Saturday, February 03, 2007

LA Times: The Album Isn't Dead

A story in today's LA Times discusses the long-lived topic of the death of the album. That is, the album as a format, meaning physical album sales. I can't say it really spends much time on the topic of the LP; instead, it is more of a mention of Fall Out Boy's new album followed by a name-dropping slew of indie rock artists, referencing Bloc Party, Arcade Fire, Cat Power, The Hold Steady, and more.

The point of the article appears to be that no one cares any more about album releases, and that the music industry has become singles-driven. But Top 40 has been around for a long time, and as long as there have been dance clubs, DJs have been spinning the hot singles. The album as an experience will not die any time soon, if ever. Certain genres beg for the album to be taken in as an experience, not for songs to be consumed as 4-minute morsels that lose their appeal as the radio overplays them.

While Fall Out Boy leans more towards a single-friendly type of simple, fun (for some) band, they lack the complexity of an Arcade Fire album, and draw a different type of fan: FOB fans seek music as primarily entertainment, while fans of Arcade Fire (just an example, relax) follow music as a lifestyle or, at least, a passion.

We're dealing with a lowest-common-denominator of sorts. Art that is more easily accessible appeals to a broader purchasing audience, plain and simple. Music that is on radio stations with more gigawatts reaches more people, and gets more people to spend. The Catch-22 is that bands can't play the whole album on the radio, they have four minutes and one single to get our attention, and to get us to buy. And many more people are buying only what they hear instead of shelling out ten dollars for the whole album.

A hypothetical: The Bloodhound Gang release an album, and a single hits the radio. At the same time, Nine Inch Nails releases an album, also with a single on the radio. Which one is going to sell more singles on iTunes, and which one will sell more physical albums? NIN will sell the albums. Why? Trent Reznor creates the album as an experience. Bloodhound Gang creates the song as consumable entertainment. The "high[er]" art will sell in LP form, while the "low" will sell the fun single.

The album's not dead. Digital has just freed us so that we can pay 99 cents for that one song, when ten years ago we had to pay seven dollars for the extended single. At that price, you might as well go whole hog and drop thirteen on the whole record. The album lives. The consumer just has better options.

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