News has filtered down that for the first time ever; the Number One Chart Album has sold less than 10,000 copies. No doubt obituaries for the album-as-we-know-it are currently being dusted off in readiness that this figure falls further and the album dies a horrible death. In this instant gratification pick-n-mix age, I suppose this was inevitable.
In the natural world everything works to a rhythm and it seems that the journey of the album falls into this instinctive path. Back in the early days, albums of songs were just that – a collection of 78 rpm discs that housed musical selections. When the 33 rpm long player emerged, nothing much changed as its contents still represented little more than a collection of unrelated songs – a selection of singles on one disc, if you like.
It was not until the mid-sixties that the album started to take on a life of its own and become a cohesive whole. Musicians started to believe that an album was a single piece of art, not to be broken down into its constituent parts but viewed as a whole, like a painting or sculpture. Songs linked by concept or theme started to appear, collages with no gaps between songs or single side pieces. This reached its zenith in the 70s with the prog-rock giants and whilst the format took a bit of a battering from Punk and the new wave, it still staggered on into the 80s and beyond. During this period, albums had an identity, a time and place and a huge artwork cover to proclaim it (and don’t they look so BIG now?). Digital files have none of this.
Today, we have almost turned full circle and the nominal ‘album’ has returned to its origins, being little more than a collection of singles. This state of unrelatedness is an ideal format for the world of cherry picking through digital downloads as there is no reason why individual songs should not be separated from the rest. But if this is a purposely engineered state, why release an album at all? Why not just release a stream of singles to be bought individually, with a suitable discount for buying more than one at a time?
I remember that The Pink Floyd challenged iTunes hoping to forbid the sale of individual songs off their albums. To them you needed to buy ‘Dark Side of the Moon’ in its entirety, not just bits of it. It looks like they failed as Amazon are doing just that. Progress eh?
RIP The Album.