For all of us who grew up back in the pre-Napster era, we generally encountered music from one of three sources: a traditional album, a live concert or the ubiquitous (and often ill-advised) “mix-tape.”
A new piece in this week’s Variety by music critic Bob Lefsetz, makes a very compelling case that selling music in an album format is no longer economically viable. Why? Quite simply because the Internet has actually changed music consumption every bit as fundamentally as the invention of the phonograph – and for precisely the same reasons.
Originally, recordings gave people the freedom and convenience of being able to listen to music without either: (a) leaving their home; or (b) learning to play an instrument. People like freedom and convenience. That’s why cars replaced carriages, word processing replaced typewriters and everyone you know under the age of 95 owns a cellphone. It’s also why music consumers are overwhelmingly demonstrating a preference for purchasing individual tracks that they actually enjoy rather than entire albums. As Lefsetz succinctly explains: “No one wants album tracks anymore unless they’re every bit as satisfying as the hit.”
But the real point here boils down to the unavoidable economic realities that neither successful concerts nor elaborate PR stunts are ever going to be sufficient to turn this tide: “Media cannot be limited to the album release date. It must be a 24/7, 365-day-a-year effort. Same with creativity. If your track gets traction, more power to you. If it doesn’t, go back in the studio and make more. In other words, if you’re sitting at home bitching that you’re not making any money because the Internet stole your business, you’re RIGHT! There are so many diversions that no one’s got time for mediocre anymore.”
So while I agree with Lefsetz that the change we’re witnessing is likely irreversible, that still leaves us with a final question. Is the death of the album good or bad for the future of music?
My view is that it’s ultimately a net positive. Nobody is telling artists that if they create a coherent album brimming with excellence, that they shouldn’t put it out on the market. There are many albums in my personal collection well worth listening to from start to finish. Nevertheless, if there happen only to be one or two quality tracks, Lefsetz is 100% correct that our new choice-driven electronic marketplace will be a whole lot more brutal than any bad review. Hopefully, we’ve arrived at a place where consumers can benefit from greater control over how their “music dollars” get spent while record companies cease their long-time practice of pushing even great artists to quickly fill up albums with mediocrity out of the misguided belief that it’s still possible to fuel sales using a combination of hype and radio play.
The album may be dying. Music, however, most certainly is not.