This year no album went Platinum in the UK for the first time since 1973, while soundbite culture grows. Will artists stop releasing albums?
Here’s a thought experiment for music lovers. I want you to picture one of your favourite albums, an all-time classic you have treasured since you first opened the sleeve, slid out the vinyl, set the record player to 33 1/3 revolutions per minute, and carefully dropped the needle in the groove of track one, side one with a satisfying hiss.
Or perhaps you slotted it into a cassette machine, pressed play on a CD player, or simply typed its title into the search engine of your chosen streaming service and tapped your Bluetooth earbuds for action.
It could be Pink Floyd’s mind-bending concept album The Dark Side of the Moon from 1973, or Kate Bush’s 1985 cornucopia of delights Hounds of Love, or Radiohead’s 1997 masterpiece of post rock pre-millennial dread OK Computer. Perhaps you prefer something more up to date, such as Michael Kiwanuka’s 2020 Mercury Prize winning soul-searching odyssey Kiwanuka. Let’s just agree that it is an album you love, that represents a favourite musical artist at their peak, and has played a significant part in the soundtrack of your life. Got it?
Now, I want you to think how much better the album might have been if you could just chuck out any of the less-immediately accessible tracks, move all the familiar hit singles up front, and perhaps dump all the weird quirky numbers in the middle that took you a bit longer to warm to?
Cue rock critic diving behind the sofa for cover as outraged readers start crumpling up their newspapers to turn them into missiles, hurling abuse at their screens, or typing angry messages to the editor.
Come on (I might vainly protest, poking my head up over the parapet for a moment), who hasn’t been tempted to skip over Within You Without You whilst playing Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band? I mean, what were The Beatles thinking, daring to let George Harrison introduce a generation to Indian musical scales, instrumentation and hippy mysticism when they could have skipped straight to Paul McCartney’s musical hall singalong When I’m Sixty Four?
Actually, you could dump most of side two if you really want an all-thriller-no-filler experience, and go straight back in for the Sgt. Pepper reprise and epic closer A Day in The Life. Only, the latter goes on a bit at five and a half minutes, so perhaps fade out that orchestral waffle at the end and…
At this point in our thought experiment, the hapless critic may find himself dragged into the street by a mob of angry musicians and music lovers, tossed on to a pyre built of discarded charity shop K-Tel hits compilations, and then immolated to the sound of Lou Reed’s 1975 double album Metal Machine Music, all 64 minutes and 11 seconds of its ambient feedback.
Which, to be fair, I have listened to in its entirety, at least twice.
As ridiculous as all of the above may sound, in reality that is how a lot of people treat albums now. New York Times pop critic Jon Caramanica stirred up controversy online this week, when he was quoted in an interview saying “An album is simply a data dump now. That doesn’t mean that some artists won’t continue to aim to be auteurs of the form, but the minute albums hit streaming services, they are sliced and diced and the songs are relegated to playlist slots, and everything after that is a crapshoot.”
It is hard to dispute the truth of that assessment. Streaming has become the dominant form of music distribution through platforms such as Spotify and YouTube, with an estimated increase of 17 per cent globally last year, to 873 billion streams of individual tracks. In the UK, fans listened to 138 billion songs. It is a format that strongly favours shuffling songs selected to a listener’s algorithmically defined taste, which helps explain some anomalies of the year’s sales figures.
Album sales in the UK were actually up in 2020, increasing 8.2 per cent to 155 million according to the BPI. But it turns out this was from a much wider base of albums available to be streamed, with no individual albums dominating, and a significant element comprising “album equivalent units,” which certainly doesn’t represent listening to an album from beginning to end.
Meanwhile, CD sales continued to dwindle (down from a high of 163.4 million in 2004 to just 16 million last year). No album reached Platinum status in the UK (marking 300,000 sales) for the first time since 1973. No debut albums by British artists featured amongst the year’s best-selling records at all, suggesting new artists are struggling to get a grip on listeners. And three of the top 10 best-sellers were actually compilation albums by artists whose career peaks came in the 1970s: Queen, Elton John and Fleetwood Mac.
Listening habits are changing with technology, but does this really mean the long-predicted death of the album? And should we lament it if it does?
Where Caramanica really ran into trouble was with his dismissal of the album as a musical format. “The truth is that albums worked as a medium only because everyone was a captive. When you look back at your favourite older albums now, I’m sure you see the weak spots that you’d happily have programmed out if you had the technology then. Now you do.”
Actually, we have long had the technology to “reprogram” albums, either by simply skipping a track (via the very handy silent gap between songs that showed as a deep black groove) or perhaps making a cassette mixtape (I have my own personal bootleg mix of Bob Dylan’s 1983 album Infidels, which replaces rockers such as Neighbourhood Bully and Union Sundown with some more refined masterworks he mysteriously deemed extraneous at the time, such as Foot of Pride and Blind Willie McTell).
The idea that the album held us “captive” by presenting a sequence of songs chosen by the artist is obviously absurd. What it presented was the artist’s vision of their own work, for better or worse. There are parts of Michelangelo’s fresco in the Sistine Chapel that no one but a scholar would pay much attention to, but, honestly, seeing the whole thing as a unified piece has been one of the most overwhelming artistic experiences of my life. Does anyone think it would really be improved by just framing the famous central motif of God and Man and dumping all those less celebrated devils and angels on the periphery?
The bigger question is perhaps: what do we gain or lose by such an implied transference of power from artist to consumer in how a work is presented? We have always had the power to edit an artist’s offering, but if you substitute the word book for the word albums, Caramanica’s statement starts to look very odd: “Books worked as a medium only because everyone was a captive. When you look back at your favourite older books now, I’m sure you see the weak spots that you’d happily have programmed out if you had the technology then.”
Actually, I was introduced to a lot of classic literature as a child by comic books and my grandmother’s Readers Digest collection. But I’m here to tell you right now, The Iliad does not have quite the same resonance as a graphic novel, and Moby Dick is really not improved as a work of literature by excising all the chapters on cetology (though I know a few people who feel differently about that one). The speciousness of Caramanica’s position was wittily dismantled on Twitter by this riposte from @jeffersonwaful: “I also go back and happily edit out the weaker scenes in all my favourite movies. I ONLY watch car chases now. I didn’t realize I was being held captive all those years. Thanks technology!”
Caramanica is an unapologetic neophyte, constantly seeking out new musical sounds and styles, which might explain his baffling predilection for the 15-second soundbite culture of TikTok as a music delivery service. Each to his own. There are many consumers who clearly feel the same (though in all likelihood most of them are probably younger than this 45-year-old critic).
I am genuinely not condemning his point of view. We need new music adopters and erudite guides to changing trends, of which Caramanica is a particularly eloquent exponent. But I do find his conclusion highly suspect. “I wouldn’t be surprised if the next generation of pop stars finds ways to never release an “album” again — they’ll just drip music out, one automated-brain-chip-download at a time.”
Ever since the advent of the iPod in the early 2000s, the musical album format has been under pressure, a trend accelerated by streaming. Yet here we are, 20 years on, and more albums are released every week than ever before, and a wider range of music is being listened to than ever before. Consumers now effectively have music on tap, but that doesn’t mean that every listener only wants to leave that tap running with whatever pours out of it, and subject themselves to an endless diet of algorithmically selected hits. Nor that every artist is only interested in creating songs that function as hook-laden, attention-grabbing soundbites for the TikTok generation.
Long playing albums creatively sequenced by the artist to carry the listener on some kind of musical journey remain the favoured musical delivery method both for the most serious artists (and there are not too many artists who don’t take themselves seriously) and most dedicated fans (who are the consumers who really drive music trends, before the mainstream pick up on them). Even on a strictly commercial level, an artist who can lock the listener into their world is going to reap the benefit of sustained streaming, which surely contributed to Taylor Swift’s position in both end of the year sales and streaming charts with not one but two new albums in 2020.
But strict commercial considerations are far from the only consideration when it comes to music. There is a sense in which Sgt Pepper might be snappier and poppier without George Harrison’s sitar experiment, but it would not have been as wide and rich, or taken so many people on unexpected journeys that expanded their musical horizons. And it certainly would not have created the kind of cultural impact that has made it a revered work of art that people still listen to 53 years after its release. Editing it according to individual taste would have made it a lesser work, that would have quite possibly faded from view by now.
There’s a place for hits compilations, and I love a good curated playlist. But when it comes to real musical riches, there is plenty of evidence to suggest music lovers will continue plunging into the deep dive of the long-player. As the music business awaits the return of Adele this year with the expectation that she will dominate charts once again with another collection of themed and linked songs, I feel confident proclaiming that the imminent death of the album has been greatly exaggerated.
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