We live in histrionic times. Keyboards rattle and opinions fizz. One day heralds ‘the death of X’, the next ‘the end of Y’. Yet, for all the white noise, the curious fate of perhaps the most iconic object in popular culture has been drowned out – the album. Occasionally howls about its demise break the eerie silence: but its tale is not one of gradual decline but complex distillation.
The 1950s brought singles to the world, the 1960s the unified album. By the 1970s the model was established: in the best cases, singles – if the artist deigned to release any – combined with album tracks to form something holistic that mysteriously surpassed the sum of its parts. In the 1980s, however, the album reached its nadir, when – leaving aside many stunning counterexamples – the lazy formula of padding two or three singles with sub-par filler was pushed to extremes. The age of the multi-artist best-of, the badge of the 90s, skulked around the corner. Although each new wave of technology – the tape, the CD, the hapless minidisc – much improved consumer convenience, it did little for the evolution of the album.
The arrival of the digital age was at first innocuous: the iPod playlist followed in the distinguished footsteps of the mixtape or CDR, allowing listeners to shake off the baggage of undesirable tracks. Yet, without any need for physical formats, the old market was quickly left behind; by 2015, digital music sales worldwide had overtaken those in physical form. The astronomic rise of streaming music has powered this cultural shift: UK streaming has quintupled in the last three years, with 45 billion songs played in 2016. Spotify, Apple Music, Deezer and the like have shifted the industry’s focus from sales to access. But with unlimited possibilities unleashed by a finger-shimmy, most listeners cherry-pick standout tracks rather than experience albums as a unit. Established artists now prefer to focus on singles. If practically any song can be streamed anywhere, why would customer listen, and why should artist make, anything united as an album?
This may look like the end of the road for the LP. But for bands and artists on the up, things are rather different. Lacking the outlet of physical singles – the format that once propped up Woolworths but is now moribund – they must either offer up a coherent set of songs for digital dissection or return to the physical medium that allows them to retain some control, the album. The physical reality of spinning vinyl or CD invites active rather than passive listening. The bands who are seizing this creative opportunity now have greater freedom than ever: they need not create an album built awkwardly around self-standing singles but can fashion something of unbroken integrity. Such records abhor the shuffle button and the algorithm, and instead reward and repay linear listening. Tastes lie beyond debate, of course, but standout examples for me from last year include Hotelier’s Goodness, Mitski’s Puberty 2, Explosions in the Sky’s The Wilderness and Touché Amoré’s Stage Four.
It’s true that album sales have decreased grimly in recent decades: from 1994 to 2000 over three billion albums were sold annually worldwide; in 2014 the figure fell below a billion and is still dropping. Digital album sales are decreasing most rapidly, and three times faster than their CD counterparts: in 2016 they sold only half of what they achieved in 2013. Doubtless the download market will soon be extinguished by streaming: who wants to pay for a permanent non-physical copy in lieu of a cheaper, non-physical copy accessible everywhere?
Faced with this remote fragmentation, however, the physical album has experienced a remarkable resurgence: 70% of UK album sales are of tangible formats. Most remarkably, vinyl has captivated a new generation. In 2016 vinyl records hit a 25-year high, selling 3,200,000 units compared to 200,000 just a decade ago. The incredible rejuvenation of the medium is easily explained by the profound allure of the concrete object. By contrast, digital albums lack charm: to say nothing of sound quality, the artwork is hidden, lyrics exist on screen alone and the record has no physical presence in a listener’s life. Whereas most people now discover new bands online, many soon find themselves wanting unmediated access to the music.
Remarkably, then, the vinyl LP has re-emerged as the guarantor of artistic integrity. Vinyl stores have already returned to the high street, helping to preserve the magic of serendipitous browsing. The album is being pared back to the purer product it aspires to be. Freed from the historical exigencies of the market, rich and complex concept albums continue to appear worldwide, the best and boldest of which eventually find critical acclaim. Not just is the age of vinyl and CD still quietly fighting on, but the album has some life in it yet. So let’s leave talk of ‘the death of the album’ for another day.