Thursday, August 27, 2009

Bye-Bye Album Format?

Back at the beginning of the month -- in response to Charles M. Blow's column in the New York Times -- I was speculating about the future of the music industry a bit.

Eric Pfanner's recent Times piece on Radiohead raises some interesting ideas, as well.
[W]hen Mr. [Thom] Yorke [of Radiohead] announced a change of course for the band, saying it planned to stop making full-length records and turn its attention to singles, it sounded like an epitaph for the album, the broken backbone of the record industry’s longtime business model.

“None of us wants to go into that creative hoo-ha of a long-play record again,” Mr. Yorke told the Believer, a literary magazine based in San Francisco. “Not straight off. I mean, it’s just become a real drag. It worked with ‘In Rainbows’ because we had a real fixed idea about where we were going. But we’ve all said that we can’t possibly dive into that again. It’ll kill us.”

Radiohead’s shift to singles reflects a change in music fans’ preferences. Instead of buying whole albums, they now stream or download just the songs they want. That, along with unauthorized copying, has decimated industry revenues.
Indeed it does seem to me like an inevitable transition: artists producing "just-in-time" singles (to borrow a phrase from the academic literature on "flexible production") instead of going album, break, album, break, album... Why delay getting a song out there if someone is just going to download that song only anyway?

Of course, for those of us who love the album format and have spent considerable time contemplating (for instance) the way in which U2 designed Achtung Baby to rise and fall from Side A to Side B -- oh, wait, I guess that is already an antiquated concept -- this is a sad outcome.

But I'm also the first to admit that there are albums that I bought for one song and that's the only song that I really care about (and consequently I listen neither to those CDs nor the single song on them all that much). The opposite is also true -- I've purchased albums based on one song and discovered a whole bunch of other great ones on the same disc. As far as the former is concerned, we should see much less of that: the days of paying for 12 songs based on the quality of one and then ending up with 10 or 11 duds should be over. And as far as the latter is concerned, I suspect that people will continue to release "albums" -- or some similar collection of songs -- when they are warranted.

I thought that the following bit of news was also quite welcome:
Apple and the major record companies are reportedly working on projects to include liner notes, lyrics, artwork, music videos and other extras with digital downloads.
Because if there is one thing that I don't like about downloading, it's the loss of information -- songwriters, musicians, stories about the songs -- that one can usually find in a CD booklet or on the back of an LP.

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