When the Beat Drops: A Round-Table on the State of “The Album”

When it comes to the music industry, the wrong sales records are being set. Soundscan tabulates album receipts in steady decline since their peak in 2000 — a year when close to 800 million...
By    December 10, 2010


When it comes to the music industry, the wrong sales records are being set. Soundscan tabulates album receipts in steady decline since their peak in 2000 — a year when close to 800 million albums were sold. In 2009, the figure dropped to just under 400 million. This year, the week of August 8-14 witnessed a new low in the US with only 4.95 million albums sold and, according to Billboard Magazine, as of August 22 album sales were down 12 per cent compared to total sales at the same point in 2009. It’s enough to leave music executives pulling their assistant’s hair out.

I recently spoke to both record labels and artists about the issue, as well as promoters, music journalists, and others. The answers have been thrown together in the round table format. You will have to supply your own bagels, cream cheese, and orange juice.  Matt Shea

On the continued viability of ‘the album’ as a method of distributing music…

Chuck D: Well, the availability of so many audio files: it kinda downplays the thirst or the appetite for somebody to say, ‘Hey, you know what? I gotta hear this person, I gotta hear this album,’ because of course now a person can walk around with literally 12,000 songs in their pocket.

Albums were pretty much their own media centres, you know? It was like a total statement and you stepped into the world of a particular artist and that’s what the album format was for. You had to step into their world when you listened to their album. But the world has changed now. If you step into an artist’s world now it’s like, you know, you go to their Facebook page or you’re catching their tweets – you’re seeing their videos on YouTube. So the multimedia aspect of an album has changed. You’re getting their alerts on your mobile device; you’re catching their reality show. Whereas before, the album was the enclave for an artist – it was the sole enclave for an artist. You had to use your imagination and get into their world. I mean, I felt the same. I felt that we [Public Enemy] wasn’t guaranteed any sort of mainstream anything, so we had to design our own world, so that when we designed our albums we designed them like media centres and that’s how we formed it.

Douglas Martin (producer, 5 O’Clock Shadowboxers): ‘The album’ is very much akin to ‘the novel’, as it represents a complete thought. I think something is lost when people download an entire record and click-and-drag the four or five songs they don’t like into the trash bin. It’s like tearing pages out of a book and only reading the good parts.

Zilla Rocca (MC and producer, 5 O’Clock Shadowboxers): I’m watching how people react to albums, as fans and businesswise, and I’m thinking two things: you either don’t need to release an album at all as long as you have the right publicist, look, booking agent, fad you uphold, etc, or you have to release an album that completely goes against the contemporary grain and separates you from the sheep. With example a), I’m thinking about Nicki Minaj, Jay Electronica, Mickey Factz, Cool Kids – people who have never released a full length and have made money, been on TV, been in magazines, and toured. But they have savvy teams behind them. With example b), I’m thinking of guys like Roc Marciano or Shabazz Palaces who stand out and get acclaim because of great full-length projects that don’t play by the rules for one second.

Sara Serpa (New York-based jazz vocalist and composer): I think an album tells a story. These days, everybody has little time to pay attention to everything. It’s almost like you have to get everything in just a small amount of time and then go out and do your other things. I still think that the album makes sense. I mean, singles still make sense and they made sense back in the day. I don’t think the album form is dying at all. I mean, people still read books instead of single stories, and once you enter the musician’s world you start understanding how an album is created and how each song is related to each other… It depends on the people buying and listening to the music, but I think there’s still an audience for albums.

Laurent Brancowitz (guitarist for Phoenix): Well I hear that [the demise of the album] a lot but I really don’t feel it that way. I really feel that the music industry is so fragmented today, and we really love that. Videos done by fans, not being controlled by the band, we love this stuff. But for us, this makes the album even stronger, you know? Like the sun in the solar system, something must be the axis around which everything else revolves. All the fragmented things rotate around the axis, which is the album. This metaphor is very bad, I’m sorry (laughs).

Dan Snaith (London-based producer, the man behind Caribou): Yeah, I don’t know – maybe I’m a dinosaur – but I feel like it’s quite a resilient idea. Having a longer form of music than just one three-minute single – for one thing it’s, I don’t know, it’s something that’s innate to our musical attention span, to want to be taken on a longer-form journey some of the time, rather than just flipping from one thing to another. Maybe it’s a bit early to talk about its demise.

Paul Kelly (Australian singer-songwriter and guitarist): I think the album has a place. Things have become more fragmented in all kinds of ways, across culture generally. It means that things also never die. There’s still a place for vinyl. You could ask if vinyl is an ideal way to release music, and for some people it is. It’s the perfect way. Vinyl’s not going away. Albums won’t go away.

Scott Sloan (Independent filmmaker and director of ‘40 Nights of Rock & Roll’): Nearly everyone we met agreed that the changes to the industry were inevitable. And now that they’ve had a decade to swallow them, the bands definitely see the advantage and necessity of digital music. Digital is global – and green, I suspect – while an album, cassette, or CD is stationary until someone pays to ship it somewhere. Top artists are self releasing albums, as are the garage bands, and the music itself has become quite driven just by consumer choice. We aren’t told what to listen to anymore. When kids are getting record deals by karaoke-ing on YouTube, it is everybody’s fault. For small bands promoting themselves, who even a couple years ago still had to give away physical promotional copies, now there are hundreds, even thousands of sites where they can stream their music or offer a few free MP3s.

Toby Creswell (Australian music writer, former editor of Australian Rolling Stone, and co-author of ‘The 100 Best Australian Albums’): It’s always tough when you’re talking about business models and art forms. The album didn’t really start until Sergeant Pepper’s in 1966, so that was the first time we really started thinking about records. The thing that killed the album is the CD. Because, the album is about 40 minutes long and CDs are 70 minutes, and in the day, when people did the double album, it was a big deal and often considered ill advised. If you look back at the press around the time of Exile On Main St or the Beatles’ White Album it was mostly said this would be a good single record. So what they’re doing is pushing groups to put out 70 or 80 minutes of music when they really ought to be doing 40 at a time, and so what it tends to do is stretch their resources too thin and the album in a sense becomes devalued as a form. That’s what’s fucked it.

On whether it’s a different issue for indie-rock and hip-hop…

Douglas Martin: Absolutely, because indie-rock fans still value ‘the album’ as a legitimate artistic format. With hip-hop, most artists feel as though releasing four 20-track mixtapes every year is the only way to stay ‘relevant.’ Excess is a long-running theme in hip-hop, and a lot of artists shoot themselves in the foot by putting out so much material. In order for fans to value the format, the artist has to value the format first.

Zilla Rocca: I think the listening public since the beginning of time, they didn’t give a shit about hip-hop albums. They only cared about singles, like “Humpty Dance” or “Bust a Move” or “Rapper’s Delight”. The general listening public wasn’t sitting around arguing if Sex Packets was better than Please Hammer Don’t Hurt ‘Em. I think that all started with the Source and other great rap mags who started placing premiums and value on the hip-hop album. Then people started getting recognition for their albums, even if the sales weren’t great. De La, Nas: these guys didn’t move big units but got so much respect and were viewed as artistes. My point is that the importance of an album in rap didn’t always exist, and then it was vital for about 15 years, and then that door closed. I’m not sure if indie rock has operated on that roller coaster ride the past 20 odd years.

Chuck D: The rock era came out with album format and therefore artists were able to make concise statements about what they saw in society, but you had to be diverse: you couldn’t do the same album over and over again. There were a lot of things to be said about popular culture at that time and so their hope for any airplay happened to become in their own format where they were their own media centre.

The challenges are always different for hip-hop, but sometimes people look a little too much into that and become lazy. It’s like, ‘You know. We’ve got a mixtape and we’ve got 28 different artists on here.’ But the mixtape scenario evolved because of the lack of radio play. So DJs were making their own mixtapes and then eventually artists were like, ‘I want my shit on his mixtape because he’s got a buzz and I don’t.’ The fact that we call them ‘mixtapes’ shows you how far we overplay that aspect. When was the last time you listened to ‘tape’ anything? Hip-hop used to always be ahead of the technological curve, but now it seems to almost parody itself in certain aspects. The true hip-hop person is one that’s able to always remove themselves from the mainstream discussion of it all and set their own boundaries or rules.

On singles, iTunes and the importance of the album’s function to ‘take listeners on a journey’…

Douglas Martin: When Zilla and I first decided that 5 O’Clock Shadowboxers should be a fully-fledged recording project, we immediately started working the album. It was important to both of us to use The Slow Twilight as a cohesive statement. And there are people out there who still enjoy the full-album experience. There’s a reason why every music publication puts out an ‘Albums of the Year’ list.

Zilla Rocca: Certain artists are incapable of making a 5-minute jingle for their persona or album. Folks like that thrive on a larger canvas. iTunes gives the listeners the power to determine if someone is a ‘singles’ artist or an ‘album’ artist. To me, someone like Ludacris, or Missy Elliot, or Busta Rhymes is a Singles Artist. MF Doom, Aesop Rock, Ghostface – they are Album Artists. Kanye West is the outlier.

Chuck D: I’m gonna give it to you from the rap standpoint. Albums were necessary in hip-hop because people wanted to hear more from a rap artist because it was new, they wanted to hear more than the complementary single. That was then. Now, it’s just like, do you really have to hear 11 or 12 tracks by an artist? That was record companies telling you to go out and get this. I mean, it worked really well in 1990 or 1989 and in the singles market place you wasn’t hearing a lot on the radio – and you wanted to hear more from a particular artist. But, fast-forward into 2010: my god, now how much more of a new record do you want to hear from somebody? How much time do you have to listen to some new album and really hold it close to your heart when you already have 12,000 songs in your pocket.

Ice Cube: I think it’s a single industry, but it’s always been. You know, what happened was, the industry started shovin’ all these whack albums down peoples’ throats, and it’s backfiring so now it’s back to, you can’t fool people anymore. People really only like singles anyway, and always have, you know? People, even when they buy an album, usually go just to the songs they like anyway. So, you know, I think it’s always, from here on out, it’s always gonna be a single thing ‘cause why buy an album, especially when you can get it free?

Laurent Brancowtiz: I feel that people are like that – you look at the very great albums of the last two years, they are not single-orientated, they are more … if you look at the Dirty Projectors or Grizzly Bear, they really were albums from start to finish. This is still important.

Paul Kelly: The whole practice of picking a song here and a song there, I think at some point enough people will discover the album again. When the album first started with Frank Sinatra… they were concept albums with specific themes and songs that were chosen because they matched each other. Songs For Swingin’ Lovers, In The Wee Small Hours, Come Fly With Me… they were fairly strongly themed albums. Of course, by the ’70s and ‘80s, the album was just a collection of tracks. Just the best tracks the artist had recorded since their last album. I think the album will come back, I think the album is coming back now, but you can’t just pick ten random songs and put them together. You need to put a bit more thought into it.

On a perceived shift from the live show supporting an album to the album now supporting the live show…

Douglas Martin: I think it does apply to indie-rock, because going to see a live band is a visceral, emotional experience. There are few hip-hop artists who thrive in the live setting. Aside from the fact that there are too few hip-hop acts who put on objectively great live shows, hip-hop music is still the kind of music you play when you’re riding around in your car, or working out in the gym, or in the club when you’ve had a few too many Long Island Iced Teas. Until more good live hip-hop acts surface, hip-hop’s preferred method will still be its recorded iteration.

Zilla Rocca: It only applies in hip-hop to guys who have been touring for years. Venues don’t want to deal with ‘rappers’ and the negative connotation that comes with a rap crowd: fights, squabbles over money, audience members who act like idiots sometimes. And rappers for too long got away with being petulant divas. Now, producers and DJs tour all the time. A guy like Roc Marciano dropped one of the best rap albums of the year five months ago and hasn’t toured. Rock culture has always viewed the live show as a rite of passage and their audience is wired to WANT to go to shows, buy merch, get drunk with the band, etc. Rap culture has historically been about making money, and now it’s about giving stuff away and trying to get attention. 90% of rappers put on terrible shows, so once the game went digital, the CD revenue stream became extinct whereas bands played shows and toured for years before they started making any money off an album.

Scott Sloan: One of our bigger surprises on the road was that there are a lot more small to medium bands making a living playing on the road. And while merch sales are icing on the cake, [it’s] their fan bases who they’ve nurtured with net involvement [who] come and pay to see them. It used to be that bands would write, record, then tour. Now they write, tour, and then record.

Toby Creswell: Well, they say that’s where the money is, and things come and go in those ways. Bands usually never made any money from recording royalties anyway… I guess people need to make records because they need to have new music and they need to refresh themselves and the audience needs to see them growing, so they’ve always had that, but the Grateful Dead through the 80s were the most successful band in the US in terms of making money, and they didn’t make new records – they stopped making new records in about 1980 and they just kept touring and touring and touring and people liked their live shows, so they would come along and see them tour, and the band would let them bootleg and so forth, and they just built up this massive audience that was happy to see the shows and buy the merch, and so they made a lot of money doing that.

Dave Chatfield (Booking agent with Handsome Tours, an Australian-based tour company): I suppose it’s an ongoing process. I suppose the day of the pure cycle of write, record, release, tour is very different and you even necessarily need to be – if you’re an act who is established on some level – you don’t really need to have a new album to tour. You’d probably have a new song – and the mechanism for new songs these days is digital. Certainly I can’t imagine the CD single even exists anymore – not with the sort of acts I work with… I think – and I’ve talked about this with some other promoters too – that most people who are at shows will have the album but they haven’t paid for it. And that actually probably helps the live music business as well, because there’s $30 more that they’ve got in their pocket and when it comes to the band touring they’re prepared to spend the money on a ticket price. Obviously, the live performance experience can never be replicated digitally whereas an album – it’s pretty easy to get your hands on that without paying for it.

On how they feel personally regarding ‘the album’…

Douglas Martin: To me, ‘the album’ has always been an artist’s complete statement. I’m not interested in reading random, assorted short stories or fast-forwarding to the good parts in a movie. I like to take in the whole experience.

Zilla Rocca: I’m a big advocate of the album when it is maximized: cohesive, succinct, great songs, great production value, sharp artwork/display, reasonably priced, and tons of replay value. I listen to more music now than ever before, but I buy less full albums now. Yes, I’m older and my money is tied to grown-up crap, but I will always spend my last $15 on a great album rather than groceries, beer, or medication.

Chuck D: I think, in my case, over the last ten years I’m a fan of making one song at a time. You can only really make one song at a time. Some people might say, ‘Well yeah, but you can make a real solid album statement.’ That might be true but one song at a time is really what a classic group should do, and then maybe you could compile them into an album. Albums came out in the 60s from soul music that were basically collected singles. There was the A-side and the B-side and people called it filler. At that time people only wanted to hear the main songs from their artist, so they accepted the filler because, you know, they heard what they really wanted to hear.

Laurent Brancowitz: We feel, and maybe we are wrong, that’s it’s very important to have a strong album … when we are playing live, people don’t only know the singles … we can feel that they’ve got the whole story, so when we do an album it is very important that it is an album with a beginning and an end and it’s like a theatrical movement. We really feel this way. Old school.

MP3: E-40-“Record Haters”  [Rasheed Wallace Diss]

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