If you Google “death of the album”, you will find a plethora of articles detailing the demise of the album as we know it – albums sales are down, they say: no-one bothers with them any more – Napster then iTunes (etc.) brought an end to that. Who would buy an album when they can sample all the songs first then cherry pick the best ones – cutting out the ‘filler’, at a fraction of the cost of the whole album (or, for free, if illegal file-sharing is included)? Perhaps they are right, but from where I’m sitting, I see many, many albums released each year to be lapped up – read about, bought, listened to, discussed, listed, argued over – by an enthusiastic population of music fans, on websites such as Pitchfork and Drowned In Sound, to name but a couple. Will this show up in the statistics? Well, perhaps not. Perhaps your average music-buying citizen has moved from perusing the Top 40 Albums in HMV to scrolling through What’s Hot on iTunes, leading to a decrease in the number of albums sold by ‘Top 40’ artists. However, there must still be a sizeable minority who buy albums – physical or digital copies – otherwise who is doing all the reading, writing, listing, discussing etc. that I mentioned earlier? Browsing through each week’s releases on the excellent www.normanrecords.com shows, at a rough guess, about 30-40 albums released each week (and that’s just the ones they stock – they know their patrons well). That’s an awful lot of albums, so could it be the case that the total number of albums purchased has actually remained pretty constant, just spread over a larger number of releases?* In which case, is the album still in relatively rude health?
I certainly hope so; I would be very sad to see the end of the album as a format. When it is done well, being able to lose yourself in that artist or band’s singular vision for an hour (give or take) can be wonderful; the tracks that might be dismissed as ‘filler’ when sampled individually add up to a whole so much greater than its parts. In fact in many excellent albums it is difficult to pick out any standalone highlights – the experience as a whole is the highlight.
* Of course, this does mean that any given album is selling fewer copies, which is a problem for people trying to make money from the process. Certainly it is becoming clear that to expect to make a living from making music is ambitious, at best. Some bands/artists may manage it, often by supplementing hard-copy sales with live revenues, but others may have to regard their music-making as a hobby that they do primarily for the enjoyment it provides them.