When was the last time you bought a physical copy of an album? For many of us that was most likely years ago. It’s sad to think that technology has taken over all the things that made our childhood so exciting. Ali Townsend explores where the album went and how we are fighting against it.
There was no funeral to follow the death of the album. It was in the early 21st century when its pulse quietly faded away. The companies who tampered with the tubes were the likes of Spotify and Apple. Their mass music streaming deprives the album of attention, leaving it to wilt and die.
Whilst being incredibly successful, these companies enable a pathway to instant gratification; in 2016 alone Spotify streamed over 750,000 songs per minute. Apple’s iTunes allows consumers to download individual hits, leaving the less popular songs from an album redundant. Snippets of an album are given to the listener who can then shuffle through their own collections and only hear the songs they want, meaning they’re not forced to commit to the album and deal with its excess baggage.
Consider the last time you purchased an album; it’s so uncommon that research conducted by Paul Hose found that album sales have more than halved from 1999 to 2009, resulting in the industry dropping from £10.3 billion to £4.45 billion. This was caused by the rise of the internet and apps like Spotify and iTunes. Albums no longer took up the same space as CDs, tapes or recorders because they were easily accessible on the internet. In 2016, the Music Biz Consumer claimed that 77% of participants stated their primary mode of listening to music was streaming, whereas just 22% chose the album.
The album was a creative platform where artists could experiment with their sounds and share it with the world. The mindless music in the charts today is arguably produced for profit only, whilst singles adapt themselves to what is considered ‘mainstream’. An underlying fear of rejection restricts today’s artists and the creativity of the album is lost. Musicians took advantage of the space to experiment and explore their interests in other genres.
Robbie Williams, for example, produced Swing While You’re Winning to express his love for swing music and Childish Gambino re-established himself as an artist, venturing from his usual rap genre towards the funk opus in Awaken, My Love. Sadly, the top hits in the charts no longer take such daring chances and the music industry lacks in diversity.
Musicians, as a result, adapt themselves to the ever-changing music industry to earn an income. The most successful method for them to do this is to release only singles and EPs, as they stand a higher chance of universal acknowledgement than an entire album. Some artists, however, have made an attempt to resuscitate the album by competing with contemporary technology.
Beyoncé’s Lemonade was sold globally more than 2.5 million times, making it the highest selling album of 2016. This, and Daniel Caesar’s Freudian reached great success by introducing the visual album, combining visuals and music to create a modern, future driven relationship. This technological medium keeps in pace with contemporary culture and the album is saved – for now. Beyoncé discontinued the public accessibility to Lemonade on sites like Spotify or Apple Music in an attempt to bring awareness to the damage they cause to the album.
The vinyl player similarly fights the decline of the album. It has transcended time and remains a successful lifeline for records. BPI reported that the number of vinyl albums sold in 2017 were at their highest since 1991, with 4.1 million being purchased solely in the UK. After the album was cut out by Spotify and iTunes the consumer’s subconscious love returned to the original music distributor: the record player.
It denies the listener the option to shuffle through songs, but instead submerges them into the entire creative compilation of music. The vinyl sleeves imitate a less technological version of the visual album and preserve its retro aesthetics. The visuals compliment the music and the captivating sleeves are attractive to the consumer, adding to its value.
However, there are inherent flaws in the vinyl – one speck of dust in the grooves can completely reshape the sound and in order to reach a similar quality to modern technology it must be amplified multiple times. Nevertheless, these faults only make the experience of listening to vinyls more personal and authentic.
Albums produced before technological advances contain sentimental value that listeners have treasured over time. Notably, most singles that have been released in the 21st century are enjoyed for a month at most, but fail to find a meaningful place in the heart. The death of the album needs to be respected and we should submerge ourselves in its last dying breaths.
Words by Ali Townsend