“The album is dead! I am a young person, or a brand catering to the young people, and because the young people don’t care about albums, I can say with confidence that the album is dead!”
“The album is not dead! I am a slightly older person, and I still listen to albums all the time. I’m not dead yet, so I can say with confidence that the album is not dead too!”
Arguing about music using your specific personal experience as an incontestable yardstick of fact has always been fun: that band are shit, this album is the greatest of all time, that genre’s worthless and so on. But perhaps we should be avoiding applying this logic to future consumption of music itself?
The album as a thing hasn’t had an easy ride over the last decade or so. It was unbundled by iTunes, and more recently, it’s faced the challenge of the personally-curated playlist on streaming services like Spotify.
The current debate about The Future Of The Album is fuelled by various notions. People are buying fewer albums (true); people are listening to fewer albums (impossible to prove, when you think about it); and a squeeze on label budgets to fund album recording (true, although bear in mind cheaper self-recording technology and easier self-distribution channels).
There’s also the nagging sense that in 2014 and the streaming era, musicians shouldn’t have to organise their careers around a concept, the ‘long player’, invented a few formats ago. If the album was a response to new technology – vinyl records and the devices to play them – why isn’t there a new creative structure for music to match the latest format shift?
And of course, there is: the playlist. Which is where we start arguing about whether those young people are ditching albums for playlists, and What It All Means.
So, to break my own rule about specific personal experience… The album isn’t dead to me, because I’m a 37 year-old man who’s grown up listening to albums, and still listens to them now.
As much as I nerd out over my streaming playlists and new sources of track recommendations, if I think about the music I’ve loved most over the last year from artists like Gruff Rhys, Courtney Barnett, Cate Le Bon, Deltron 3030, Hurray for the Riff Raff, Kathryn Williams… they’re all albums that I fell in love with through repeated plays, often through headphones.
My love for these albums shows me that the playlist doesn’t trump the album just yet. I show this by putting them on my Full Albums playlist in Spotify, naturally. The album, for me, is still a creative concept with legs.
A concept that increasingly stretches beyond the digital to being a beautiful physical object, too. The more music I stream, the more of a sucker I am for deluxe limited-edition box-setty objects from the musicians that I love. I suspect this is no co-incidence.
But rather than argue myself as a profitable future for the album, why not think hard about how it evolves, rather than dies? Think about how people who love music, whatever their age, will want to listen to it, and what that might mean.
Some thoughts on that…
What if… the album becomes an app. People have been banging on about this since the dawn of the modern app store era (i.e. 2008) – the idea that the beautiful artwork we lost partly in the transition from vinyl to CD, and then entirely in the transition to digital, can be replaced by animation, interactivity and social features.
Album-as-app is a nice idea. It just hasn’t really worked so far. Bjork’s Biophilia was lovely, but it was expensive to make and its commercial success is unclear. Lady Gaga’s ARTPOP under delivered on its original grand claims: less “reverse Warholian expedition” and more comedy-GIF-creator-with-slogans. Apple’s iTunes LP – not strictly an app, admittedly – didn’t really take off.
Now Bono has been chatting excitedly about U2’s plans for a new format with Apple that sounds like another album-as-app: “Why can’t we dip into artwork. like we used to? Why can’t I use my phone or my iPad to disappear into a world created by artists with photography?”
For musicians and music fans of a certain age, that may be appealing (probably more so if they get to choose whether they download it, etc etc) but it doesn’t answer the question about how the album evolves for younger fans.
I suspect they’re more interested in access, not artwork. Access to what their favourite musicians are doing and thinking; access to the musical sources that influenced them; access to a community of likeminded fans in real-time.
The more I think about access, the more ideas spring up for the evolution of the album. It’s an ever-changing playlist that wraps in new songs, videos (from live footage to vlogs to Vine-length tomfoolery); the buzz of fan conversation around each track and more.
What about Albums as a Service (AaaS? Maybe not) where when a new ‘album’ launches it has less than 30% of the content that it has two years’ later, with that extra 70% coming from the artist and their fans alike?
What if albums were free to acknowledge their influences, pulling in the tracks by other artists that inspired them and/or were sampled for them? What if the experience of listening by definition exposed you to those influences in an accessible but non-intrusive way?
Or what if albums gave emerging artists a spotlight? If the new Avicii or Radiohead or Beyoncé album (or playlist) came with a smattering of tracks by the new artists they love, and want fans to hear? Album as curated artist radio station.
And yes, a lot of people will read those last few paragraphs and reach for the ragecomment button: I’m a futurological fool spouting needless fripperies that will get in the way of the important thing: the music.
Maybe. Just to reclarify: the music I’ve loved most in the last year were full albums that I played again and again and again, clearing external noise, people and worklife concerns out of the way to fall in love with them. But I’m not everyone.
Marvellous albums are marvellously marvellous, and will continue to be so for some time yet (as will marvellous single tracks, mind). But we don’t face a binary choice between ‘dead’ and ‘not dead, and staying the same’ for that future. By mutating and adapting to their listeners, albums could say marvellously alive.