The Death of the Album

Forty years ago today, Sgt. Pepper taught the band to play. Or so go the lyrics (almost) of Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band. The release of that album one Friday morning in 1967 profoundly changed the music business. While musicians, and producers and record executives, certainly paid attention to the entirety of an album before that, Sgt. Peppers brought the idea that an album was a complete work of art to the consumer. Although there were certainly exceptions, most albums before that were really just collections of songs that could be held up, and sent out, as singles. From that moment forward, the concept mattered. The press started asking musicians what they were thinking when they recorded the songs, how it related to political or social ideas, or what the message was they were telling the public. Music writers became music critics, and questions about the artists favorite color were left to Tiger Beat. That paradigm became the norm in the music business for the next thirty-some years.

Enter the iPod. Similar to the mix tapes of 70’s and 80’s youth, music collections started to be more about one song from an artist or album. Why buy 10 songs if you only like 1 or 2 of them? Like a greatest hits album, you only need to buy the good stuff. This is, on the whole, a good thing. Many artists struggled to put together a collection of 10-12 good songs. There are lots of bad records out there out there with only one redeeming song. Now, they don’t have to come up with more. Sure, record companies still generally require a CD’s worth of music to release. But with the declining market for physical media, how long is that going to last? So what’s the downside to this, you ask.

Well, maybe it’s just me, but I’m starting to suffer listening fatigue. Back in the day, a few dozen new releases amounted to a good week for the record business. Nowadays, hundreds and hundreds of releases come out every week. Like one of the hummingbirds in my garden, I flit from song to song, taking momentary pleasure, but moving on in the blink of an eye. Musical content is like sugar water, supplying a burst of energy, but no nutritional content.

I still want a good album. I want to listen to the whole thing and revel in the experience. Some songs sound great immediately, but then lose their sheen. Others repulse at first, but become that grain of sand that turn into an oyster. And the occasional few start out great and just get better. I feel connected to the artist. Sometimes it’s challenging and sometimes it’s easy, but I gain an appreciation for what they’ve done. That seems to be an experience that’s just about gone in the music business.

But that’s just one man’s opinion.