The Album is Dead
Well no, not really. But it’s glory days have long since passed. The record industry’s primary method of music creation and distribution — the full-length LP — is on the decline, as CD sales continue to tumble year after year. Less than a decade after the record labels disposed of the single as a distribution vehicle, it came back with a vengeance in the form of mp3’s, iTunes and ringtones.
The recording industry’s traditional business model is failing, and no one’s quite sure what the replacement is going to be. The music industry as a whole is still locked into the concept of the full-length album, released once every 1-3 years, with the attendant promotional and touring cycle. I believe that this model is no longer necessary.
With the renewed viability of independent distribution and promotion and the opportunities afforded by the Internet, artists and labels can begin to experiment with new ways of releasing music. I think it’s time for the music industry to move back towards a singles-based approach.
A little history: For the first half of its existence, the music industry relied solely on singles (78 RPM) to distribute music. The 33 1/3 RPM LP was created in 1948, but it wasn’t until the 60’s that the pop music industry began to release significant amounts of music in this format. Before the Beatles and Bob Dylan, LPs were simply collections of singles padded with filler material (sound familiar?) It wasn’t until Rock started to become Art that the LP emerged as a creative and commercial medium.
After the 60s, the record industry rearranged itself around the sale and promotion of full-length LPs. Instead of a string of singles, bands began churning out ten songs at a time once every year or two. While some albums were worth listening to from beginning to end, most albums — even by otherwise great bands — consisted of a few good songs surrounded by mediocre filler.
Even then, the record industry still relied on singles to promote albums. Many casual music listeners only ever bought singles — remember the cassette single in the 80s, or those old piles of 45s that used to be common among music collectors?
The album as Art will never truly go away, but it is obvious that the way we consume music now is shifting back towards a singles-based approach. We listen to our mp3’s on shuffle, we create mix CDs, we cherry pick songs from iTunes. And for an independent artist, free from the restrictions of record labels and traditional methods of physical distribution, it is now possible to release music in smaller quantities at more frequent intervals.
Instead of primarily releasing music as full-length albums every 1-3 years, I propose that artists experiment with releasing music in the form of singles or EPs every 3-9 months. I believe there are several advantages to this approach, both from a creative and commercial standpoint.
Greater Quality and Creativity
Currently, with the full-length LP paradigm, a band decides that it’s time to put out a new album. Over a period of weeks or months (sometimes while sitting in the studio), the band writes a batch of songs, all very similar in sound and intent. Some will be good, while most (at best a few) will be mediocre.
I can’t say for certain that this is how every band writes an album. But for most bands, it’s probably close enough to the truth. An LP is supposed to sound cohesive — to fit a particular sound or mood. Back in the glory days of the rock LP, bands created full-length albums as complete works meant to be listened to in one sitting. If a band doesn’t approach an LP as a complete work, then it is merely a bunch of songs that sound fairly similar. And some of those songs will undoubtedly suck.
There are valid creative reasons for recording a full-length album, but it is not always necessary or even desirable to do so. If a band has written several good songs, then shouldn’t they release those songs on their own merits without half an album’s worth of filler? If anything, it may decrease the crap ratio of most bands’ output.
By releasing music more often, a band can be freed from the full-length release cycle of writing and recording, and create music regularly and spontaneously. Never mind that another album isn’t due for a while. Assemble a few great songs into an EP. Put it out on iTunes, or press some limited edition CDs or vinyl.
The idea is to make the creation of music a more natural, relaxed endeavor, one that is not tied to the release of full-length albums. Create and release music as it comes, and it might actually result in more good music.
A Gradual Evolution
The current gap of 1-3 years (on average) between releases means that bands sometimes tend to evolve in great leaps. Bands change, and the sound they’ve pursued on their newest album may be far removed from the sound of their last album. It’s almost like watching a child grow up in two-year increments. The change is often dramatic.
How many times have you listened to a band’s new album, only to find that it sounds considerably different than the last album that you fell in love with? At best, a change in sound might earn a band some new fans (if it were a more commercial shift). At worst, it might result in an exodus of old fans.
By releasing music in shorter cycles, the feedback on a band’s musical direction would be more immediate. A full-length album that turns out to be a commercial mistake can be a big blow to a band’s career. By the time the follow-up comes out, the band’s older fan base might not be interested anymore.
From an aesthetic perspective, a band that releases material more often will evolve more naturally in the ears of its fans, even in the face of huge stylistic leaps. It’s the difference between Rubber Soul and Revolver (1 year) vs. Revolver and Abbey Road (3 years). Imagine if Sgt. Pepper, Magical Mystery Tour and the White Album were never recorded. By today’s model, that’s pretty much what would have happened.
For any musician that is so inclined, shorter releases can provide an opportunity to experiment musically in ways that are not viable on a full-length LP. Try that dub reggae experiment. Make that mini-concept album. At worst, some fans will like it, and some won’t. Instead of wasting $14 on an album that they weren’t expecting, they may have given up a few dollars to download it from iTunes. And those fans can always buy your next, non-experimental release.
Successful experimentation may point the way towards a more commercially or artistically successful direction. It could earn your band a rabid cult following. At least you can get those creative impulses out without permanently alienating large sections of your fan base and getting dropped from your record label.
Short releases can also provide a model for experimenting with multimedia. Although hybrid CDs with extra content have existed for years, the record industry has yet to fully embrace multimedia content. You could release an EP with music videos, live performances or whatever your imagination can conjure.
Maintaining Fan Interest
A band can have a breakout single and be the hot new thing, but by the time they get off tour, head back into the studio and release their follow-up two years later, most of the music-buying public has lost interest and moved on to the next big thing.
How many bands have lost sales between one album and the next? Sure, the dedicated fans will buy the next album, and a long-awaited album from a great artist is always an event. But in a short-attention span culture such as ours, wouldn’t it be nice if the fans didn’t have to wait two years for new material?
By releasing new material sooner, a band could capitalize on their new found popularity and extend their public exposure. Fans would be treated to great music a lot sooner. It could even be used to build up anticipation for a proper full-length release.
How to Make it Work
The Web and digital downloading have revolutionized the way that musicians promote and distribute their music, so it’s easy for artists to release and promote their music on their own terms.
Digital distribution through iTunes and other music download services eliminates one major barrier: the need to manufacture and distribute many short EP and single releases. Of course, you can still do that (see below), but digital distribution means that your material will always be in print, and you won’t have to carry more stock than you’ll need.
A band website with a mailing list and a blog is essential, as well as MySpace and any other social networking and promotion opportunities you can take advantage of. Since you won’t have the promotional push behind full-length releases that a record label can offer, it’s up to you to market directly to the fans.
Of course, the record industry is still based at least nominally around the sale of physical hard copies of music. For the artist who releases music more frequently, there are several paths to take.
One method is to print limited edition runs of EPs and singles. Add some artwork, maybe an extra track or two, put out some colored vinyl. If you have the fan base, limited edition releases could be a good way to stimulate fan interest and turn your records into collectors items. Plus, you won’t need to press more copies than the initial demand requires. If you have the distribution, sell some copies in record stores. The rest, sell at shows or through your website.
Another is to release regular anthologies of your single and EP output. On the same schedule that you would normally release full-length LPs, release a full-length anthology of your work to date. Stereolab regularly does this with their limited edition single and EP output between albums. If you have the fan base, it shouldn’t be hard to find an indie label that will handle manufacturing and distribution for you.
This proposal may sound a little risky to some. After all, who wants to deviate from a comforable, time-worn business model and litter the market with singles and EPs? But the fact is that selling copies of music is no longer the business model that it once was. Most bands never made much money selling albums anyway. For the typical working musician, the real money is in live performance.
I’m not suggesting that this model will work for everyone, nor am I proposing that we should dispose of the full-length LP. Rather, I’m suggesting that independant artists could experiment with different types of releases other than the obligatory full-length album. At the very least, it will distinguish you from other artists.
The idea is not necessarily more music, but better music more often. Let’s face it: Most songs on full-length albums are mediocre, and most people don’t listen intently to a full album in one sitting anymore. Some of the best releases I’ve heard are EPs. The means are available and the risk, if any, is minor for an artist who self-distributes their own work online.
Addendum: I found this after I wrote this post, but this recent New York Times article summarizes many of the same conclusions.