The Death of the Album
by Jules Travis
“What’s your favorite album?”
Bet you’ve never heard that one before. Sure, people will ask you the kind of artist you listen to regularly, your favorite song, genre. They’ll look at you funny if you say “German death metal!” or name Katy Perry’s 2008 bop “I Kissed a Girl” as your top choice, but it’s become rarer than ever to favor a whole album—or if you do, it’s unlikely anyone will recognize it by name if it’s not the Beatles’ “Yellow Submarine” or attached to a pop artist in the top 40. Today’s consumption of music contrasts dramatically with how it’s been used ever before, and the extreme accessibility of every genre imaginable by way of the internet has changed the game and essentially killed the album—and with it, music in its most conventional form.
No, I’m not quite writing to advocate for indies’ ruthless consumption of the now-outdated record. They’re expensive, inaccessible to many, and though the majority or record users claim that “it just sounds better, man,” that’s arguable and ultimately lies in personal preference. The resurgence of the record and physical music within a certain demographic is an interesting twist in the story of the death of the record. The record can hold only albums in its traditional side A, side B form, and rarely even contains music from more than one artist, all of which is so foreign to modern avid music listeners with Spotify or Apple Music subscriptions.
With the rise of the cassette came the fall of the record, taking with it the longest-lived analog musical platform. The record dates back to 1877, which is basically when groovy tunes became accessible to common people who didn’t carry around a piccolo or guitar or piano in their back pocket. The cassette was revolutionary, despite its neglected status today. The root of the term “mixtape,” used so widely now in reference to a musical mix featuring various artists, lies with the cassette, the first device that the user could manipulate to play all of his or her favorite songs all in a row, assuming that, like a normal person, those favorite songs aren’t all produced by the same band.
Then came, as natural selection intended, the death of the cassette. The infamous compact disc was introduced and dominated for a solid, respectable two decades: introduced in the 1990s, the CD did exactly what the cassette did, but better, and more condensed. Truly, it resembles a more advanced record while the cassette is more similar to a VHS (you know, those plastic boxes that hold all of your family’s Disney movies from the early 2000s). The CD could and still can be “burned” like the cassette to hold music of choice, but still, like the cassette and record before it, was sold in albums and designated, mass-produced collections.
I don’t have to work hard to convince you of the impact of the iPod, iPhone and Apple products at large. The iPod was put forth in 2001, at what would be the CD’s peak, never to be climbed again. Suddenly you had 500 plus songs in a matchbox sized scrap of metal to be manipulated with downloaded CDs you already own and an online store where you could buy albums and (here’s the big thing you were waiting for!) individual songs. No way.
The mixtape culture was changed. You could just buy one song and scrap the rest of the album! Instead of an album reaching the charts with its popularity, singles gained traction and albums began to fall tragically behind. The final twist of the knife, though, came from streaming services. When the smartphone industry began thriving the way it does today and users became increasingly reliant and demanding for their lives to be simplified further, Spotify, Pandora, Apple Music, Soundcloud, and Youtube were developed over time to make music stupid easy to come by: all kinds of it, every genre, individual songs, playlists, whenever you want it. So as playlists and song radios and Discover Weeklys became prevalent, the album was brutally murdered. You didn’t need to listen to an album, at all, ever. The best songs from any album were delivered to you with a tap with no need to sort through an artist’s discography for your own favorites: it was done for you. And with the ease of consumption, the album died.
Something might be lost with the absence of album recognition: music tastes might be warped by what’s most popular and therefore most accessible, whereas sorting through an album forces one to forge a more original taste. Albums are assorted the way they are to constitute a theme or flavor. Listening to playlists removes the flow of certain songs as they were meant to be listened and kills interludes’ purpose as buffers between songs or establishers of the album’s intended essence. An album listened to in full might offer a deeper meaning and can give the listener a greater understanding of the artist, ultimately making the listener more capable of creating their own themes within their music taste.
All that said, it doesn’t have to be so tragic. With its demise came a greater emphasis on the artist and the genre. People will ask you, as they always have, “who do you listen to?” perhaps, in some way, returning some due credit to those who produce the albums rather than simply the title of the work, like famous books with forgotten authors. Streaming services give the power to any listener to assort their own preference, and return some of the essence of unique music taste that’s taken with whole albums: songs from all over the musical map are suggested to users based on what they’ve proven to be their preference and can establish a deeply specific taste that belongs to only them, whereas in the past, someone somewhere might have the exact same record collection. Albums are still available in full on all of these streaming services and are experiencing a resurgence in some crowds with the recognition of the value in an album. Change isn’t a bad thing, and after centuries of one way of listening to music, maybe it’s been overdue for longer than we ever thought.