Monday, November 1, 2010

Opinion: The Album Versus the Single

A battle as old as the sale of music. A full-length album versus the one standout track. Which is better for the consumer? Which will make more money for the distributor? Which presents the artist at their best?

In the early days of records, singles were king because full-length albums were so damned expensive (do correct me if I have my facts wrong; this is coming from people who lived in that age). Then, with the rise of the CD format, albums sold more and more. Ironically, many people would buy a full album, even if they only cared about one or two songs on it. Then came the digital age, when music became harder to sell because it was easy to obtain. I'm not just talking about piracy here. You can hear just about any single by searching for it on YouTube. That, of course, is one of a huge number of sources of free music, many legal and many not.

I've always been a big fan of the album as a format. When thought is put into it, it is far more than just a collection of songs. It is a complete work of art, of which a song is only a contributing piece. For this reason, I haven't bought a single in years, even through digital download. If I don't own the full album, I feel like I'm missing out on something. I could easily give examples of albums that work far better as a whole than they do as individual songs (Pink Floyd, anyone?), but I think this applies to any music in some way.

But is my attachment to the album format justified? So many people now download songs a la carte for their iPods. I wouldn't dare presume that I am somehow a greater music lover than all these people. Maybe the individual song has at last overtaken the album as the dominant form of music as art; this time, not only because of the cost.

Artists and labels are reacting as you might expect. Albums are frequently marketed almost entirely on their featured singles, and the "filler" songs are made to sound as much like it as possible (I present, for your consideration as evidence, Kesha's Animal). Even independent artists are increasingly distributing their music by download only. Not only is it cheaper, but they just don't sell that many physical CDs anymore. Indie musician and writer Brian Hazard has not only announced that his most recent album will be his last to take physical form, but he now advocates using the internet as the only means of self-promotion for indie artists. Pristina, an indie electropop band, have announced that in addition to going all digital, they will no longer be producing albums and will sell all of their music from now on as singles.

Is this trend destined to carry over to major labels? If current trends continue, which is very likely, they will soon be selling more singles than albums anyway, and the majority of those sales will be digital. Why shouldn't they just make more of them and abandon albums entirely?

What do the consumers want? To me personally, it is tragic, but I believe the reality is that singles are better for the consumer. This trend is no coincidence. People are buying singles because they are the songs they like. It is not just marketing. Songs are available a la carte from full albums, and consumers frequently buy them that way. They can handpick their favorites from different artists and different albums. It may not be my preferred way of listening to music, but it is how the majority of consumers prefer to enjoy music now. I think the evidence suggests that it would be no different in any other time, if they had had the same distribution methods we have now. That said, something precious is lost by listening to music this way. More on that later.

What about the artists? Speaking as an amateur musician myself, I think artists will be the ones to hold tight to the album format to the bitter end. An album is the artist's work. To lose it would be like losing the full scope of a mural in favor of painting only its most prominent feature. This is how I feel, and I am not alone, but I don't want to put words in anyone's mouth. Many artists see the song, not the album, as the main focus of their work. Perfection to them is crafting one really solid hit. Success is selling it.

Though I disagree, I don't think it's unreasonable to think that way. After all, an album really is just a bunch of songs. If it were meant to be something whole, it would really just be one long song, right? Everyone has a favorite song from each album, so who cares if they even listen to the others (consistently)? If the industry abandons the album format and moves to singles exclusively, what do we really lose?

Subtlety. Yes, I'm aware that that's hardly something that most listeners care about, usually. But somewhere in the act itself of listening to a collection of songs in one sitting ties them together and changes the experience. When it first came out, I listened to "Human" by The Killers and gave it a big shrug. Then I listened to the album Day and Age and--while I wasn't exactly enthralled with it--had a totally different experience that made the songs seem to somehow work. Had I not done that, I probably would have shrugged it off completely and never listened to "Human" again. Granted, this is based on personal experience and also on a band that I don't actually follow consistently. Still, in my experience, listening to an album has always affected my attitude toward the single(s) in some way, usually positively. Let me give a slightly more objective example. Green Day's famous album American Idiot is both popular and highly acclaimed. The singles from the album are hit or miss; some people really enjoy them on their own, but a lot of people don't care for them. It is widely accepted that the album was a success because it was crafted as a coherent whole, to the point where it is commonly thought of as a punk rock opera and recently a Broadway musical was produced using its songs. That is the sort of thing we will lose if the album format dies.

There is one more important thing we would lose: songs that don't matter. Bear with me for a minute. Simon & Garfunkel's third album, Parsley, Sage, Rosemary, and Thyme, ends with a song called "7 o'clock News / Silent Night." It consists of two parts that play simultaneously. One is the duo singing a minimalistic rendition of "Silent Night." The other is a (presumably made-up) reading in the style of a news broadcast, featuring talk of war, murder, and civil rights. The relative volume of the two tracks changes over the course of the song. I don't think I even need to tell you that this would have never made it as a single. Yet it closes the album in a way that no other song would have been able to. There is a brief article about the song on Wikipedia that goes into a bit more detail and includes quotes from critics who call the song "chilling, grim, ironic, and prophetic." This song is an obvious example if you've heard the album, but even modern albums--good ones--are loaded with songs that would never make it in a market of just songs. If you listen for them and think about it, you'll see why the artist chose to include them and why they are valuable or beautiful in their own way.

Do I really think that albums will fade away entirely? No, at least not for a good while still, because they do still sell. But the trend is very clearly moving away from them. People are either buying only individual songs, or they are selectively listening via playlists and whatnot. This is fine if it's what people want. But I hope that music lovers will not be the ones to accidentally kill the album, or else we will lose many of the things that made us love music in the first place, possibly without even realizing what we had.

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