Jon Pareles looks at the status of albums in the download age:
- The pop album made its way through the 20th century by staying adaptable, transforming itself from analog grooves to digital bits. But can the notion of an album – a collection of songs sold as a single unit, to be heard in a certain sequence – survive the Internet?
That question has been raised more insistently since Apple Computers started its iTunes store, where songs can be downloaded for 99 cents and complete albums for $9.99. Apple recently announced that 6.5 million songs have been downloaded since the store opened on April 28, fewer than half of them as part of albums. Its competition, Buy.com’s buymusic.com, is expected to announce its opening on Tuesday, selling downloads for the much more widely used Windows operating system.
….While computer commerce and short attention spans are working against the survival of the album, there is, of course, resistance. Metallica, Radiohead, Led Zeppelin, the Beastie Boys and others have refused to sell their music through iTunes because Apple insists on making all songs available separately. They see their albums, not separate songs, as the artistic unit.
“We like to see our work released in that collective form that we’ve created it in and have always created our work in and grew up in,” said Lars Ulrich, Metallica’s drummer and songwriter. “It’s about an experience that’s 40 or 50 or 60 minutes long. It was always about how those songs fit together: the fast song next to the slow song next to the crunchy one next to the ballad next to the instrumental. There was a balance, and you had all these dynamics within the experience. I like the relentlessness of it, to really pummel and torture people with it as long as possible.”
The album as art form took time to develop. The first albums were cumbersome stacks of three-minute discs, played at 78 r.p.m., in sleeves bound together like photo albums. They evolved by the 1950’s into the 12-inch, 33 1/3-r.p.m. microgroove LP. But until the 1960’s, singles were the staples of the recording business. Radio stations played 45’s and jukeboxes were stocked with them. Listeners of a certain age can remember saving up allowance money to buy a 45 single for less than a dollar.
For many, it was their first purchase of recorded music.
But since the 1960’s, the money has been in albums, which have a much higher profit margin than singles. And while there have always been albums that surrounded a hit single or two with filler, more ambitious musicians began trying to make every song on an album worthwhile.
….Still, the album will not disappear without a fight. Lately, the concept album has been making a resurgence. Neil Young’s next album, “Greendale,” is what he calls a “musical novel,” telling the intertwined stories of characters in a small town. The Mars Volta, one of the top new bands on the college circuit, describes its debut album, “De-Loused in the Comatorium,” as a concept album; it’s the tangled, delirious ravings of a dying man.
Optimists see not the extinction of the album, but greater choice for both musicians and listeners. “If they want instant gratification,” Mr. Azzoli said, “they’ll get the song. But if they want to get to know the artist, they’ll still get the album.” [NY Times]
There is certainly room for both, and overall I see the disentanglement of songs from albums as pressure to make albums better on the one hand. On the other, fans find it much easier to make their own “compilation albums” mixing and matching songs as they see fit using the digital tools now available.
Metallica, Radiohead, Led Zeppelin, the Beastie Boys, Red Hot Chili Peppers are misunderstanding the entire situation – it’s their loss since consumers are still free to do what they want with their individual songs digitally, while they force online fans who want individual songs to stick with the file sharing services.