Is the Album Format Really Dying?

Being in a band that loves and relies on the album format, I had to find out for myself what exactly the death of the album format entails and to what extreme it’s happening. It entails that albums are slowly becoming an nonviable format for distributing music as we move back to a singles driven music economy.

The RIAA’s yearly report shows a huge increase in streaming went as revenue moved from from 7% to 34% of the music industry’s $7B revenue in just 5 years. The results of the report show that the album format is losing steam and it’s hemorrhaging slowly (33% physical/67% digital in 2014 compared to 30% physical/70% digital in 2015). Interestingly enough, the report also shows vinyl sitting at an all time high of $416M in sales. So why exactly is this happening to the album format?

The Past

As it turns out it’s no surprise to industry veterans as some argue this has been happening as early as the 90’s. When you compare the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ 13M copies it sold in 1991 for “Blood Sugar Sex Magik” to Katy Perry’s 2M copies as of 2014 for her album “Prism”, it starts to paint a clear picture of a longstanding problem the album format has been facing for years.

iTunes also helped by giving people another option for purchasing singular songs instead of entire albums. Part of the reason why album sales have dropped might also have to do with the album purchasing experience dying with it. With records stores closing, online streaming making music discovery much more convenient, prices being competitive, and albums being full of filler (looking at you post-Black album Metallica), it’s no wonder the album format’s popularity started to lose popularity.

The Present

The physical album experience is still around, but it feels like a hobby meant for those dedicated who are going out of their way for the experience (I’m totally one of these people). However, one of the album’s biggest rivals is the playlist. Playlists are completely dominating the music industry as they can be catered to specific activities, events, moods, and atmospheres. They can also be used to discover new music by listening to other people’s playlists who might have similar tastes or an authority on the genre who helps you find artists and singles that you might enjoy.

Discovery is made easier through the power of choice and services like Spotify that gives you the ability to build these playlists. Personally, I love the album format for many reasons. I love immersing myself in a particular artist or band in more than just their hits. Some of my favorite songs aren’t even singles like Coheed and Cambria’s Atlas off of their latest album, “The Color Before the Sun”. Bands like C&C or Between the Buried utilize the album format extremely well delivering a dynamic, fluid, and beautiful audio experience. (Colors by BtBAM is one of my top 5). In addition, bands like The Ocean’s Pelagial uses the narrative component of the album format to deliver an ambient, claustrophobic journey from the ocean surface as you delve into its deep waters.

I believe the album format still has a place in the music industry, but people today are always on the go and have many avenues of access to their favorite music. It is becoming difficult for artists to get fans to buy albums as they are a large investment emotionally and financially as they hope the album is a quality listening experience.

The Future

I would say the album format isn’t dying and that retiring might be a better word for its place in the music industry. It will probably still be around, but will make way for other music formats to take over as the popular listening format. Playlists are currently dominating the music industry so platforms such as Spotify, Pandora, and Apple Music are at the forefront of music distribution right now.

BandCamp and their recent subscription service which gives artists another option as to how to distribute their music. Bands like Protest the Hero have already started experimenting with the subscription service such as their latest project “Pacific Myth”. Instead of delivering a full length album, they were releasing a song once a month for 6 months and promoted it as an EP spread over 6 months.

This is new territory and it has me wondering what kind of formats will emerge over the next couple of years. Maybe a format similar to PtH’s, but on a shorter timeline might be useful such as 3 songs a month for 3 months. This is tumultuous time for artists, but it presents a great opportunity to deliver music differently as we transition into a new era of experiencing music.