“With the internet, the idea of the album is dead.” So pronounced The New York Times, in 1999. The writer, Neil Strauss, later became known as the author of the seduction-community exposé The Game, which popularized pick-up techniques such as backhanded compliments. So it’s possible he was trying to lower the album’s self-esteem to the point where it would go home with him. But he was prescient, at least, about the format being over the hill commercially: In 2000, album sales peaked at 785 million, according to Nielsen SoundScan; at the halfway point this year, they were on pace for only around 240 million.
in Britain, Lana Del Rey’s Ultraviolence topped the charts last month despite first-week sales of only 48,000 copies (see, Robin Thicke‘s reported 530 U.K. units moved were better than they may have looked). That has coincided with another round of postmortems on the venerable long-player. “With very few exceptions, albums are edging closer to extinction,” BBC Radio 1 music boss George Ergatoudis recently tweeted. According to The Guardian, industry experts say that while Adele and others in her elite class will continue to sell full-lengths, the future really lies in streaming playlists from the likes of Spotify. A separate Guardian op-ed welcomed our new digitally compiled overlords while lamenting a loss of community.
But if the album’s death has been getting declared and then disputed for at least 15 years, why choose this particular moment to pull the plug? It’s certainly true that, with Apple’s purchase of Beats and Google’s deal to buy Songza, the big money is on streaming playlists. And album sales figures are as dismal as you’ve heard. But there have been some reasons lately to think music listeners are more attached to the full-length format than sales figures or Silicon Valley’s faith in innovation would reveal.
“The album is dead, long live the album” has already been written many, many times — but it’s due for a reissue with a few exclusive bonuses. The album is like the villain in a movie: “Why won’t you die?”
First, the Times‘ Strauss all those years ago got it exactly backward. The album format itself, as a thing that people buy, is clearly on the wane, but “the idea of the album” keeps breathing year after year. It’s just a convenient way to talk about music and, by extension, the culture in general. One subject grabbing headlines this week was GQ‘s list of “The 21 Albums from the 21st Century Every Man Should Hear.” Another was Reddit‘s list of “the best albums of the 2000s.”
People might not be buying as many albums as they used to, but full-lengths are still the lingua franca for how we debate music. LPs are the currency of choice for exchanges about recorded sound. It doesn’t matter whether they’re on vinyl, CD, cassette, MP3 or streams; for these purposes, albums exist on some kind of platonic level.
Forget about “concept albums.” Albums are a concept. That’s what won’t die.
On a separate but related note, even if the casual listeners the industry desperately craves aren’t buying the album anymore as a product (as opposed to a concept), that surely is less often the case among people who care deeply about music.
The resurgence in vinyl sales, as limited as it is in all the ways Pitchfork recently reported, is real: Sales of new vinyl LPs were up 40% in the first six months of the year off last year’s SoundScan-record pace, with 2.9 million sold. That obviously leaves out used vinyl and singles, and I know it’s false to conflate vinyl buying with the intensity of fandom, but the extra effort required to purchase a turntable and an analogue format in the 21st century tells us at least something, right?
There will always be space for music obsessives who pick up used CDs on the cheap, or focus on singles: Tom Ewing’s must-read U.K. No. 1 singles column, Popular, just reached Cher’s “Believe,” and wow. But the phrase “record collectors” exists for a reason. For one tiny, admittedly insular example: When the experimental electronic musician Keith Fullerton Whitman tweeted a link this week to some “rare” vinyl he was selling, music critics such as Marc Masters and Grayson Currin were quick to joke online that they’d soon be out of money. They definitely weren’t alone.
Anyway, it’s not just music critics or vinyl hobbyists who are still buying albums.
According to The Hollywood Reporter, the British Phonographic Industry has just announced the world’s best-selling album of 2013, and it’s … One Direction’s Midnight Memories. Giving up on the album isn’t a way of acting young, then; it’s a reaction, and a defensive one at that, against a technological prediction that keeps failing to come true.
The album hasn’t completely died as a format. It may never die as a way of organizing discussion about music. And “the kids are all right” is an idea whose time has come.