The word ‘dying’ is bandied around a lot when talking about music and how the way we consume it is changing. I had a rant about this a while ago – I forget what sparked it, but my point was that music itself will always have cultural value (as it has for hundreds of years), regardless of the state of the industry around it.
This argument however, as much as I believe that it is true, doesn’t address the way that new technology has had an effect on how we as music fans actually go about listening to music: We are told that albums are in decline, and that consumers these days will only ever download the particular tracks that they want to listen to, and will disregard the rest.
Physical album sales are on the way down, digital sales are on the way up; ergo, albums are dying.
Everybody knows that, right?
Except, I think that this under-estimates the modern music fan, and how much they care about the music of their favourite artists.
More casual fans may well download just the tracks that they like or have heard on the radio, and not be bothered about checking out the rest of the artist’s work. Dedicated fans who feel that they have a connection with a particular artist, however, are likely to seek out as much material as possible – both new releases and back-catalogue – and the feeling of ownership over the music remains whether it is obtained via digital download or through the purchase of a physical release.
This kind of fan wants to understand the concepts that the artist is trying to put across and are prepared to dedicate valuable time to the listening experience.
Now, let us consider the album itself for a moment. Back in the day, the length of a record was defined by the physical medium on which it was printed. Early recordings were limited to 3 minutes, giving us the classic ‘3 minute pop song’. As technology moved on, artists were able to add more songs to their records, giving us the now traditional album format.
Over time, and with the advent of new technology and innovative approaches, the album has, in my opinion, become an art form and not just a format. They can tell stories, explore a theme or concept, or link several themes together through the music and the cover artwork; they are not just a collection of tracks, but a piece of work as a whole.
This is why I don’t believe that the form will ever really die off completely: people like the experience of listening to a ‘whole’ work. I know I do: I love opening up a CD or record for the first time, looking through the artwork and turning up the volume, sometimes listening again and again until I know the order off by heart. It’s all part of the listening experience for me. I would never consider myself a ‘fan’ of an artist unless I owned at least one of their albums.
Perhaps in the future the market for albums will become a more specialist, but I suspect the album itself will be with us for a while yet. Whether it will still be on disc or another physical or digital format in years to come I don’t know – there are already plenty of creative artists pushing the boundries of what an album is and how it is available – but I think it’ll be fun finding out. Remember, changing isn’t nesessarily the same as dying.
So, that’s my opinion – now I’d like to hear what you think. Let me know in the comments!