Is the musical album dead?
October 21, 2009 5:53 PM   Subscribe

Is it worth my time to record an album in the digital age?

Perhaps not the deepest philosophical conundrum, but let's just say I'm a moderately successful musician with several albums under my belt. Traditionally I've released a new album every three years or so since 1997.

For each album, I've spent nearly a third of my time just on the artistic direction of the album, think of it as "the concept", basically the entire art "experience" of the person buying the album. That means artwork, packaging, track order, marketing plan, singles and remixes, and overall sound (think of this last item as a mixing or production methodology, basically a list of rules to ensure each song "sounds" like it belong on the album).

With the advent of iTunes I'm personally finding myself buying less and less albums in favor of individual songs. And though my previous albums are selling significantly less physical units, when I look at the digital sales reports from my distributor, I've noticed that the quantity of "entire album" digital sales is actually higher than the amount of physical units we have sold in the past. That is, I'm selling more "albums" than ever before, so even though people have the option of purchasing individual songs or whole albums, more folks than ever are buying the albums.

So if you're still with me, my question is this: As I start putting together the concept for my next musical endeavor, do I need to think of it as an album or do I just put out a bunch of songs? If it's the latter, I will definitely miss the artistic process of creating the whole package, but maybe it just means this curmudgeon needs to get with the times.
posted by analogue to Media & Arts (23 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Please think of it as an album.
If a band releases on iTunes and on vinyl, I will buy the vinyl.
Questions like this make me so depressed.
posted by lhude sing cuccu at 6:00 PM on October 21, 2009

In 10 years when you look back, you won't regret producing the most coherent piece art you are capable of creating now. That's how I would look at it.

Also, I think in the age of single song downloads, well conceived and executed albums are even more precious and appreciated. At least, they are for me.
posted by milarepa at 6:00 PM on October 21, 2009 [1 favorite]

I buy albums only when there is the kind of coherent thought you're talking about. If it feels like a bunch of songs, I'll only buy the individual songs I like. Perhaps your "entire album" sales are higher because of the concept / experience?
posted by Paragon at 6:04 PM on October 21, 2009

I always, always look at albums as coherent pieces of work. True, some artists do not view them as such, & just throw together a hodpodge of songs, but I find my listening experience to be better by assuming they are rather than aren't cohesive--then I don't miss out. Certain songs are made much, much better by the transition between the songs previous and after. My partner refuses to listen to songs on anything but randomized, shuffled playback, & I finally pointed out that many of the of Montreal songs he was listening to were nothing without their context on the album.

Just my two cents, though. Some people may certainly enjoy the single-song format of music, but are those really the demographic you want to cater to?
posted by opossumnus at 6:06 PM on October 21, 2009

Sounds like what you're doing works, so why change it?

One small data point: some artists include a download certificate with album sales, so the customer gets the best of both worlds. Even comedian Matt Braunger just did this.
posted by The Deej at 6:14 PM on October 21, 2009

I much prefer the album to the single.
posted by nickthetourist at 6:16 PM on October 21, 2009

If you continue crafting entire album experiences.. then you'll potentially have 2 sales (people who buy albums, AND people who only want individual songs). If you start putting out "just a bunch of songs"... you potentially lose those people who really like the whole "album" listening experience. (Besides.. (whether it takes off or not).. iTunes now has a "LP Format"... I say dip your toes into that, it might satisfy both your itches)
posted by jmnugent at 6:17 PM on October 21, 2009 [1 favorite]

Nthing the pro-album stand. Even though there are a handful of albums in my collection on which I only particularly care for one or two songs, I still don't cherry-pick single tracks via iTunes. I find that more often than not, I'll find my favorite track on an album is NOT the one I heard that convinced me to buy the album. Never mind whole albums with a concept behind them (e.g, The Antlers' Hospice or Cursive's Domestica), which are more than the simple sum of their individual tracks.
posted by axiom at 6:20 PM on October 21, 2009 [2 favorites]

Nthing going with the album idea. Mixes are great and everything, but there's just something special about hearing the story that an entire album tells.

Just so you know, I'm 23 and mostly listen to older stuff because it was made with the idea of it being an album and not a few hit singles with other songs because they needed it to be long enough to make it an album.
posted by theichibun at 6:21 PM on October 21, 2009

So if you're still with me, my question is this: As I start putting together the concept for my next musical endeavor, do I need to think of it as an album or do I just put out a bunch of songs?

Well, you don't need to do anything. And there should be something about an album that makes it an album besides the fact that you've labeled it as such, right? So if you've written an album, put out an album. If you've written a bunch of songs that aren't an album, you can release a bunch of songs and not make it an album. So I guess what I'm saying is that you're the only one who can answer this question.

I am writing this from a recording studio where I am making an album right now
posted by ludwig_van at 6:22 PM on October 21, 2009

People still like albums, despite all the talk of the format's death. If you stop making albums it shouldn't be a business decision but instead an artistic one, like Radiohead's abandonment of the format.
posted by The Devil Tesla at 6:24 PM on October 21, 2009

I only buy albums, never singles. I never buy hard copies of new albums anymore. Period. But I hate clutter and wasted plastic, so I love being able to go 100% digital.

Also, I don't know your genre, but I used to be a college radio DJ at one of the top stations. Of course there, we wanted a physical CD. However, it had to be albums. We wouldn't even put singles or short EPs into rotation. My observation has been that the type of music fan who likes to listen to non-hit stuff most often prefers an entire album to singles.
posted by ishotjr at 6:32 PM on October 21, 2009

I'm still waiting for the Dresden Dolls compilation No, Virginia to be released in its entirety on CD, because there's a short version, and then there's this MP3 version as a bundle, with extra tracks. This is one of many little things for which I wait.

So, yeah, for dorks like me, we want the CD.
posted by adipocere at 6:44 PM on October 21, 2009

Albums are so last century. Do go for a cohesive artistic vision, but include the animated music video, the quirky youtube short cuts, the 3D immersive audio environment, ok that's wacky stuff, so if the album unit inspires you, go for it.
posted by sammyo at 7:04 PM on October 21, 2009

It sounds like you're comfortable with the album format, and your fans respond to your work by buying whole albums. You're not some kind of weird holdout for continuing to release music in that form.

If you had said that you approach each song as a standalone product and that you have trouble making coherent albums out of your stuff, then I would say "stop trying to make albums." But you didn't.
posted by scatter gather at 7:12 PM on October 21, 2009

I prefer the album - even today I don't bother with playlists, but listen to my favorite artists - one album at a time.
posted by jkaczor at 7:18 PM on October 21, 2009

I much prefer the whole-album concept, and have always lamented all the ways that CD's (and now digital downloads) have taken away from the "album experience"; there's no side 1 or side 2, no big sleeves (sometimes with gatefolds and ornate dust jackets)... just teeny tiny artwork and liner notes that you can barely read, etc... I've never understood the attitude that albums are just 1 or 2 singles with "a bunch of filler tracks"... but maybe I don't listen to the same music as people who take that stance.

Anyway... I guess what it really comes down to is where your main interest lies; in maximizing sales of your music based on previous trends, or in creating an album as an experience including promotional materials, artwork, track order, et cetera.

(I'm definitely biased. I've tried unsuccessfully to put together an album for the RPM Challenge for two years running, and I think I've probably spent more time on look & feel of the hypothetical cover/booklet than I have recording!)
posted by usonian at 7:29 PM on October 21, 2009

In honor of this question, I just took my five minutes with the beautiful new album I just bought at a show. I ripped it, and while I ripped it, I looked at it, and enjoyed it, and now I will tuck it away as I listen to the music on iTunes.

I say do whatever it is that you feel compelled to do. There really is no other choice worth making.
posted by nosila at 7:34 PM on October 21, 2009

First of all thanks for the candor.

I've approached music creation both ways; I've made songs for the sake of releasing them as singles, and I've made songs specifically in the context of an album. I definitely enjoy the artistic process of album creation.

lhude, to your point, what I'm now thinking is maybe releasing the album as a series of three or four vinyl EP's that will eventually make a cohesive unit. The digital release of the album in album form, along with a CD would follow the last EP.

You guys have really helped me out!
posted by analogue at 7:42 PM on October 21, 2009

I vote "album", because to me it's obvious that the whole is more than the sum of its parts. However, it's inevitable that art changes. After all, there was a time when it mattered a great deal, that there was a side A and side B on LPs, and many artists wrote with that effect specifically in mind. When old LP's were re-issued on CD, all that was ignored. Worse, on CD re-issued LPs, in order to entice people to re-buy the same albums in new media formats, publishers often threw in various "bonus tracks", and many times, the bonus tracks had nothing to do with a given album, or were alternate takes, or demos, live versions, instrumental versions etc., etc. Obviously that completely violated the artist's initial vision and intention. Then world went on. "Change is the only constant".
posted by VikingSword at 9:23 PM on October 21, 2009

actually i always liked 4 song eps - i'm not an overly impatient person but 45+ minutes of material in a similar vein bores me. a good ep however really keeps my attention. remember those early cocteau twins eps, or my bloody valentine's glider? i always thought albums were the medium of choice more because they had invented a medium the contained 45 minutes of music than because it really suited peoples listening habits. also, if you ask me, very few artists can make a full 60-70 minutes (or even 45) of really excellent new music in a 2-3 month period. however, loads of them can make 4 good songs at a time (and i suspect more could if they weren't always concentrating on busting out 15 songs at a time)
posted by messiahwannabe at 10:26 PM on October 21, 2009

Most of the albums I have ever purchased in my life had no unifying concept. They were just a standard unit for selling songs, some good, others filler. A whole lot of the pro-album talk here strikes me as the same nostalgia that makes people wish for vinyl to come back as something other than an esoteric choice.

It depends on your market, but as you have observed, the market for albums is declining rapidly and the form is becoming slowly as obsolete as the rock opera. So if you make your living doing this, consider whether "what's worked before" will continue working for *your* fans and potential fans.

I rarely buy albums anymore, for what it's worth. Nor do I often listen to albums straight through. I would consider that MeFi's demographic skews toward people who do buy albums and who are nostalgic about the death of the format. But then, maybe so do your fans.
posted by fourcheesemac at 3:32 AM on October 22, 2009

fourcheesemac, I'm with you. I rarely buy albums anymore - primarily because I feel like most bands and musicians aren't really making albums anymore. But like I said, the stats show that even on iTunes people are buying more of my albums than ever before. I'm obviously also selling individual songs as well which cater to the likes of you and me.

Because I enjoy working in the album format, I'm going to continue offering both options, with those opting for the limited edition, more expensive physical option having the benefit of receiving the music earlier than those who opt for the digital option.
posted by analogue at 6:18 AM on October 22, 2009

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