What is an ‘album’ anyway?

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There’s a generation of children who have never held a photo album in their hands. Not a real one anyway. For these kids, the word ‘album’ means ‘a context menu within a smartphone app’. For their generation, photos and videos can live in many albums at once. You can move media in and out of an album without consequence or friction. No messy sellotape or glue to deal with; either a photo’s in Best Holiday Snaps, or it’s out to the cruel never-ending Camera Roll.

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Why start a post about music albums talking about photo albums? They’re soulmates, dating back to the 1930s. Back then, companies sold books with empty sleeves, for you to store your 10-inch and 12-inch 78rpms. They did the same with photos. Bookshelves housed books of Family Wedding Portraits, side-by-side with Our Favourite Crooners. Record companies soon evolved this to the LP format of today. Early LPs compiled an artist’s singles, on a 10 or 12 inch piece of vinyl. This saved you the effort of collating your own ‘album’, for the first time. It was a space-reducing, time-saving, bulk-buying concept, rolled into one. It also meant the music ‘album’ became an artform, while the photo ‘album’ stayed personal.

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Artists like The Beach Boys and The Beatles helped with this transition. They popularised the ‘album’ as something important. For them, an album should play in sequence; a purposeful — and even thematic — collection of songs. This format remained in place, until the demise of physical media. In the Napster-era, listeners regressed the ‘album’ back to the way things were in the 1930s. Thanks to the rise of the MP3 format, music had become malleable. Once artists lost control of media collation, they also lost control of media consumption. Things blew up all over again with the rise of Spotify’s features. Automated playlists and auto-playing music completely dismantled the concept of an ‘album’… back to something akin to the photo & music albums of olde.

It’s tempting to suggest that the 2010s haven’t brought us towering sequential works like those of the 90s, or 80s. That’s wrong though. There have been many revelations that have pushed ‘the album’ as an art-form forward . Beyoncé perfected the ‘visual album’ with Lemonade. Kanye’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy somehow gelled together Elton John, Pusha T, and a room of ballerinas. Taylor Swift & Adele proved musicians could still sell records in their millions. Daft Punk merged rollerskate disco with modern dance music. Vampire Weekend mused about their own mortality. Lorde made kooky pop cool. I could go on and on. Real talent can still make compelling art that travels the globe. The problem for ‘the album’ isn’t the artists, or the medium itself; the problem is the listeners. Or, rather, the lack of listeners.

You might question that last sentence. Spotify does have 100 million listeners, 40 million paying subscribers. Music is more accessible than any point in history. But unlimited choice of songs comes at a cost to media like the album. And services like Spotify provide such detailed analytics that we can quantify that cost. Through view/stream/download counts, we can now see how people consume ‘albums’. It’s not pretty. Let’s use one of the previous paragraph’s albums as an example. Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy has a Metacritic score of 94 out of 100. Billboard, Time, Pitchfork, and Rolling Stone said it was the best album of 2010. NME added it to their list of all-time best albums. Others placed it in their Best of the 2010s decade lists. It’s a critical darling of an ‘album’ (regardless of your views on Mr West himself). It’s also a huge success with the buying/streaming public. So, let’s look at some stats.

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The album begins with Dark Fantasy. The first song demands its audience “zip it, listen.” Dark Fantasy has had 46 million streams on Spotify. Thus, 46 million people began listening to the album. Three songs in, we reach the album’s first, and most popular, single: POWER. POWER’s streamed a mind-boggling 265,973,107 times. The hit single is therefore… 4 times more popular than the album itself. That’s a lot of love for that single, disproportionate to the tracks around it. POWER’s audience doesn’t bleed over to the other tracks. Dwindling returns (except for the record’s singles) follow for the rest of the album. There’s a huge drop-off in play count by the end of the record. The final track — a haunting summary of the album’s overarching themes — has a mere 9 million plays. The drop-off from the beginning of the record is cataclysmic. How cataclysmic?

Only 19% of its listeners bothered to finish 2010’s best album

Have a think about your listening habits in the last month. How many times did you listen to a record from end-to-end? Even if you listened to a few albums in their entirety, was that how you exclusively consumed music? Using Kanye’s record as an example, you’re 29 times more likely to listen to a single, than you are the album it comes from.

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With this in mind, what is an album in 2018? The numbers don’t lie: people aren’t listening to them. And if an album is released in the woods and no-one is around to listen to it… does it exist? There’s a few cold-blooded replies to that question. You can choose your poison. An album in 2018 is:

  • A vanity project for the artists, who yearn to be compared to acts like The Beatles
  • Record companies’ way of maintaining leverage over said artists: ‘we’ want a hit single, so we’ll let ‘you’ record an album
  • Record companies’ way of hedging their bets around singles. Best to hold onto a basket of eggs, rather than just one right?
  • ‘Reset points’ that give artists thematic cover and license to change their look, attitude, hairstyle, worldview and fanbase
  • A tool to give bands enough material to tour with (because touring is where artists make real money these days)
  • A launchpad for dealing with a political moment

I guess all of the above are true, and that’s probably why the album is not under any immediate threat of obsolescence. Those Gen Z’ers who don’t know what a real-world photo album is, certainly know about Kendrick Lamar’s class/racial discourse in To Pimp A Butterfly. They know that Katy Perry reinvented her hairstyle with the release of Witness. They definitely remember when Taylor Swift ordained for her back catalogue of albums to be streamed on services like Spotify and Apple Music. And the oldest Gen Z’ers will remember Green Day tackling the Bush-era with their magnum opus American Idiot. These have all been rallying cries and directional shifts for either the artist, their fans, or even wider Western culture in general. And those shifts have all been made possible by the release of albums. Not singles. No mere single can capture that much of a paradigm shift.

And so that brings us to aspiring artists like me. We don’t have the cultural cachet that causes people to remark at a changed hairstyle. We don’t have a pulpit (or an audience) to expound our political views. So why do indie bands and musicians want to make an album? Instead, why not focus on making that one killer single, with a hopefully viral music video? Try to make a huge impact with much less resource? I guess the simple answer is the best here: bands that are starting out… rarely jump in and create albums. The EP is the 5-song, under-30 minutes extended player of choice on Soundcloud and Bandcamp these days. You still get to showcase a few different approaches to your music (maybe a ballad, a dance song, a rock number, and 2 middle-of-the-road tracks) and you don’t have to put up with the expense, hassle, and looming weight of expectation that a debut record demands.

But.

There are still people foolhardy enough to try to cut an album on their first go. For them, and for myself, a record speaks to a number of things that haven’t been acknowledged above:

  • The artist has such a huge back catalogue of unreleased songs, that it’s time to release as many as they can (in my case, I’ve written some hundreds of releasable songs, but I’ve honestly stopped counting)
  • They’ve stumbled onto such a compelling theme that it needs to be explored and ‘discussed’ as thoroughly as possible (in my case, that’s a theme of masculine anxiety in the modern world)
  • They set it as a challenge akin to runners who aspire to run an ultra marathon (for me, this was 2 years of very late nights, sustained only by caffeine and sugar)
  • The equipment and gear we have access to for <$3,000 is streaks ahead of everything that The Beach Boys had access to in the 1960s. If they could make layers of dozens of harmonies and orchestral parts make sense, using just spliced tape and elbow grease… we ought to be able to create something just as ambitious in our bedrooms, thanks to DAWs, quad-core CPUs and eBay-purchased microphones.

And that’s how you end up with indie kids like me somehow making an album that “sounds like The Beach Boys listened to a lot of Michael Jackson and Nirvana.” Armed with theme, equipment, a sense of challenge and — most importantly — kick-ass songs, albums in the modern age are a line-in-the-sand. They’re a moment-in-time captured for eternity. They’re a work of art that only 19% of its audience will appreciate, but those few people will really really dig it. The data doesn’t lie: albums are made because artists and — admittedly few — fans alike both just love the medium. The album is dead, long live the album.