The Death of the Album

The Death of the Album” is how Elbow frontman Guy Garvey describes the iTunes music store. AC/DC’s Angus Young criticizes the service for enabling listeners to download only a certain number of musicians’ songs, rather than entire albums. But it is undeniable that the internet is changing the way music is created and distributed. Although internet music downloading has been around for ages, the growing affordability and uptake of high-speed internet and the increasing rate of computer literacy means that more people than ever can choose to download their music on the internet from services such as iTunes rather than buy it in the traditional way.

But not everybody uses paid download services. If you’re already on the internet, why pay for something you can get for free? The majority of music can be easily accessed and downloaded on programs such as BitTorrent. And naturally, this is giving the record companies grief and eating into their profits. This is considered theft of intellectual property and can (and has!) be(en) grounds for a lawsuit. But is this way of thinking about music outdated?

As I mentioned in a previous post, this way of doing it has been challenged by the likes of Radiohead (who released their latest album, In Rainbows, for free on the internet as an experiment) and Nine Inch Nails (who are allowing the modification, remixing and redistribution of their music through a Creative Commons license). As my friend James says:

“…no matter how they released their music, there was no way that NiN’s or Radiohead’s ‘experiments’ were going to fail, as they both have large established fanbases…”

I believe these baby steps taken by people who have already made it big are indicative of the future of the music industry, the traditional methods of distribution being killed off by internet piracy. But should this be seen as a threat to musicians and their ability to make a livelihood? My answer is: no- providing the system is overhauled.

The whole idea of buying music- whether as a grammophone record, tape cassette, CD or whatever- is relatively new. When you consider that the technology to record sound was only developed in the late 18th century (Thomas Edison’s phonograph cylinder) and remained quite limited (in terms of both quality and affordability) for quite some time, the concept of the album, the mass-produced recording of an artist’s music, is quite recent. Obviously musicians existed and worked before then. But this technology marked a new era in the way musicians could create and distribute music. So my argument is that the current technology marks another paradigm shift regarding commerical music.

Let me explain the way I see the history of musicians’ livelihoods: at first, musicians needed a patron, a king or wealthy lord who would sponsor them (and this is true of course for other creative artists) and commission the creation and performance of music. Then, as the middle class expanded, more people could afford to attend musicians’ performances and so the role of the patron diminished as musicians could make a living by giving public concerts to the “common people”. Later, as recording technology developed, and the majority of people had access to gramophones, tape decks, CD players and the like, the role of the patron (this time reincarnated in the record company) again increased. However, today it is possible to cheaply record and distribute music without the neccessity for record labels (as is evident if one only takes a moment to search through the great amount of free, unsigned music available on websites such as Myspace). In addition, viral marketing and networking have shown that it is possible to advertise and distribute one’s work without needing the vast resources of the likes of Sony and IMG.

So where is this leading? My argument is that the next natural step in the creation, distribution and even popular conception of music will result in the irrelevance of major record labels and the destruction of the current concept of recorded music as a commodity. Because recorded music need not be a commodity. Because of the zero marginal cost of information, downloading music does not directly cause the musician to incur a loss; which is to say if I downloaded an album off BitTorrent, it would not physically reduce the artist’s profit, but only in that it would make it far less likely that I would spend money on purchasing that album.

So under the current system, we see the musicians are clearly losing out. But what if there were a new generation of musicians that did not expect to make money in this way? To give an example, I would be happy for as many people as possible to read this blog; as though I spent time and effort writing it, I am not further inconvenienced by people reading it and generally want people to read what I have written. But if for some strange reason people had to log in and pay to read my blog, I would be very angry if somebody was distributing unauthorized copies of my writing elsewhere. So the way I see it, the next generation of musicians–those who would record their music without ever stepping into a major studio, promote it on internet for free and have it available for everybody on websites such as Myspace–would be only too happy to share their music, to get as many people listening to it as possible.

But of course there is the issue of money. How will musicians make their livelihood? Well, I cannot answer that, but perhaps the future of music will lead to a growing emphasis on live music (as you cannot the experience of a live concert for free on the internet). To me, this theory of the next stage sounds lovely on paper (but then again, so did communism). The way in which it occurs will have to be seen, only time will tell, etc…

Finally, my Marxist vision for the future of music is centred on a greater freedom: because patronage demands conformity. Musicians hundreds of years ago and mainstream ones today have one thing in common: they must please their benefactors, be they lords or executives. This can be seen in Trent Reznor’s break away from Interscope Records, as he claimed that their commercial concerns and restrictions were impinging in his creatvity. In Peter Shaffer’s play Amadeus (later adapted to film), Antonio Salieri says of the role of the musician:

“We gave them processions for their strutting, serenades for their rutting, high horns for their hunting, and drums for their wars. Trumpets sounded when they entered the world and trumpets groaned when they left it!”

But Salieri suffered from great mediocrity, despite his present fame and acclaim, because the conformity demanded of him limited his creativity. So, in my vision for the future of music and the death of the album, I see musicians creating music for its own sake (and still somehow making a living!), unburdened by the suffocating demands of big business and the free sharing of recorded music: a dictatorship of the individual musician.


Filed under opinion, technology

4 responses to “The Death of the Album

  1. You’ve convinced me about the shift; now find a way for musicians to eat

  2. James Zarucky

    Excellent article, my only question is, are you also advocating the abolishment of the ‘album’ as an artistic medium as well as a physical commodity? Much like a film or a novel, the concept of a collection of songs as a well-crafted, cohesive whole is widely regarded as a superior artistic statement than a group of random songs for many pop/rock fans, and suggesting that it be done away with is akin to asking film directors to release individual scenes from a movie completely out of context. While interesting as an experiment, ultimately, many would agree that it is not as satisfying as experiencing a full production from start to finish. You know that collecting recorded music is a passion of mine, and while the music industry is leaning towards downloads as of late, there is still a significant market for physical music, and as long as artists continue to release albums, this is going to be the case for a while to come. Whether this is due to purely nostalgic reasons is open to debate, which you could possibly discuss in a future blog. I do agree with you that the current artist-record label setup is long overdue for some changes, but may I pose one final question? The increased ease in releasing music on the internet means that more is now available than ever before, but has this resulted in the scales tipping towards quantity over quality, as virtually anyone with a microphone and a computer can become a recording artist overnight? I look forward to your response.

  3. I’m not talking about the abolishment of the album as an artistic work but only really raised that point in talking about how even legal paid download services such as iTunes are making it (in my opinion) inevitable that the system is due for an overhaul– not “due” as in “REVOLUTION!” but more that a natural change will occur due to the laws of supply and demand. When it becomes uneconomical to produce albums the old-fashioned way (because free music is so easy to get and because the quality of recording that independent musicians can get their hands on is improving with technology), then naturally the system will change. Obviously, while people still like to buy physical CDs (like you), the “album” as we know it will continue to exist, but perhaps it will be only one of several options available to musicians and their listeners.

  4. Adam VB

    I think South Park put it best when the said “you can still make money from merchandise and concerts, just be stoked that so many people actually enjoy your music” there is no longer need for sale of music, if people pirate it and enjoy it they are going to pay to see it live.

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