The Case For The Almost-Extinct Music Album
In the old days which are too recent for us to say they were ‘the old days’, you could only get your favorite music by listening to the radio, or buying a music product, whether it was a vinyl, cassette or CD). So, either you could wait all day for your favorite song to be played on the radio (or join a song request show), or you could spend some cash to buy a music product.
This music product, in the music industry, is known as a physical music product; as it is music kept and delivered in a physical thing (as opposed to digital music product, which would be basically a computer file).
The music industry – which would be the record labels, the recording companies, the distribution companies, and the music retail companies – exerted almost total control on channels of music consumption. They would plan what would be released on the radio and when, and make sure that by the time that the song is popular, the finished physical product would be ready in music retail stores for people to buy. Needless to say, this method created a lot of wealth for the music industry.
So basically the physical music products were the access tokens – the only way you could access your favorite music, any time you want, was to go out and buy that album. Musicians toured the world to introduce, familiarize and imprint their music to fans all over the world, to make sure they went out and bought the album afterwards.
Economically speaking, the physical product itself, only cost as much as the material from which it was made – the bulk of the price went to royalties and ROI for the recording companies; therefore it was much more economical to create an album format on a physical product, rather than just putting 1 or 2 songs on a CD/cassette. Sure, single albums were sold, but more money was to be made in the album, and much effort was put into creating an album, as opposed to creating 1 or 2 songs.
The music album, in its physical state, became something musicians invested their time and money into – and something that music fans saved their money to buy. Therefore, the music album represented a seemingly collaborative investment on both the musician and the music fan – the musician creating the album, and the music fan scraping together enough spare change to buy the album of choice. The simple math of calculating the effort put into creating an album made the music album product something worthwhile to buy. Albums by popular artists would sell by the millions, spearheaded by the recording companies’ coordinated marketing efforts on a global scale and dominating mainstream communication channels. And people would buy, as the album was a recognized effort of creation from their favorite artist, and albums were not released as often (unlike once-a-year albums usually made by today’s artists).
Fast-forward to today. The music industry has seemingly turned upside down. Single songs dominate music sales, due to the shift to digital products (legal or not), and many artists thrive without even creating an album. The record companies are still able to dominate the traditional mainstream communication channels, yet most of their target audiences communicate through niches created by the internet and the social networks that reside upon it. Artists sell music either in single songs or albums to make sure that by the time they can do a world tour, they can get sold-out shows and make money from the ticket sales and sponsorship deals. Although the recording companies still plan their music projects based on albums, a lot of sales are generated from the single songs.
At some point, musicians – old and new – started concentrating on making hit songs and forgetting about the album. This trend actually started to happen before the digital music era; where record producers would depend on hit songs to sell albums, and that a good album would depend on how many hit singles it has. This, to an extent, remains true for the majority of music albums and singles in the market today.
The music album, as a product, has somewhat suffered as a result. The album used to be a whole product, where you could not separate the CD/cassette/vinyl from its packaging. The album cover, of course, became the retail face of the music album, but the entire album artwork became something as important as the music itself. Music fans would spend hours looking at the album artwork, singing along to the songs, studying the artwork and photography, and discussing with fellow music fans on how good (or not) the album artwork correlated with the album in its entirety.
Today, CD/cassette albums, if sold at all, are often made with minimal hassle – with a picture of the musician, and often without even the lyrics. Just for comparison, when was the last time you discussed with a friend on how cool a recent music album cover is? The recording companies, in an effort to increase physical product sales, are now releasing stripped-down versions of albums, with only a basic plastic casing and one sheet of paper for the album cover. Of course, the complete music album was sold too, but often at a premium, and as it is with most products, premium products are selectively produced in a very small quantity.
The sad thing is, before we realize it, the music album, as we know it, will eventually just become a collection of songs by the same musician (instead of being a ‘whole’ product that has certain aspects interconnecting the songs into one album), or even disappear, and just become a ‘vessel’ to launch hit singles. The music album, will become a lost art, remembered by only the true music fanatics.
We should bring the music album back. We should avoid it from disappearing into the history books as yet another victim of paradigm shifts in the industry. And it should be the musicians that champion this cause.
Here’s why: the current business cycle demands popular musicians to produce one album a year (sometimes even two), to give 2-3 hit songs targeted sales for that year to have a ‘vessel’ for launch. When the next year comes and the new hit songs come, what will happen? More often then not, people will forget the songs from last year. The end result is, these pop musicians will end up with a large and entirely forgettable body of work.
Compare that with the bands of 70s, 80s or even 90s – music fans will still buy a remastered album version, or a simple rerelease – simply because it is such a good product. Would the pop artists of today enjoy a rerelease of their albums 10 years in the future? The majority would not, as most likely those songs would be forgotten or considered corny.
Let’s bring back the music album. Bring back those songwriting sessions that spawn several songs at once, and bring back that album artwork that became as important as the album itself. Honor the product, and the fans will honor it also and pay good money for it. Whether or not your music is pop and commercial, or something else, the music album should be your goal, and not just to create hit songs.
I’m not arguing that the whole music industry should turn upside down again and start concentrating on the music album. I’m just saying that if musicians (and record producers) invest more effort into producing a music album (and not a haphazard collection of wannabe hit songs), the music fan will also more likely invest more effort into buying that music album. Even if it is in the form of a physical music product.