“The album is dying in front of our very eyes,” said music industry analyst Bob Lefsetz, a harbinger of doom for a once treasured and beloved medium.
Is the age of the long-play album truly over? Are long form albums like Joe Bonamassa’s Different Shades of Blue relics of a dying era? Some people certainly think so, and it seems with good reason. Take this article by Michael Andor Brodeur for The Boston Globe, for example. Mr. Brodeur argues passionately against the compact disc – they are weak, sickly, decrepit things good for throwing in the trash heap and not much else – but also against the album as a musical format.
Part of the argument is financial – albums are just no longer economically viable for the music industry. To support this, Brodeur links to a Wall Street Journal Article from this past summer that contains some bleak news for the album format indeed and the numbers are striking. If you compare CD sales in the first half of 2009 with the first half of 2014 for example, there is a decrease in sales of 54%. Fifty-four percent!
And according to the Journal, it’s not that digital album sales are fully replacing the decline of the physical discs. Album sales are down altogether, replaced by the seductive lure of the cheap digital single. According to an article from CNN last year, “more than three-quarters of all music-related transactions were digital singles” in 2012.
And while Taylor Swift has found a smash album success with 1989 in 2014, finally going Platinum after Forbes reported that no album this year had yet to accomplish such a milestone, that magazine then goes on to dissect how dismal album sales have been in general for the industry. As Harriet Walker puts it in The Guardian, “The rise of digital music and streaming has crimes to answer for… The latest victim, and perhaps the most depressing when it comes to the slow but steady bludgeoning of creativity within the field, is the album.”
And I can certainly understand why Brodeur and others are charmed by the single. I myself am not immune to their allure. First of all, they’re really cheap. I’m personally very dangerous with an iTunes account and a credit card. Under such circumstances, I can easily wake up and have bought 10 or 15 songs before you can say, “Good morning, have some coffee!” Of course, the expenses grow if you can’t get that clicker finger under control, but still, on the whole, for a little more than the price of 1 album I could have bought every song in the Billboard top 10. A steal!
But the arguments against albums go beyond the mere economic feasibility. There’s also practicality – the question of time, for example. In our high-speed, over-caffeinated, get up and go-go-go culture, who seriously has time to sit down and listen to a whole album anyway? I could have clicked on, like, 500 websites and scanned through their articles by then, or rummaged through a thousand tweets! In our collective busy lives, we have work, we have school, social engagements, errands to run, bills to pay, and maybe a little time left over the latest harrowing episode of The Walking Dead – you’re going to tell me that you have time to sit down and listen to 70 minutes worth of music (in a row!), too??
Finally, there’s the aesthetic conundrum that the album is such an inflexible, monolithic, medium for handling music. It’s as if an authoritarian music emperor issued an edict from his high throne and ordered you to listen to this particular set of twelve songs in the explicit order she’s bestowed them unto you, no genre mix-tapes or gym playlists allowed, thank you, ma’am, thank you.
So, it’s expensive, in involves an unreasonable investment of time, and it’s an aesthetic tyrant. Good riddance, you say! The album is dead, long live the digital single!
Well, I’m here to defend the album format. I might not be able to save it, but I am going to tell you why we should try.
Sure, albums cost more money than singles and they take time to listen to. But the question is: are they worth the investment of the minutes and the dollars?
This all hinges on why we buy music to begin with. We listen to music because it’s entertainment, absolutely, and perhaps you can kill the same amount of time listening to a bunch of singles as you can to an album.
But music is also art, and art holds a special place in our lives. It moves us. It challenges us to think. It’s an integral part of who we are as human beings. It inspires us and lets us be creative. Certainly there’s more to life than art, but it definitely adds a whole lot to society. Which means it has a tremendous amount of value to us, both in terms of time and money. Art is a treasured part of humanity’s culture and heritage.
Part of what makes art gripping is that it finds so many different expressions and forms. A three minute song and a 60 minute symphony can be equally inspiring, thought-provoking, and invigorating. Similarly with a short poem and a novel, a photograph and a film. And when done well, no particular work can substitute for another. Sometimes I need Beethoven’s Fifth. Sometimes I crave Stairway To Heaven. It all depends on my mood and the situation of the moment.
That’s why sometimes to express a particular musical intention, a single song isn’t enough. Some musical ideas need great expansion, and when it comes to popular music, rock, blues, jazz, pop, country, etc., the album is the perfect vehicle for this. Sometimes a song can be infinitely more powerful when grouped with a collection of other compositions.
Even if we still had all the songs, could anyone imagine The White Album as anything other The White Album? It’s one singular, cohesive unity that would be completely obliterated if broken into its component bits and pieces. We can still listen to the individual songs anytime we desire, but it’s a completely different experience than listening to the whole album. And eliminating the album would be to sap so much aesthetic value, beauty, and meaning from the music.
Albums, when they are done right, are not just collections of random songs that happen to be thrown together, but cohere in a unified, holistic artistic and musical statement. We may not always be conscious of precisely what that statement is or able to translate it into language – so much about music is impossible to say, it just has to be experienced and felt – but it’s there.
Maybe many artists will abandon the format as time progresses and digitization become ever more all-encompassing, but I most certainly hope that Joe and other top-calibre musicians continue to explore the form until there is truly nothing left for it to say. I hardly think that in the short history of rock and blues we’ve come to that time already.
So dust off that vinyl. Pull out that trusty CD. Or click that digital album and let it play all the way through. It’s a musical experience like no other.
Long live the album.
– Brian R.