The album format may look dead, but it sure doesn’t sound that way
By Evan See
In 1978, The Buggles released the single “Video Killed the Radio Star”, lamenting the loss of the magical combination of word and song people used to adore when listening to the radio. At the time, it was the advent of television that dethroned the popularity of the radio format.
Fast-forward to the 2010s and this has been flipped on its head. Music streaming services like Spotify and Apple Music have made MTV’s music videos obsolete.
But what else did streaming kill? The compact disc, effectively the last remaining physical audio storage device (besides you audiophiles with your vinyls), is quickly going extinct. Last year, American electronics megastore Best Buy stopped selling audio CDs. What this means to music, coupled with the virtually unlimited music access that streaming services provide, is that there’s hardly a need for consumers to purchase full albums anymore.
The Decade the Music Died
Before the rise of digital audio with iTunes and MP3, listening to music came with certain limitations. To listen to any song on an album, you had to purchase the whole album – whether on vinyl, cassette or CD.
Now, the ability to browse through millions of tracks on Spotify or Deezer with a few clicks means that we don’t need to own whole albums anymore. Listeners rarely ever sit through entire 45-minute long albums, commonly opting to utilise the ease of “playlisting” that digital music has given us. Singles, rather than albums, dominate music consumption to the point that Billboard 200, the dominant album-rankings chart, elected to remodel their rankings system, equating the streaming of an individual song 1,500 times to one album sale.
Rapper Drake’s 2018 single “God’s Plan” broke Apple Music’s first-day streaming record with over 14 million streams, and was Spotify’s most-streamed song of the year with over 1.1 billion streams. Yet, its parent album Scorpion only sold 12,000 full albums in its final week on top of the Billboard 200. To put this into perspective, Taylor Swift’s 1989, which the singer infamously pulled from Spotify in 2014, sold 1.287 million full albums in a single week.
What does this mean for artists going forward? Is there still a point in releasing an hour-long collection of songs and labelling it an album? Are artists going to start releasing 12 singles a year instead?
An Eternal Flame
Nevertheless, I believe that the album will always remain an important format in music.
The album format, digital or otherwise, simply allows artists “to express themselves on a wider canvas than a single song”, as Spencer Kornhaber of The Atlantic puts it. In recent years, Frank Ocean’s Endless and Beyonce’s Beyonce both featured video accompaniment on every track, while St. Vincent’s Masseduction and Grimes’ Art Angels have both been acclaimed for their eclectic, genre-bending productions. It’s ridiculous to assert that artists have rejected the need for an album looking at the intricately-produced records we’ve seen lately.
Numerous artists still structure whole albums around a thematic or stylistic concept, and continue to receive critical and commercial success. Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly debuted on top of the Billboard 200, garnering acclaim for its politically-charged commentary on race. Janelle Monae’s Dirty Computer explored themes of liberation and identity, peaked at sixth on the Billboard 200, and received a Grammy nomination for its efforts.
The album is also really effective at providing chronological structure in the music scene. How often have you heard someone mention how Thriller revolutionised pop music or Sgt. Pepper’s changed the Beatles? Artists may even time an album’s release to reflect the changes in their lives and careers, or to prescribe order to them. Ariana Grande announced the release of Thank U Next following the death of former boyfriend Mac Miller and her split from fiancé Pete Davidson, with its title track reflecting a pensive look into her past relationships. Taylor Swift’s back-to-back albums 1989 and Reputation reflected the singer’s distinctly new attitudes towards her public image.
Whether you call it a “playlist” like Drake or “mixtapes” like Chance the Rapper, there’s no denying that the basic form of the musical album will stay with us for a long time. Even as the commercial attractiveness of selling one fades, the artistic guidelines that an album sets still provides artists with an important creative direction. A system perfected by decades of fine-tuning isn’t going to die just yet. To the casual listener, the album might appear dead – but parts of it will endure in your playlists for ages.