Thursday, 12 April 2012

The Decline of the Album: Part One

Just before everyone went home for Easter, Jassi Sidhu tweeted about how the UK has lost interest in albums and advised artists to release singles instead. According to Jassi, the UK market has a short attention span which can’t stretch beyond a few videos and artists will only release a full album if they have fans in India who will buy them. This kicked off a little debate and inspired this post.

Firstly I want to praise the concept of an album. I think they have an important place in every music industry and it is sad that they are slowly dying out. If a single acts as an artist’s business card, an album acts as a CV. It gives an overview of what a person is capable of doing and allows them space to show their strengths and talent. One song can differ hugely from the next and it’s only through an album can the listener really begin to understand the artist.

ITunes is great as it is so quick and easy to buy music. You can get music as soon as it is released and you don’t even have to leave the house. Before Itunes, I used to have to go to Birmingham or London to buy music. But the success of iTunes has lead to the demise of the traditional music shop. There used to be loads of them but now most of my favourite specialist music shops have been turned into beauty parlours. In India where music shops are still widespread it is often easier to purchase a than to download one and that is partly why the album is still popular over there.

Despite the benefits of iTunes I miss the thrill that went with the experience of buying a CD from a shop. They were staffed by people who loved music and it was great to see someone getting as excited as I was by a new album. Staff could also recommend other albums to me once they knew what I liked. I relied on this advice when searching for new music, especially as teasers were non existent. ITunes tries to suggest similar albums, but it can never truly replicate this experience.

Staff were also knowledgeable about the music they sold. In the days before shazaam, I taped a song off the radio so it could be identified. On another occasion I described the details of a song and dance routine from a Bollywood film so I could buy the soundtrack. Both times staff knew what they were and could sell them to me.

On iTunes, people can listen to a preview before buying. If someone only like a few songs on an album, they don’t have to buy them all. But this preview forces people to make snap judgements about a song. It’s only when you have listened to the full song a few times can you really decide if you like it or not.

Before iTunes, the concept of a single did not exist in the Desi music industry. It was full of albums and radio stations usually plugged only one or two songs. But the albums themselves have now changed and they tend to be much longer. Instead of the 6-8 tracks, there are now at least 12 of which 4 might be released as singles. Singles are an easy way to test the market in uncertain times. In a world where everyone wants five minutes of fame, releasing a single is a relatively easy way to get it. You only need to record one decent song and shoot one video to accompany it.

Without a doubt illegal downloading is responsible for a lack of sales in the industry. Opinion is divided as to whether iTunes has contributed to or helped prevent illegal downloading. But there is little incentive for an artist to work hard to make a whole album if it is just going to be illegally downloaded. If people are not prepared to spend money buying albums, it makes little financial sense to make them.

The way people listen to music has changed thanks to iTunes and it‘s relative the ipod. On my mp3 player I can skip easily between artists and genres and listen to wide variety of songs. In the days of the CD player, I would have had to change CDs, or invest in a compilation album. Not only are people buying less albums, they are listening to them far less.

In part two of this post I will examine the role of the media and see what can be done to make people more interested in albums.
Photo of the interior of an Indian music shop by MrFink, used under a Creative Commons License.
Photo of iTunes gift card by mightykenny, used under a Creative Commons License

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