The Fall of the Album

Analyzing the music industry is a lot like analyzing a cat.  You think you understand its movements, coordination, communication, but you end up realizing it’s all manipulation for its own personal gain.  Music is a breathing entity, and like normal “entities,” it needs some cash to stay afloat.  Bare bones, that’s basic business. So, what garners cash more than riding trends in the music industry? Behold the radio single, the masterpiece and libation of studio production.  With a single marketable track, musicians possess, and possessed, the ability to forsake consistent quality.  Sure, classic artists such as Black Sabbath, Pink Floyd, and The Beatles released single promotions.  Those artists, however, also released Master of Reality, Dark Side of the Moon, and Revolver. What timeless album has Ke$ha produced? Think about it.  We can’t blame it all on the radio single, however.  Unfortunately, as modern artists take advantage of the digital marketplace, the album has become an afterthought, more of a token of gratitude than a fleshed out experience.

The digital music marketplace is a wonder.  Radiohead, with their innovative record In Rainbows, was one of the first albums to exploit this venture, adopting a “pay what you can” strategy.  According to Music Ally, the album was number one in the United Kingdom and the United States in its first three months.  And this was when you didn’t even have to pay for the damn thing.  Now, if you download an album for free, record companies shit their pants and sue you for everything you own.  Everything!  To contest torrenting, Spotify, Pandora, and other streaming services started their print in the digital world, providing an additional avenue for artists.  Album streams have transcended expectations, but sales? That’s a different story. Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly moved over 300,000 copies in its first week.  Yet, it was streamed over 9 million times. So, yes, To Pimp a Butterfly sold well for a modern, popular album, but its streaming numbers prove that the popular marketplace desires “entertainment” at little to no price. Albums are just too expensive to make and nobody wants to pay for them.

Hence the live production.  It’s well known that rock and metal outfits bring in more from touring and merchandise sales than album sales.  Take it from Jim Root, guitarist of Slipknot, one of the highest selling metal bands of the decade.  Oh wait, it’s past the nineties.  Highest selling metal outfit two decades ago, how does that sound? The band has sold over five million records, but when it’s all said and done, they brought in pocket change compared to the industry’s golden age(s).  Production, label, marketing, distribution, and retail costs all contribute to an album’s lowered value.  Not to mention less popular outfits.  If you’re below a sellout headliner, try for a charting single or get used to bars because, if Metal Sucks has anything to say about it, you’re shit out of luck. So, in this regard, the album has become nothing more than a tour promotion.  Useful in the right context, yes.  Inspired? Depends on how much the artist cares about his or her “art.”  Damn, I tried to stay objective.

Here we are, the beloved commentary on musical quality. Let’s face it, music isn’t what it was during the 60’s through the 90’s.  As I said, radio singles were more of a marketing strategy to boost album sales.  Albums were the norm; albums were the desire of the popular market.  How many of you have that old family member who boasts about his or her extensive record collection? Personally, I envy them. Back then, when attention spans — i.e. boredom — were at an all time high, albums were cool, man.  Besides the recent Indie and hip hop movements, timelessness is nonexistent, replaced by the iPod shuffle.  Before, musical quality was paramount to an artist’s success. The radio single brought in sales, but bands had to wow listeners because their consumers had to buy their entire output. Thanks, internets! Why waste time and money on a consistent record when you can make millions off one track? If I’m a pop musician or executive looking for cash, I know the route I’d take.

As the music business evolves, more nails are driven into the album’s coffin.  This dramatic metaphor can be attributed to the digital market, production cost, and radio single.  However, to those grinding away in the production dungeon to create that groundbreaking album, I salute you!

Disclaimer:  All rights, content, and properties of the featured image belongs to Adam Fagen at https://www.flickr.com/photos/afagen/2119323310. I have, in no way, used said image for profit.

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