Monday, February 09, 2009

Is the Album Dead?

by Scott

In a recent interview with the Greg Kot of the Chicago Tribune, Billy Corgan stated that The Smashing Pumpkins would no longer make albums in order to concentrate their attentions on singles, “The listening patterns have changed, so why are we killing ourselves to do albums, to create balance, and do the arty track to set up the single? It's done."

As CD sales plummet year after year, I keep hearing that ‘the Album is dead.’ However, just because more people are getting their music digitally, does that mean that a solid collection of tunes no longer has value? I mean, you can download the whole album just as easily as you can a single track… so why the shift? Maybe it’s because the iPod age has made ‘shuffling’ easier than ever and so having a bunch of good songs from many different artist at you fingertips is far easier than it used to be; you don’t even have to make a mix CD, you just point, click and drag it into your playlist.

But does that make a group of songs that work together as a collective whole any less valuable? In fact, some of my favorite releases of the past year are albums where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts: Viva La Vida, 808 and Heartbreak, Chinese Democracy….

Is there any reason why singles and albums can’t co-exist separately as they once did in the 60s? If anything, I think the reason that albums haven’t been doing as well is because fewer artist are trying to make really good albums; they’re all concentrating on the single. Personally, I think that if you make a solid album, people will listen. That’s not to say that the more casual music fan still won’t prefer the single but the single has always been the preferred format for the casual music fan. The only difference is that, now, it’s easier (and more economically sound) than ever for them to avoid buying the whole album just to get the song (s) they want.

Thoughts on this?


Christian said...

I agree. The Album isn't dying, the artist wanting to make them are.

And fuck people and their short attention spans. Don't get me wrong: I like short songs, and I don't always listen to albums from start to finish everything I want to hear a single two minute song, but sometimes I want to hear something that's long and fucking epic.

"I Will Possess Your Heart" by Death Cab for Cutie is the perfect length (8 minutes and 13 seconds I think) and it's a perfect thematic choice.

And Yanqui UXO takes one and a half hour to finish five songs, and again, it couldn't be any shorter.

Christian said...

By the way Yanqui U.X.O. is by Gospeed You! Black Emperor.
(Sadly YouTube prohibites songs over 10 minutes, so it's only part of "Rocket Falls on Rocket Falls")

"I Will Possess Your Heart"

(Man, I hate that there's no edit button on Blogspot.)

Chad Nevett said...

I've always been an album person and have stuck with CDs for that reason. A good single may get me to pick up an album, but it will almost never get me to listen to said album years later--that's where the non-single songs usually do their job. I've got mixed CDs of various singles from bands that I listen to, maybe, once a year at most, because while there's a nostalgia appeal, they don't really compare to some truly fantastic albums that aren't all catchy tunes meant to be played on the radio. Hell, how many times is the single your favourite song on an album?

Mikey said...

Man, Billy Corgan is dumb.

Madd_Hadder said...

I think this has been a long time coming, which is really sad. Every year I find myself purchasing fewer albums because albums rarely feel cohesive anymore.

I also miss going out and buying an album. I have one place in my town that actually sells albums and it takes forever to get out there, so I buy everything from iTunes now. It just is not the same. I miss ripping the package off, popping the cd in my car and sitting there while reading all of the liner notes.

Jake said...

What you have to realize is, Billy Corgan is kind of a douchetard. He lashed out at Radiohead for how they released In Rainbows, which was pretty much a huge success all around, saying something about it being a gimmick or whatever, I can't remember his exact douchey wording. Then he goes out and plays horrible Pumpkins shows where he berates the audience. He is actually mad at people for not liking the Pumpkins' shitty last album. I think he said something like "We're an alternative band, that means we're different from everyone else." What he fails to understand is that "alternative" is a category that has lost all meaning. 90% of CDs I import into iTunes lists themselves as "Alternative & Punk." Keane, Deerhunter, Vampire Weekend, Coldplay, The Killers, Beck, JOSHUA RADIN. Alternative & Punk. What was I talking about again? Oh. Yeah. Billy Corgan sucks.

As for the album dying, I mean, I dunno. I think that yeah, a lot of people, spurred on by the inherent terribleness of whatever FM radio station they listen to in their car, only pay attention to singles. To be frank though, music was pretty shitty for a while there. Not a whole lot of popular artists putting out good albums. I mean, since the late 90s, how many huge singles have been spawned from great albums? A few from Eminem, Kanye, and Coldplay? I'm overlooking some I'm sure, but the fact is that people have to scour the internet to find great albums in this day and age (until Saturday Night Live bolsters your image with the idiot masses, as it has been with Vampire Weekend and Fleet Foxes).

I guess what I'm trying to say is that the decline of the album is both the listeners' and the artists' fault.

scott91777 said...

On the subject of albums:

I totally called that Alison Kraus and Robert Plant would win Album of the Year back when the nominees were announced... not that I think they SHOULD have won... I just knew that they WOULD win.

I totally should have put money on that...

Kris Krause said...

I like a good album, when it is indeed good, but I think the real question should be "why do albums have a monopoly over the way music is released?" No artist just puts out singles, they all put out albums and a lot of those albums are loaded with filler. Artists usually spend months on a collection of songs. What if they could spend months working on just one song? There's potential for quality increase there.

Unfortunately, I think too many people here are equating "single" with the radio friendly catchy short song, but a single is nothing more than well, a single song. If songs were released one by one, it would be easy to continually get excited over your favorite artists. The way music works now, you get excited when your favorite artist is making a new album up until shortly after it's released or when they come to town. If artists released songs one by one, there would be a sustained sense of excitement and novelty, something similar to the feeling around a good monthly comic.

Albums aren't going anywhere for a long time. It's too deeply entrenched in the way people are condition to experience new music that they hear a single, maybe two, and then the album comes out. I'd like to see different models for experiencing new music since the internet especially allows for more freedom in that regard, but I seriously doubt the album will be going anywhere. Hopefully it just lets go of its death grip on music.

scott91777 said...


My point exactly about the two coexisting... like the Beatles, they would release awesome albums and, in between, they would release awesome singles. Since albums take longer to make today, it is a great way to create sustained interest in an artist. Hey, and nothing beats a great b-side. There are tons of great little undiscovered gems out there that were 'non-album' tracks released on the b-side of singles.

I definitely think that the digital format has made releasing non-albums singles a much more feasible reality for a lot of artist.

neilshyminsky said...

scott: I also called the Krauss/Plant win. The Grammies are by far the most predictable awards show for the simple fact that people vote along genre and demographic lines when it comes to the big categories. So if there are two hip-hop albums, two rock albums by (relatively) young bands, and one older skewing album by a rock god and a country/bluegrass artist... I wonder who all of over-40 white music industry voters are going to choose?

Jake said...

I just can't accept this whole "abandonment of albums" concept. Like Kris said, artists COULD just continually release singles instead of releasing bunches of songs once every couple years. And like Scott said, The Beatles would release singles between albums.

The thing is--and The Beatles are the best example here, even though pretty much every 60s artist(s) released albums with singles in between--WHY do albums take longer to make today. In the 60s, The Beatles would release one or two albums a year. This, while pretty much inventing the entire language of pop/rock music. They invented sounds! They had to tinker to get effects. These days any sound you want is just ready to go, on file. It frustrates me that The Beatles were working on the standard (admittedly grueling) constant release schedule of the 60s, had to do more work, AND produced so many undeniable classics (songs AND albums). Of course they had to quit touring to spend time inventing, which you could do back then, in a much stronger music industry.

Chad Nevett said...

Jake, that's one of my biggest frustrations with contemporary music and discussions surrounding albums: why do they take so long to make when a HUGE amount of fantastic, groundbreaking music was released on a schedule that is two or three (if we're lucky) times faster than artists do now? The constant touring is, obviously, one cause, although that always reminds me of how Led Zeppelin II was recorded in various locations while the band was touring.

Of course, those rare times when you see an artist be very productive and release albums at a quicker rate, like Ryan Adams in 2005, people just bitch about how it would have been better to compile the "best" of those albums into one--or take more time. Me, I'm just happy to get more music. Longer waits just create higher expectations and how does that help anyone?

Streebo said...

We've become a world fueled by soundbites. Anything longer than a few seconds is lost in the shuffle of the spectacle.

Not wanting to start a political discussion - but this is why the US went through 8 years of Bush. He was the master of the soundbite - whereas the well spoken, intelligent discussions of his rival John Kerry came across as Charlie Brown's teacher to the unwashed masses. Bush was the master of the soundbite.

These changes are cyclical at worst. As soon as everyone focuses on making singles - someone will come along and bust the market back open with an album that captures the imagination.