Albums in the 21st century – setting the record straight

Cover image by Unsplash

In the world of music, there are plenty of clichés. There is perhaps none more predictable and common than the cliché which laments the death of music as we once knew it, and that which, more specifically, mourns the death of the album as an art form. It seems that no matter where you go on the internet, there will always be someone somewhere proclaiming that music “isn’t what it used to be” and that the album is dead in the water. But is this really the case? Is it true that, firstly, the album is actually becoming a dying art form? If so, what are the reasons behind this decline?

The reality of the statistics behind the revenue of the music industry is more complex than may be initially assumed and warrants particular attention. According to the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), the total revenue of the music industry within the USA has increased significantly from just over $6.7 billion in 2015 to $12.1 billion in 2020. 2020 marked the fifth consecutive year of growth in revenue within the American music industry. In fact, the music industry as a whole is relatively close to its highest recorded peak which was at $13.7 billion in 1998. These statistics all point in the direction of a music industry which is flourishing.

However, as is so often the case, these statistics are somewhat deceiving. By far the biggest factor in this rise in revenue is paid subscription services which now represent over 57% of total revenue compared to just 3% ten years ago. It should, however, be noted that vinyl record sales have also increased drastically by over 1400% since 2007. Naturally, therefore, such a drastic change in the consumption of music has led to an equally drastic change within the industry itself and its output.

Perhaps the most noteworthy change within music is the “need for speed” in songs. Essentially, what this means is that music must grab the listeners attention much faster than before. The principal reason behind this is that the industry no longer really works in sales, it works in plays. Spotify, for example, counts a play as listening to a song for 30 seconds or more at a time. It is then imperative for artists to grab your attention within those 30 seconds to register a play on their songs. This is one reason why, nowadays, songs often tend to lurch straight into their choruses or at least avoid lengthy introductions and almost always start singing within the 30 second timeframe. It is evident that this brevity would adversely impact albums as there is at least a certain degree of patience required when listening to a record. This is particularly true with rap albums that very often clock in at well over an hour in length and may well require a substantial amount of concentration from the listener to fully engage in the project. The fact that so many people access their music within streaming platforms through playlists further works against the album as many people will only listen to one or two songs from a particular artist instead of choosing to dig deeper into their discography. 

This all leads me to my final point and the crux of this article:

Does it really matter that the album as an artform is seemingly decreasing in significance within the music industry? 

Certainly, it may well be argued that to complain about a music industry which is increasing in size is pointless and that listening to any form of music is a positive thing. In some ways, this is a fair point and streaming has definitely made music far more accessible than it ever has been before in the past, particularly for smaller, unsigned artists. That being said, I do strongly believe that the decreasing significance of the album is something worth lamenting. 

By losing out on the album, you are essentially missing the wider artistic vision of the artist. It is comparable to reading just one chapter of a book instead of the entire novel. You will gain a certain amount of satisfaction from that one chapter but you will miss out on the wider story. It has to be remembered that music is art and albums are its principal form of transmission. To miss out on an album is to miss out on art and art has power. It has the power to challenge, to educate and to change lives. To simply disregard the album is to disregard the artistic ambitions of some of the finest minds of a generation. And in the words of the Brazilian artist Romero Britto “art is too important not to share”.

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