DOA: The Death of the Album

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When we were younger, my brother and I made it one of our hobbies to find new music and to buy as many CDs as we could afford.  We’d rake yards, stack wood, and shovel driveways in the winter – anything to save up money to afford a $10 CD.  And $10 was a big investment at the time considering there wasn’t an iTunes Store for you to preview every song off a new album – it was a gamble. So, about once every other week, my brother and I would get a new CD from the record store and listen to it all the way through, from the first song to the last.  We’d read through the pamphlet to reference the lyrics and to learn more about the band members (if we didn’t know them already).  If we liked it, it would stay in our 6-Disc Changer Stereo for weeks, and sometimes even months.  Honestly, some of the best memories of my childhood are listening to and belting the lyrics of albums like Fall Out Boy’s From Under the Cork Tree or Good Charlotte’s self-titled album from start to finish.

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I was at the library working on a paper the other day, when I heard a new song on Spotify radio that was so good I just had to buy the single on iTunes.  It was then that I realized how different the world of media distribution has become.  When we were kids, you couldn’t just buy single songs – you bought albums.  You couldn’t skim through an artist’s discography and pick out their best songs.

And this shift is supported by data that chronicles the popularity of different mediums of music.  The following graph was shown in a Washington Post article discussing vinyl sales in recent years:

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I think there are three important things to look at in this visual in relation to what I am talking about: singles, digital albums, and CDs.  Firstly, there has been a seemingly exponential increase in the number of singles being purchased (the gray line), but not much of an increase in digital albums (the purple line).  Finally, the number of CD units being sold is drastically decreasing.  This represents a shift away from the purchasing of full albums (whether in the digital or CD format) towards the purchasing of singles.

So, why am I concerned about this?  First of all, let me be clear that it is not because I feel like artists today are being short-changed because of this.  Yes, I disagree with most peer-to-peer file transferring, but successful artists are still making boatloads of money (way more than necessary to do something you’re supposed to love).  What I am concerned about is what this does to the way we listen to music.  Most artists do not arbitrarily order their songs on an album.  Instead, each song is placed in order after much deliberation and with great intentionality.  And, if you have ever listened to a great artist’s album from the first song to the last in one sitting, you’ll know this to be true.  Basically, this shift from buying CDs to buying singles is, in my opinion, detrimental to the way music is supposed to be heard.

In most great albums, the songs lead into one another.  Each song, while being a story on its own, kind of serves a piece of an even bigger story – the album.  What happens to this story when we are able to buy only the two or three songs (probably out of order) that we know we like?  In most cases, I would imagine it is lost.  I fear that with the rise of the single we will slowly lose the feeling we get when we make it to the last song of a great album, and the whole thing just makes sense.

I’m not saying we should go back to CDs (even though they are awesome), but I definitely think there is something lost in the music with this recent increase in the popularity of singles.

[Image sourced from www.washingtonpost.com]

What We ThinkZac Westdyke