Friday, April 10, 2009

The Long Slow Death of the Album

I’ve been getting into discussions on various songwriting sites on the future of the CD, or the album of songs in general. And I’ve been thinking about how our physical relationship to music has changed over the years.

Remember a music purchase used to be a significant event. Sure there were the single 45s, but historically operas and musicals were full-length sellers. In the 1960s, after the advent of rock n' roll in the 1950s, rock bands started to "get serious" about their music, and you started to see "concept albums" happen. I don't know whether Sgt. Pepper was really the first concept album or not, but it was a big deal. An album -- think of that word, "album," like a book of different photographs -- was a *collection* of songs. And there was rhyme and reason in how the songs were arranged -- what went on Side A, on Side B. What song did you start each side with. What was the last song, the one you left them with when the turntable continued to spin silently and the needle arm lifted and returned to its place? Bands could put a few clunkers in among the "good stuff" -- a few throwaways to fill the album.

But many of us remember the experience of going to the store and buying that new album. The glossy cover art, the liner notes, the inside jacket. The excited moment when we first put the disc on the spindle and heard it drop, watched the needle move over and heard that crackle before the opening chords. We'd invite friends over ("Hey, I got the new Elton John *album*") and we'd listen together, experiencing it together.

This was the music buying and listening experience that made an album make sense.

The CD at first stitched together Side A and Side B. When the vinyl LP finally died, the CD was one long side, but the concept of a collection of songs *in a particular order* held. And a new CD release was still an event, complete with little booklet and artwork. CD players introduced the "random" or "skip" feature, but purists who had turntables didn't take to it at first. It seemed wrong -- to listen to the songs in a different order than the band/artist wanted you to.

But with MP3s -- music is one song at a time. And you shuffle songs constantly. The idea of a set of 12 songs to be heard in *this* order is inoperative. And we talk on this board and on other sites like Just Plain Folks of how the relationship between bands and artists is changing. To stay valid, you have to market constantly, giving some music away, maintaining your website and MySpace, answering fan mail, giving extras --- fans want to feel like they have a personal relationship -- of some type -- with you. And content needs to keep changing or it gets stale. That's the new world.

That's why I think EPs are going to be the right choice. Consumers are going to be more likely to buy a short burst of 5-6 songs than a full pallette of 10-12 songs. They can listen in any order they want, remember. And cost will be an issue -- a full CD, and consumers might choose a handful of songs they like; but an EP will be cheap enough that they are more likely to just grab 'em all.

You can shift stylistically more often, where you might do an album a year, and move in a musical direction, you can afford to experiment more. Do a 4-song EP burst with a new sound, or something you're trying. Your fans will try it. Give one song away two weeks before the EP is released, build some excitement. Your fans will tell you if they like it or not. If they go wild, give them more with a 6-song EP later that year; if they tell you "dude, nice try, I love your stuff, but that sound isn't working for me" -- you go back and give them what they love.

I'm thinking out loud, but the 12-song CD, concepted out with artwork, etc., is something we 40+-year-olds cling to. I don't think that is where the listening habits of youngers audiences are going to take us.

My song "Vinyl" (written with Ron Tintner) is about our emotional memories of listening to music.

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