Today, while reading down my Facebook newsfeed I ran across this article by Bob Lefsetz at Variety. In it he bemoans the loss of the album as a musical format. Then he links the demise of the album to the demise of musical artistry. I agree with him that album sales are dropping, but disagree with his conclusions based on that data. He is forgetting that the album is not the natural form of musical distribution, but is an artificial construct created under certain conditions. Conditions which have now largely passed.
To me this is a classic example of not knowing your history. So please allow a slight digression.
For starters, up until about 120 years ago there was no widespread music industry. Music before this time was controlled and consumed only by the very wealthy. The poor and even the middle classes did not have the means, nor the available time to enjoy music outside of small gatherings, or public concerts. Short of church music, most people did not listen to music unless they played it themselves.
What altered this status quo were two major changes, both of which were dependent upon the other, 1) the advent of the printed sheet music industry, and 2) the widespread knowledge of reading sheet music for the piano and other instruments. Sheet music allowed songs from vaudeville to be consumed at home and for friends. It was not a particularly fast way of spreading music, nor was it easy to share as one needed to have a requisite level of musical ability to play sheet music. Still an industry grew until there were songwriters in New York, many living in an area called tin-pan alley, who did nothing but write songs for the sheet music industry.
What eventually toppled the sheet music industry was the advent of a new technology, the vinyl record. Prior to vinyl records, recorded music was expensive to purchase, and unreliable. Vinyl records changed all that. Vinyl allowed for inexpensive mass-produced chunks of music that could be played on a machine which required almost zero technical skill. Suddenly one didn’t need to spend years and years practicing the piano just to hear a song. Even the least knowledgable musician could crank up the victrola, drop the needle and start dancing. Moreover, recorded music brought not just a single instrument, but the entire band. Before this time, if you wanted to hear a band you had to be especially rich, or lucky enough to be nearby (and have the extra cash and time) to attend a concert. Now, a concert could be held in a home, for the price of a victrola and a single vinyl disc.
On the whole vinyl was a boon for the average consumer as it lowered the bar to hearing musical performances, especially for entire bands. However, vinyl was not a benefit for others. Lost in this musical struggle was tin-pan alley, and its many songwriters. Also losing out were musicians themselves as the value of knowing how to play an instrument dropped dramatically. Having a reputation as the best piano player in town was a boon either financially or socially, but the widespread adoption of vinyl records decreased that value considerably.
Mind you, vinyl records did not entirely kill-off sheet music sales or piano playing. There will always be a niche market for such things. What vinyl did do was make these activities unprofitable for the mass market.
Because of the shape of vinyl records (a flat disc with a hole in the middle), and because of how they are manufactured, it was reasonably cost effective to sell two songs together, one for either side of the disc. This was a departure from sheet music, which sold songs individually (the only “true” single). As the popularity of vinyl records increased, and its speed decreased, it became technologically feasible to sell more than two songs per disc. It was only at this point that the vinyl album as we know it, The LP record, that is a collection of songs totaling under an hour of time, was born.
Albums were cost effective for a few important reasons. 1) they distributed the high cost of recording music over several different songs, 2) likewise they distributed the high cost of distributing music over several different songs, 3) they allowed a consumer to purchase a variety of songs from a single artist all in one easy package, and 4) they were highly profitable for music distributors if sold in large numbers. But for almost all artists, albums themselves did not sell on their own. Album sales were almost always leveraged via the traditional ways of music promotion: Playing singles on the radio, and concert tours. It was radio play and touring that drove artist awareness and thus increased album sales, not the other way around.
This is because the single largest problem with musical artists is, and has always been, awareness. In the case of small or unknown artists, most people simply do not know who they are. In the case of larger artists, most people do not know they have a new album out. The only way to make consumers more knowledgable is to reach them. Traditionally this was done vis radio play and concert tours. Now the internet allows one to circumvent some of this process. Its possible to substitute internet downloads for radio play. Its more difficult, but feasible to substitute internet downloads for live concerts. Certainly, the internet allows an artist to have direct contact with their fans, and allows them to be in complete control of their music’s distribution. Alas this direct control doesn’t automatically convey expertise. The skills one needs to write and perform good music are not the same skills it takes to sell the music and generate awareness for the artist.
At the same time the computer has been changing the way we distribute and market music, it has also had a huge impact on making of music. Not only are the ways we write and create music massively different that the past (can you imagine Duke Ellington remixing Cab Calloway, or what Miles Davis would have done with cheap, high-quality sampling?), but most importantly the cost of recording high-quality music has decreased hugely. At one point to record an album you needed a recording studio (with hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of equipment) and the technical expertise of a recording engineer, a mixer, a producer, and a mastering engineer. All of these people occupied high-paying positions, which cost a lot of money. Ad in the cost of studio time, and you can see that an album could easy cost 100 grand or more to make. Today, all of these things can be done in one’s bedroom using a laptop. Mind you, the quality of today’s bedroom music may not be as high as that which is done in a recording studio, but generally the quality will be higher than was done 40 years ago in a studio, and that is significant.
Taking all this together we can clearly see a few trends: 1) The cost of recording music is so low that it no longer needs to be distributed over several songs to be cost effective. 2) Likewise, the cost of distributing music is so low that it no longer needs to be distributed over several songs to be cost effective. 2) Unless they are recording specifically for vinyl, an artist is not limited to this format for sales. 3) The internet of today sells and promotes singles better than it does albums.
Add these things together and its easy to see that albums are on the demise. Musical artistry however is not. Moreover, neither is the music industry. Albums were never the
“perfect” medium, but merely a way of selling music that is slowly fading away. Like the 8-track tape player, albums represent a particular technological trend which came up under certain conditions, and will eventually go when those conditions leave. Will the music made 100 years from now be different than it is today? Certainly. The music industry evolved in the past to technological trends, there is no reason to assume it won’t in the future. Will the musicians of tomorrow be just as good as those today, or of yesterday? You can bet on it.