We all knew this question would need to be answered eventually – is the album going the way of the dodo? Is there even a need for it anymore?
Music in its current sell-able form has splintered into singles. For example, Jonathan Coulton’s recent success has been based on writing and distributing one song a week. Moreover, when most listeners search for music they search by group or artist rather than album. How do you listen to your iPod? I would bet you randomly play within one artist much more than you plan one specific album anymore, and my guess is that even younger music purchasers and listeners almost never listen to specific albums and rather just play the entire library randomly or select just one artist without regard to album.
I agree that musicians are human and they go through phases, and those phases add meaning to their work. Thus, listening to songs as they were created and grouped in one period of time does perhaps add to the listening pleasure for many music fans. Early U2 is certainly different than late U2.
But an album grouping is so arbitrary and in many ways now is starting to feel like simply the easiest way to sell the next batch of songs. Is the time ripe for a paradigm shift away from albums and perhaps in the direction of mini-albums? Artists can now release songs in, for example, batches of 3 at a time. This can be practical for both fans, who get studio versions of new songs quicker, and artists, who wouldn’t have to worry about the additional time and expense to finish 11 or so songs for an album.
Moreover, once the album becomes a less useful way to group music, artists (and technology) will get more creative in how songs are grouped, which may render the album even less necessary. For example, how about listening to just Beatles songs written by George Harrison, only live Widespread Panic songs when Michael Houser was their lead guitarist, or Tom Petty songs only when he is singing with Stevie Nicks? With technology and the ability to provide detailed information on a song’s data, this sort of listening function is not far away. This may make the album just some way to sell the most recent batch of songs, and not much more.
But, as discussed in a music blog on wired.com, “there will always be die-hard fans who respect the sanctity of the album format, as there will always be recording artists who create albums as coherent experiences rather than collections of one-offs.”
For these fans and artists I offer this advice:
Offer something to sell along with the purchase of the album to make the entire album purchase worthwhile. This means offering up extras like a bonus live DVD or behind the scenes discussions of your music. These extra offerings can be sent to fans who purchase the album and will help further the idea that the album represents the collective ideas of the band at the time of its release. One logistical item here, though, may be how to get the DVD to your fans after the album purchase is made. Mailing separately once a proof of purchase is provided may be the only option at this point.
Like NIN, those who purchase the entire album could receive the master tracks to edit, play with and enjoy as they see fit. I think an extra significant fee for this is reasonable.
And if as an artist you feel like the songs must be heard a certain way, take some advice from wired.com and get your fans comfortable with the idea of a one-track album comprised of a single 45-minute file!