In the second piece of a five-part puzzle, Andrew McMillen examines the digitally-inspired shift in consumer habits away from the long-established album format. This week, Andrew highlights portable playlist control as a key component in the reduced reliance placed upon the album by music consumers.
In last week’s column, I discussed the history of the album format, from the revolutionary, 45 minute-long LP through to the rising costs of compact discs. Now, take your imagination on a mental walk to your music collection. Stand before the shelves and admire your beloved classics, your blinding debuts, your middling sophomores, your utter disappointments, and the hidden atrocities that you’re embarrassed to have purchased.
There’s an enormous nostalgia value attached to your record collection, whether in actual LP format or CDs. Few cultural topics are as divisive and subjective as one’s music taste. I’m certainly not writing off the value of the album in its entirety; that’d be madness. But why is it that you fondly fondle some albums, and not others? To use a cricketing metaphor: why do some releases hit you for six, while others barely make the length of the pitch?
To elaborate on the latter example: picture the average album you’d buy from a store – perhaps not in this era, since both CD shelf space and CD merchants continue to dwindle – but ten years ago. Hypothetically, the disc is likely to be front-loaded with some great songs. They’re the ones that you’re likely to have heard before you bought the album. These strategically-placed songs are the ones that either – or both – the band and record label wanted you to hear first and enjoy first.
Then you’d get to the second half of the album and, more than likely, you’d find a dramatic reduction in the quality of songwriting. As with any conversation regarding music, this is an entirely subjective topic of discussion, but there’s not a music fan reading who hasn’t experienced the phenomenon of an album’s proverbial tail failing to wag.
As I wrote last week, the recorded music industry has revolved around the album for decades. Record deals, release schedules, pricing structure, the touring cycle, the catchy lead single, album reviews; these choreographed industry institutions are all funneled toward the end goal of selling albums. Music consumers were tied to the album format as a force of habit, since it was by far the most convenient method to listen to music. In the LP era, it was easier to let an album play from beginning to end, rather than painstakingly searching for the groove that contained the beginning of your favourite tracks.
But portability heralded a substantial change in listening habits; the now-ubiquitous MP3 audio compression algorithm was a mere twinkle in German audio scientists’ eyes when Sony released the Walkman to the public in 1979. The device used cassette tapes, which allowed listeners to use headphones to play audio recordings while on the move. This led to label-released albums and singles finding a wide audience, and the proliferation of home taping from sources such as the radio, television, and your existing record collection. The ‘mixtape’ was born!
The Walkman’s successor, Sony’s Discman, was released in 1984. The CD-based player allowed a greater freedom from the comparably imprecise Walkman method of fast-forwarding and rewinding through a cassette to find your favourite tracks. But the device was still tied to the concept of the album: while songs could be played in a ‘random’ order – an important precursor to Apple’s iPod Shuffle – it could only handle a disc at a time.
That listening habit was exploded when CD burning technology allowed listeners to compile the circular equivalent of mixtapes, without the cassette-associated fuss. As the audio filetype known as MP3 became easier for the masses to acquire online, consumer attitudes to music further deviated from the past when the first digital audio players became available in the late 1990s.
Commonly known as MP3 players, these devices allowed a user to transfer CDs encoded in the MP3 audio filetype onto a portable hard drive that could play the files. For the first time, a listener could store their favourite songs in a portable format that could be ordered on-the-fly, as desired. No rewinding or fast-forwarding, no moving parts; control had been placed into the fan’s hands.
Several unremarkable forays into the digital audio player market from Rio and Compaq set the stage for Apple, whose first generation, exclusively Mac-compatible iPod debuted in October 2001. A Windows-friendly version of the device followed in 2002; frequently-released incremental iterations have boosted its worldwide sales in excess of 210 million, according to the Associated Press.
Apple’s success in the digital audio player market can be attributed to their user-friendly design and savvy marketing. Their devices satisfied a demand for portable music that’d gathered momentum since the Walkman’s debut. The twin Apple successes of the iPod and the iTunes Music Store – which will be covered in greater depth next week – are evidence that listeners prize portable playlist control, after decades of passively absorbing albums from start to end.
This newfound control is central to understanding the shift from albums as the key organising principle behind music dissemination. Industry analyst Bob Lefsetz wrote on his Lefsetz Letter website in August 2006: “The track has been disengaged from the album. The label wants an album budget, producers, a full-length that they can charge in the neighborhood of ten dollars wholesale for. No matter that no radio station goes deep and neither do the fans.”
He’s hinting at the killer-versus-filler argument that’s as old as the industry itself. While there’ll always be pleasure gained by experiencing a classy, calculated collection of songs from beginning to end – see Perth post-hardcore act Eleventh He Reaches London‘s 2009 release, for example – writers like Lefsetz and myself argue that the record industry’s unending fascination with the album as the definitive musical product is misleading and erroneous.
The record industry’s perceived market expectations are the driving force behind the unending push for more albums. This wouldn’t be problematic – for artists, labels, or listeners – if real supply met perceived demand. Instead, album sales have declined worldwide, while sales of individual songs – key singles often released to radio so as to promote an album – continue to climb.
In 2009, artists shouldn’t automatically sprint toward the album endpoint as a result of historical programming. Their creative output shouldn’t be stretched to meet the 45 minute/12 track (whichever comes first) expectation, just so that the parties involved can proudly call it an album. In an era where more music is being written, recorded and performed each day than at any other point in history, an artist shouldn’t throw together words, chords and beats just to meet an expectation built upon a decades-old concept.
The question that I put forth is simple: why continue to push acts toward the goal of the album release, instead of working with artists to determine the most appropriate method of releasing their recorded work? Next week, I’ll further investigate the divide between the recording industry’s historical expectations and current consumer habits.
Brisbane-based Andrew McMillen writes for several Australian music publications. He can be found on Twitter (@NiteShok) and online at http://andrewmcmillen.com/
(Note: This is part two of an article series that first appeared in weekly Australian music industry magazine The Music Network issue #745, July 6th 2009. Read the rest of the series: part one, part three, part four and part five)