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THE ALBUM
IS NOT DEAD.

THE ALBUM
IS NOT DEAD.

It's just changing.

It's just changing.

NERD ACADEMY

NERD ACADEMY

Have we stopped listening to albums in their entirety? Have the recommended/suggested playlist mania made the music album obsolete? Maybe not. Here’s a timeline of the album format through the decades, how the changing technology influenced the way we consume music and is the album, still to this day, the essential bearer for musical creativity.

By Miruna Dumitrașcu
12—April—2019

From the glorious days of the vinyl, through the 8-track and the cassette, all the way to CDs and MP3, the album has been the building block for musical production. Nowadays, on the other hand, albums are less and less presented in a physical format. We instead have music at our fingertips 24/7, thanks to streaming services (read what we think about some of the issues of streaming). The physical format of the album is about much more than convenience and availability. It has shaped not only the way we listen to music, but it has expanded or limited the creativity of artists and what they can do with their music.

Different publications have taken their turn in writing about people not listening to albums in their entirety anymore (The Atlantic, 2010). This music apocalypse, in the form of the death of the music album, has been lurking around for decades. But, honestly, I just don’t see the album going anywhere.

The vinyl sales have been increasing by 12%, from 8.6 million to 9.7 million sales (The Verge, 2019) within the last year. Plus, why do we still give musicians awards for their albums? If the album is dying, we might as well just start giving them awards only for their best singles, right?

The album isn’t dying, the album as we know it is morphing into something else. So, buckle up for a humble attempt to trace back the different forms and shapes the album has had in the past and see where it’s going now.

From the glorious days of the vinyl, through the 8-track and the cassette, all the way to CDs and MP3, the album has been the building block for musical production. Nowadays, on the other hand, albums are less and less presented in a physical format. We instead have music at our fingertips 24/7, thanks to streaming services (read about the issue of streaming). The physical format of the album is about much more than convenience and availability. It has shaped not only the way we listen to music, but it has expanded or limited the creativity of artists and what they can do with their music.

Different publications have taken their turn in writing about people not listening to albums in their entirety anymore (The Atlantic, 2010). This music apocalypse, in the form of the death of the music album, has been lurking around for decades. But, honestly, I just don’t see the album going anywhere.

The vinyl sales have been increasing by 12%, from 8.6 million to 9.7 million sales (The Verge, 2019) within the last year. Plus, why do we still give musicians awards for their albums? If the album is dying, we might as well just start giving them awards only for their best singles, right?

The album isn’t dying, the album as we know it is morphing into something else. So, buckle up for a humble attempt to trace back the different forms and shapes the album has had in the past and see where it’s going now.

Take it back to
the 1940s

The late ‘40s and ‘50s were definitely the vinyl times. In 1948, Columbia started producing the first 12-inch, 33⅓-RPM microgroove record made of vinyl which could hold 23 minutes worth of music per side (The Vinyl District, 2011).

Actually, a vinyl could allow for even 40 minutes per side, but then musicians and producers would have to take into consideration the length of the side, the level, and the bass because all of these elements dictate the quality of the tracks on the album. Ultimately, the genre you’re producing plays an important role in vinyl pressing.

For instance, Mixmag advises those who want start pressing their own vinyls to weigh in what type of tracks you want on your vinyl, and that drum’n’bass and techno songs should be cut at 45rpm which is a speed suited for singles (Mixmag.com, 2017)

…and all the way
to the ‘60s

In 1962, Philips announced the release of the new cool kid on the block: the compact audio cassette. That meant that musicians had access to new means to release their music on and, for us, this meant that we could finally take our favourite albums with us in the car, listen to our favorite songs on our way to work, and made our long, boring family road trips sweeter (by the way, we also wrote a whole thing about music on the road) The first artists to be released on tape, were Nina Simone, Eartha Kitt and Johnny Mathis in 1966. (The Guardian, 2013)

According to The Guardian, cassettes also made it harder for people to skip songs which meant that the habit of listening to the whole album at once became ingrained in the music listening culture. Cassettes would also allow for more time than the vinyl — up to 45 minutes for each side. And, if you think the cassette had died, well you’re in for a surprise because just like vinyls and all the other nostalgia-imbued items, cassettes are also making a comeback. Since 2017, the cassettes sales has been on the rise with almost 19% increase in sales, 99,400 copies to 118,200 copies in the US (The Verge, 2019).

In 1962, Philips announced the release of the new cool kid on the block: the compact audio cassette. That meant that musicians had access to new means to release their music on and, for us, this meant that we could finally take our favourite albums with us in the car, listen to our favorite songs on our way to work, and made our long, boring family road trips sweeter (by the way, we also wrote a whole thing about music on the road). The first artists to be released on tape, were Nina Simone, Eartha Kitt and Johnny Mathis in 1966. (The Guardian, 2013)

According to The Guardian, cassettes also made it harder for people to skip songs which meant that the habit of listening to the whole album at once became ingrained in the music listening culture. Cassettes would also allow for more time than the vinyl — up to 45 minutes for each side. And, if you think the cassette had died, well you’re in for a surprise because just like vinyls and all the other nostalgia-imbued items, cassettes are also making a comeback. Since 2017, the cassettes sales has been on the rise with almost 19% increase in sales, 99,400 copies to 118,200 copies in the US (The Verge, 2019).

The future is CD

Twenty years after the invention of the tape, here came the future straight from Japan — the compact disc (CD). This was also going to dictate and influence people’s music listening habits for another twenty years at least. And it did. The playing time for the CD was up to 74 minutes.

There is a bit of a discussion around the topic of the first commercial compact disc release, but the first release on CD was Billy Joel’s 52nd Street. However, it was originally tested with Richard Strauss’s Eine Alpensinfonie and the first batch of discs to be manufactured was a run of ABBA’s The Visitors (UCR, 2012).

Then came the download, the peer-to-peer sharing, Limewire (also known as computer AIDS), Napster. Even back then, the music Nostradamuses were saying that we would eventually stop listening to albums, but here we are in the mighty streaming era. So, what do we do now? Albums haven’t died yet. They keep on being released and the biggest music publications still ask their entire writing staff to compile a list of their favorite albums each year.

What’s an album
today, anyway?

However, releasing albums in the streaming services era allows musicians to experiment with the format, and move away from time constraints or sacrificing quality over album length. And, if you think that our attention span is decreasing with every passing year, some musicians choose to ignore that information and proceed with making long albums.

For example, Drake’s Scorpion is a 90 minutes double-album with 25 tracks, Views has 20 tracks, and More Life registers 22 tracks. But the rapper isn’t the only one who aims at making mega albums. Other notable artists, such as Rae Sremmurd released SR3MM with 27 tracks and Migos released Culture II with 24 tracks.

On the other side of the non-traditional album spectrum these days, there are artists like Tierra Whack — a rapper from Philadelphia who made an album with fifteen songs, none longer than sixty-seconds (New Yorker, 2018). Comedian Alana Johnston released Self Esteem Party, a nineteen-song album, with all of the songs lasting one minute or less.

Time isn’t the only aspect that musician choose to experiment with, and they’ve been doing it since the ‘60s. Remember the concept album? (NME, 2015) When you read titles like The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust And the Spiders from Mars (David Bowie), The Wall (Pink Floyd), or Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band (The Beatles) you know where to place them. It’s that type of album that is tied together by a concept or a narrative. It isn’t just a collection of singles about different themes.

On top of time and concept, the visual album has also been challenging the music landscape lately and, according to Esquire, it has been changing cinema as well (Esquire, 2016).

Frank Ocean’s Endless, Beyonce’s Lemonade, Solange’s When I Get Home are a few names that rocked our music world, but aren’t the first ones to pioneer visual albums. The Beatles took care of that with A Hard Day’s Night back in 1964, and Serge Gainsbourg tested the murky waters with a Nabokovian love story in his visual album  Histoire de Melody Nelson back in 1971. The visual album marks a territory that expands both the music album format and film to the point where we can’t even refer to the music in an album without recalling the haunting images and the transitions between the songs within the cinematic experience.

Concept + Video = The Visual Album

On top of time and concept, the visual album has also been challenging the music landscape lately and, according to some, it has been changing cinema as well (Esquire, 2016).

Frank Ocean’s Endless, Beyonce’s Lemonade, Solange’s When I Get Home are a few names that rocked our music world, but aren’t the first ones to pioneer visual albums. The Beatles took care of that with A Hard Day’s Night back in 1964, and Serge Gainsbourg tested the murky waters with a Nabokovian love story in his visual album  Histoire de Melody Nelson back in 1971. The visual album marks a territory that expands both the music album format and film to the point where we can’t even refer to the music in an album without recalling the haunting images and the transitions between the songs within the cinematic experience.

Even though visual albums are pretty darn cool, there is still a long way to go until they become the norm, if they will ever become that. Right now, it looks like only a few artists can afford to make hour-long films that challenge both a well-established format in music and cinema tropes at the same time. That type of artist I’m referring to is the established musician who fills stadiums and keeping fans on their toes eagerly awaiting a new album or the next lit single. Or, who knows? Maybe we’ll line up for an indie lo-fi visual album festivals in a few years.

What’s next?

Who’s to say if the album is going to change drastically? It most probably will. If we’re going to be listening to albums through stories on social media, or if we’re going to watch VR, AR, MR visual albums, we don’t know for sure yet. All of these sound like plausible options though. But if that becomes reality, it means that the music album will still be around. It will come through other means, in different formats, and various timeframes and storytelling techniques, but musicians will continue to invest all their creative effort and energy because it’s still a compelling form through which they can tell their story.

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