Mirroring the last scene of Thelma and Louise’s famous car chase off a cliff, the album photography for Grammy-nominated Röyksopp’s last album captures that same bittersweet finality–picturing the duo staring down the wheel of a battered vehicle with resigned determination. Ironically, Röyksopp have decided to call their album The Inevitable End, but have stressed that this is not the end of their music career but rather a departure from “the album in a classical sense.”
Röyksopp are not the first to ditch the album format, nor are they the first to supplement the claim that the album is dying. George Ergatoudis (pictured below), Head of Music at BBC Radio 1 and 1Xtra took to the Twittersphere this last summer to bravely proclaim, “Make no mistakes. With very few exceptions, albums are edging closer to extinction.”
With year-end statistics for 2014 still rolling in, US album sales have already dropped 14.9 percent from the first half of 2013 to the first half of 2014. Shocking still is the fall in music sales since the birth of iTunes singles and the download-based model, dropping from $11.8 billion in 2003 to $7.1 billion in the past two years.
While download-based models continue to decline, following the path of its predecessor, the CD, singles have been thriving with on-demand streaming services like Spotify. But like the download-based model, where you can choose to buy only your favorite tracks off an album, the same holds true with Spotify, where you can choose to listen only to your favorite songs and create personally tailored playlists. From physical CDs to downloading to streaming, the album’s current trajectory continues to see it picked apart and categorized by number of individual track plays rather than being played by the artist’s intended track order. If “video killed the radio star,” maybe the digital age and a mob of millennials are primed to kill the traditional album.
Ergatoudis expanded his statement to say that “playlists are the future” and alongside declining album sales and streaming seeing a 42 percent increase in songs streamed from the first half of 2013 to the first half of 2014, this seems less of a prediction and more of a fact. On Spotify, the top playlist with three million subscribers boasts more action than Swedish House Mafia, Hardwell, Above & Beyond, and Diplo’s Spotify followers combined. Seems impossible that a playlist could beat out some of the best known names in electronic music, but the numbers don’t lie. Looking at Billboard’s top selling albums for the month of November this past year, the second best performer behind Taylor Swift’s 1989 was “Now 52”–a compilation of singles, and essentially a glorified playlist.
So what happened? Is this a symptom of a generation’s collective musical ADHD and inability to focus on anything that does not grab our attention within the first seconds? It’s all about the “now” and instant gratification. If we can listen to the “hits” in a row without going through boring album fillers or anything that doesn’t fit our tastes, then we’re going to do just that. And if we can pay a $9.99 monthly subscription in place of purchasing full albums, we’re gonna do that too. In a study conducted by Edison Research, they found that 8 out of 10 millennials listen to Internet radio with a defining reason being that listeners can create playlists.
Artists have begun to feel the pressure too. They have creatively manipulated their release tactics by calling fans to action in an effort to defend their album’s merit and grab attention. Beyonce flipped the music industry on its head after secretly releasing her fifth studio album on iTunes without so much as a hint or whispered rumor. More invasive (and a lot less well-received) was the release of U2’s album Songs of Innocence, which finagled its way into every iTunes account overnight. Bono eventually apologized to iTunes users and the stunt proved beneficial to the band’s back-catalog, but fans were not happy. More recently, Taylor Swift refused to upload her 1989 album to Spotify, to defend her claim that “piracy, file sharing, and streaming have shrunk the numbers of paid album sales drastically.” While her statement may hold true, she may be fighting a losing battle against fans who are simply losing interest in the long-play album format.
It could be a deadly cycle if artists do not feel it necessary to produce quality albums for lack of compensation and if fans do not feel the need to listen because of a less than optimal product. It is too early to claim that the album is dead, but it is dying and its survival is connected to fans’ demands alongside the evolution of music technology. There are already rumors of yet another Bono-Apple project in the works that hopes to revive the music industry with a “new digital format“.
Other artists are making efforts to keep the album format relevant through attempts to recreate the emotional connection felt from an album’s entirety through new means of fan inclusion and by adapting to the ever-changing digital realm. Official listening parties have seen a resurgence and, as we saw this year with Aphex Twin’s return to the music scene and his release of Syro, it proved successful in building his hype and snatched him a Grammy nomination in the process. There is something lost in not knowing the giddy anticipation between tracks, in interludes that paste together half-second pauses before track one becomes track two–the Syro listening parties not only encouraged fans, but rallied them to listen to the album as a whole and in the intended way of his artistic vision.
In an attempt to “blur the boundaries between studio composition and live performance,” Simian Mobile Disco recorded their latest album Whorl in real time for a intimate crowd earlier this year (pictured below). The unprecedented feat brought fans and press closer to the album creation process, and allowed for a full-length album to once again connect fans to artists at an emotional level.
Rob Light, the Managing partner and head of music at Creative Artists Agency, and Billboard’s 9th rank in the Power 100, realizes the necessity of creative distribution and a restructuring of fan-to-artist interaction as well. He offers his insight in the form of podcasts, using the specific example of This American Life’s Serial podcast: “It’s the single hottest podcast, and it makes geniuses every Thursday when a new podcast comes up–1 million people are logged on. That’s how we have to distribute music. Why isn’t some artist once a week getting on live, talking about how he wrote a particular song, and creating a way every Thursday to see what’s new?” The Serial podcast follows a real-life murder story episode by episode and boasts huge fan subscriptions each week. Surely if fans can assemble around the mystery of a murder case, artists can use this podcast appeal to talk about their albums piece by piece to connect with their fans in ways that social media and modern marketing tactics seem to fall short.
It is communal experiences like listening parties, real-time recording, and podcasts that will keep the traditional album alive, but it comes down to innovation and sheer musical Darwinism for artists to survive this rapidly changing sphere. Albums unravel stories, exercise patience, and nurture contemplation in ways that connect listeners to artists in ways that streamed playlists and singles simply cannot achieve. We are at an exciting crossroads of a developing music industry where albums could potentially do great things, but it is up to fans to remain active listeners and not passive consumers, and for artists to continue to pioneer new and innovative means to engage their fans.