Single-song downloads drowning out a tradition
By Edna Gundersen
The album, music's dominant creative framework for the past 40 years, is dying under the wheels of an accelerating revolution.
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"The entire game is changing," says singer Rob Thomas of Matchbox 20. "I can handle the fact that artists are selling fewer records and making less money, but you can't take away our albums! It's a conscious step toward disposable art. On an album, the artist creates a full work of art with songs that fit together and create a mood. If we become a single-minded nation, where careers depend on hits, you won't hear challenging music that takes risks."
The death of pop's primary esthetic and commercial unit evokes a variety of reactions. Cyber-savvy fans feel empowered. Confusion grips older consumers. Labels are threatened and panicked by the radical transition. Musicians are enthusiastic, dismayed or conflicted.
"The disappearance of the album as an entity would be sad, but anything to do with the evolution in how people access music excites me," singer Alanis Morissette says. "I'm very album-oriented, and my highest preference is that people experience my album as a whole, but I know people can gravitate to a certain song and listen to it ad nauseam. That's their right. It's about freedom of choice."
Though he agrees that the Internet is ushering in a song-oriented pop world, prolific singer/songwriter Ryan Adams intends to continue making albums.
"I'm still stuck in that mode. I like the idea of creating your own world in 10 to 14 songs. I enjoy the broader scope. It's like taking in a whole exhibit, not just one painting. At the same time, there's no way to deny technology."
Though albums still vastly outsell single-song downloads, a shift is looming as increasing numbers of listeners shop online and consume music piecemeal. They want handpicked tunes, not ready-made collections.
"The chances of restoring growth to the pre-recorded CD business is about as slim as an Apache Indian getting elected pope," says analyst Phil Leigh of research firm Inside Digital Media. "People now have the power to make their own albums. The revolution that's hitting the record business is not just the Internet; it's also the computer itself, especially computers equipped with CD burners. People want to get the songs on their computer, manage a centralized library and organize play lists that suit their individual tastes."
The record industry was raking in $14.6 billion and expanding more than 6 percent a year when file-sharing trailblazer Napster emerged in 1999. Album sales last year fell to $12.6 billion and this year are down 5.2 percent from 2002. About 273 million users have downloaded the song-swapping software to access Kazaa, the intersection for 2.7 million downloads a week.
Though piracy accounts for an estimated 40 percent of the global decline in record sales, it's not the only culprit in the potential demise of the album. Legitimate services pose a threat, too. Rhapsody streamed 16 million songs to its paid subscribers in August.
Apple's iTunes, with a catalog of 400,000-plus songs, projects sales of 100 million song files its first year. "The album," Apple CEO Steve Jobs recently declared, "is obsolete."
Paid downloads, expected to reach $80 million this year, $1.1 billion next year and $3.2 billion in 2008, account for a fraction of music sales but are expected to explode as Generation Y brings its entertainment dollars to the marketplace. While baby boomers maintained an allegiance to the album format as they graduated from vinyl to tape to CDs, the so-called echo boomers, a staggering 78 million of them, increasingly prefer the pay-per-tune route. And they favor shopping online over standing in line. In the week ending Sunday, downloaders bought 1.3 million tracks while stores sold 186,000 physical singles, according to Nielsen SoundScan.
"The album won't disappear right away, but we're seeing a transition," says Lee Black, a Boston-based digital media analyst. "The majority of the CD-buying audience is 35 and older. Once that older demographic fades away, it will be a wonderfully digital world where (people) talk about how many gigabytes they have, not how many CDs they own."
Unlike earlier transitions, including the format leap from tape to CD, this uprising is not a corporate-imposed mandate but a grass-roots phenomenon.
"The real kick is that now the store and the packaging plant and the kiosk are all in one place," Black says. "It's called the PC, and it's in the consumer's home. That's not everywhere, of course. Not that much of the country is Internet-wired, and far fewer have broadband connections. And you still have the issue of young users not having credit cards. Until those catch up and reach a mass market, the album will have a role."
Joe Levy, music editor at Rolling Stone, said "the CD has been responsible for the death of the album in two ways. One is technology. Once music was sold in a digitized format, it could be easily traded on the Internet. CDs began to disappear as consumers collected music one MP3 at a time.
"The second factor is artistic. If you grew up with vinyl, you got 30 or 40 minutes on a record. Now you get 70 on a CD. The album format got swollen, unmanageable and, to some degree, unlistenable. Either you don't have that much time to listen to it or the experience isn't rewarding."