CD vs MP3; Is the Album Dead?

Estimated read time (minus contemplative pauses): 4 min.

Previously I linked an interview with Seth Godin about the music industry. One of the interview questions got me thinking again about whether or not there is any point to releasing a physical CD, or is that format on its quick way out?

Here’s what Godin says:

R&G: With the a la carte downloads offered by iTunes, eMusic and Amazon, when do you think we’re going to see the death of the album?

Seth: I spend a lot of time hanging out with teenagers, and I’m pretty sure the album is already dead. We bundle stuff up for economic reasons. Movies are the length they are for a reason. Songs are the length they are for a reason. Albums were invented because that’s about as much time as Thomas Edison could put on one piece of recording. But in a digital world, there’s no reason that you can’t have a six-hour product or a three-minute product. So anybody who says it has to be 46 minutes long because that’s how long you can fit on two sides of an LP, I don’t think that’s a good reason to make that your product.

Hmm… what do we mean by “album”? In the question, they are referring to the concept of a collection of songs that are meant to go together to form a bigger whole. Godin seems to be referring as much to the physical media – if not more – than he is the concept of “album”.

Godin cites teens as his source. There’s a ton of speculation about why teens don’t buy music (including CDs or singles), from youthful entitlement to too many free options to attention span to the kind of bands they tend to like. Teens occasionally email me asking to please send them a CD because they can’t afford it or don’t have a credit card, and all they have are the free mp3s from my site (I always oblige, and I bet they’re happier to get a physical CD from me than they would be a link to more free mp3s). The credit card thing may be bigger than people realize: iTunes requires a credit card. Teens don’t have them. Give them a gift card or an iTunes allowance, are they going to spend it all on one album, or on a handful of songs they want? I don’t know the answer to this, but I am certain at least some teens would buy an album. Even if the didn’t, though, it would not mean that the album is dead. I would imagine that the limited nature of a giftcard, for example, would make a lot of people more likely to pick and choose songs.

Whatever teens are doing, adults often do still by albums (when they buy, which may not be often), either digitally or physically. There’s something very rewarding about immersing yourself in the world of an inspired artist for 30 – 60 minutes. Provided you love the music, of course. In that sense, the album as a collection of songs is not dead until there are no more good albums being made, which will never happen.

Also, western music has been coming in collections for a long time now, well predating the various playback media, whether it be a suite of etudes, movements of a symphony, or arias from an opera. I think it’s as likely that making a collection of songs will go out of style as it is that live shows will become just a band going on tour to play one song. Some opening acts do only play a few songs, but believe me: they’d rather play more, and only people who don’t like them would rather they play less.

Regarding duration, they were never able to put Wagner operas on a single disc, and Top 40 will always have their singles. Going fully digital would give a lot more flexibility in that regard: multi-disc releases are very expensive to manufacture. Going purely digital, prices would be far more flexible, especially as bandwidth-saving compression technology gets more advanced. As Godin says, a project could be 6 hours long. It could also be a minute or 45 minutes. With more options, I don’t think people will suddenly narrow their options to exclude the current 30 – 60 minutes of music we currently think of as an “album.” Again, I think the distinction between “album as collection of music meant to be experienced as a whole” and “physical media” needs to be clearer when discussing whether “the album” is dead. Why not have a 6 hour album?

Conclusion: Releasing collections of songs is here to stay for a good while. Whether to release them on CD or just digitally is the thing artists with limited funds for pressing CDs might grapple with. Could I pull off a purely digital release? If I were more famous I might be able to get away with it, but where I’m at now in my career, submitting press kits to reviewers without a professionally packaged CD would not make things any easier. Also, I know of no established artists who are releasing purely digital releases, including fully independent ones. Radiohead famously first released In Rainbows digitally, but then followed that with a CD release. Papers, sites, magazines etc… still do year-end (and now decade-end) album Best Of lists, so critics and their editors don’t consider albums dead, that’s for sure. Finally, it’s imperative to have something to sell at shows. Eventually even that will just involve a transfer of digital files (including artwork, credits, t-shirt coupons etc…), but for now, it’s essential to have a CD or vinyl platter.

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