing and sale of recorded music finally starts shifting to the Internet. There, it's back to the single song sale just like it was decades ago on the 78 RPM shellac disc.
When the 33-1/3 RPM long-playing vinyl album was developed by Dr. Peter Goldmark and his CBS lab team in 1948, it also changed the complexion of popular music. With 23 minutes per side, it created an entirely new way to present and market music. Soon after, RCA introduced the 45 RPM vinyl single, which also affected the marketing of songs. (Fittingly, Dr. Goldmark's son Andy -- a friend of mine in New York City years ago -- became a recording artist and later hit songwriter and producer for major acts like Elton John, Natalie Cole and Michael Bolton.)
While first seen as a new way to sell music as well as a medium that could allow classical pieces to be presented in their entirety, the long player soon inspired musical artists to present their music within themes and concepts. Many of Frank Sinatra's finest works during his time with Capitol Records in the 1950s embraced thematic thinking to great artistic and sales success. When rock'n'roll got serious in the 1960s, albums truly came into their own with everything from The Who Sell Out to Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. By the 1970s, the concept album notion became overblown and misused, as all good things seem to be. But even into the Compact Disc age, the notion of a defined set of songs as a distinct collection with coherence and themes and threads was a linchpin of contemporary music. And the CD changed things by allowing up to 73 or more minutes of music to be packaged.
Music consumers and those who create, produce and market music have all been influenced by the formats in which music was sold. Being born in 1954 -- I consider myself the same age as rock'n'roll, and probably healthier and more creative than it is at age 50 -- I'm a child of both the 45 single and vinyl LP. It took me a while to warm up to CDs but I grew to enjoy its compactness and durability. On the other hand, at 50 I have to strain (and sometimes use a magnifier) to read the credits on far too many CD packages.
In recent weeks I was helping veteran producer Bruce Bromberg (a founder of the HighTone indie record label) sequence a best-of collection for an artist. As we pondered the task, he confessed that, being from the generation before me, he found album sequencing daunting ever since it went from two sides of an LP to a single CD. We are how we receive and listen to music, at least to some degree.
Marketing single songs on the Internet, as all the pay sites that are popping up now mainly do, certainly fits the tenor of this musical era. We are in a time commercially dominated by the pop single in the upper reaches of the music business. And overall, I'd have to say that this past year probably yielded less truly distinctive and cohesive albums than any I remember.
Will the album die? Probably not, though it will recede for sure. Yet change always creates new possibilities. And no doubt there will be artists and marketers who will see this new open canvas as a way to create entirely new forms of song collections and albums. So as much as I lament the fading of this very efficient format of 45 or so minutes and later 70 minutes in which to present music, I can't help but feel that something new may be brought to that conceptual table (or perhaps conceptual turntable) by this format shift.
Being the nut for everything about and around music, I already with CDs miss the now shrunken art and details that were many times an essential part of the musical experience as well as almost always its marketing. Yet I've also been enjoying the reconfigurations of the musical listening experience created by a great club DJ, and have been making my own mix cassettes and then burned CDs for years.
And I wonder if perhaps, once the first blitz of buying all your favorite songs and loading them on your iPod passes, the album might not reemerge. With all those songs out there to be bought, the album notion and the idea of multi-song collections and concepts might just be the way artists can distinguish themselves from the rabble. But before I affix my seer's stamp to the future, I'm content to for now watch what develops and how it shakes out. So all I can say here in early 2004 is that the album is dead, long live the album.
Rob Patterson is a music and entertainment writer in Austin, Texas. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.