14 October 2008

The Survival of the Music Industry: Introduction and Part I

The music industry has yet to right itself, and the Democrat candidates are threatening to alter the conservative landscape of talk radio.  The commercial-free satellite company Sirius XM (merged this year) is struggling to lure in paying listeners, just as HD radio rises to compete.  The under 30 crowd are increasingly hearing music--and more--on their iPods and phones.  iTunes Store dethroned Wal-Mart (sorry, "Walmart") as the number one music retailer in the country this year, but that was right before Amazon launched its digital store.  Blu-ray has despached of HD-DVD, yes, but digital HD has grown parallel to even that technology--movies and TV shows are already available in HD from iTunes.  What, then, will happen to the entertainment industry?  Here's a look.

PART I: THE RISE AND FALL OF THE ALBUM AS A COMMERCIAL PRODUCT
Albums
There is a notion that there have always been albums.  Yes, the first record album ever was a 1909 pressing of Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker Suite, but it wasn't until 1948, when Columbia introduced the 12" vinyl (holding a lot more music than the earlier 78 RPM Phonographs), that the album as an art form really took hold.  Even then, look at the discography of Elvis Presley--the best-selling American artist of the time--and it is filled with singles, not albums.  (Fun fact: The RIAA has Elvis Presley's best-selling album of all time, Elvis' Christmas Album, certified at 9x Platinum, or nine million units shipped.)  Casual listeners--generally the bulk of music buyers, in any era--regularly purchased 45 singles rather than 33 LP's.  Often, LP releases were little more than compilations of singles (such as the line of Elvis' Golden Hits), rather than the comprehensive, artistic statement that we now recognize as an album.

Albums emerged in the 1950s, though many would argue that they did not realize their creative potential until the British Invasion of the 1960s.  The Rolling Stones and some act called The Beatles were among the first to craft an album, where each song lead to the next, bringing the listener through a musical journey.  An offshot of the album is the "concept album," where the songs are united around a specific theme.  Popular themes have been the work of a specific songwriter, duets, cover songs and patriotic songs.  The album, then, became the work of art and the single became strictly a commercial product, often as an album sampler.  The idea is simple: release a single to radio and stores, hoping that airplay entices purchase of the single; once the listener has played the A-side, they will then play the otherwise unheard B-side and become curious enough to buy the album.

Contemporary listeners might be forgiven for wondering what a "B-side" is.  On a commercial single, there are two songs, one on each side (known as the Side A and Side B).  A-sides have almost always been the "primary" song, whereas B-sides have traditionally been supplementary songs.  Sometimes they have been the A-side of the artist's preceeding single; sometimes the B-side elicited enough interest that it became the next single's A-side.  Once the album emerged as an art form, the B-side was often a place for a song that was recorded for, but not contained in, an album.  The single, then, became not only an appetizer for the album, but supplementary to it.

When the cassette came along in 1964 (a year later than its European debut), music fans were given a dilemma: jump on board the new technology, or hold on to what they already had.  Not surprisingly, the new technology took a while to take hold.  What put cassettes over the top was the introduction of Walkmans (portable cassette players, allowing listeners to carry their music for the first time) in the 1980s.  The ability to walk around, listening to music was too enticing and so the record format died off for mainstream music buyers.  Also, the cassette enabled the owner to record sound for himself.  Only professional recording artists heard themselves on vinyl; anyone could hear himself on cassette.  Furthermore, many cassette players enabled listeners to duplicate other recordings.  You could transfer your LP to cassette, duplicate other cassettes and even, for the first time, make your very own mix tape.  Especially popular was to buy singles of favorite songs, and dub them all onto a full-length cassette.  Portability and the power to duplicate and mix--sounds enticing, does it not?

The Compact Disc (introduced in 1982, but not common until the 1990s) again revolutionized the music industry.  CD's could be copied to cassette, but not the reverse.  Unlike vinyl, there was a way to make CD's portable (the Discman), and unlike cassettes, CD's offered the listener the ability to play any track in any order he or she desired.  You could even play the album on a random mode and be surprised by what the next song might be.  When CD changers came along, allowing listeners to stock several discs at a time, the cassette was challenged.  Still, the average listener could not make mix discs, only mix tapes; and every form of music could be copied onto cassette, whereas nothing could be copied to vinyl or CD.  Having already acquired a taste for arranging songs of their choice their way, many fans became even less interested in how artists or producers sequenced an album.  The ability to play a CD on random took away from the significance that many artists had attached to the ordering of the songs.  Maybe Guns N' Roses intended in 1987 for "Welcome to the Jungle" to open their Appetite for Destruction, but on October 25, 1990 when the CD was issued, fans could have any of the other eleven songs lead off their listening experience.  It was the music equivalent of LEGO, taking apart what had been put together one way and rebuilding it another.

There was, however, one major decision the record labels made that has been detrimental to their own business.  Vinyl and cassette singles were cost sensible because they required less money to produce than whole albums (though in the case of cassettes the cost differential was much closer, since the only real difference was the amount of tape used, and often the cost was offset by using a cardboard sleeve instead of a plastic case to house the single).  CD's, however, cost just the same to produce and to ship whether there is one song or the entire disc is full of music.  Record labels realized that they were out just as much money in manufacturing for singles as they were for albums, and so they phased out the single.  Occasionally, they still issued them for new artists, but listeners were compelled to purchase an entire album for the songs they wanted.

Albums have traditionally been viewed by casual fans in terms of "recognized songs" and "everything else."  A recognized song is one that was released as a single, whether for purchase, for airplay on radio or even to be played via jukebox.  In the 1970s, especially in country music, the norm was for an album to spawn one single; artists released a few albums a year, so by the time a single had run its course on radio, the artist had an entirely new album ready to drop (that's industry speak for "come out").  By the 1990s, artists rarely released more than one album per year; many rock stars issued one every other year, or even less frequently.  Because of this, later albums might spawn an average of three or four singles.  Now, each time a single hit radio, record labels--and artists--hoped that each song might catch a different type of listener's attention and draw him or her to purchase the CD from which it came.

Ultimately, this move through technological eras created a perfect storm for anti-album sentiment among the common fan.  Cassettes had taught him to take his music whereever he went; CD's had taught him not to care how songs were sequenced on an album.  He had been so used to buying singles of songs he heard on radio, that having to buy an entire CD just to get the song he wanted made him resent the album on which he recognized just a fraction of songs.  He came to view everything else as "filler," saying an album "only has a few good songs on it."  What he means, in most cases, is not that an album only has a few "good songs," because he has not listened to the album prior to buying it.  Rather, he means he only recognizes a few songs.

When the PC introduced CD-burning capability in the 1990s, though, CDs again had all the capability of cassettes--listeners could now mix their own discs and walk around listening to them.  Prior to the ability to burn a disc, listeners who wanted to trade in their purchased CD but wanted to keep the music on it had to content themselves with a cassette copy, inferior in its quality and devoid of the ability to control its playback sequence.  Now, though, listeners could replicate the entire CD onto another CD.  This, of course, was when the record labels began to cry foul at the slash and burn tactics of casual listeners.  And then, when online file-sharing technology asserted itself, not only were listeners able to replicate CDs for themselves (or their friends and family), but they did not even need to make a tangible disc to distribute the music to others.  Enter: The Music Industry v. The World lawsuits.

Unforunately for the music industry, they cannot unring the bell.  We have become accustomed to portability for our music, as well as customizability.  Non-duplicable, non-portable methods of distribution simply will not take.  One wonders whether audiophiles are really responsible for the recent resurgence of vinyl, or if the record labels are simply hoping that nostalgia (or novelty, for those too young to have come of age with vinyl) will lure buyers away from this level of control over their libraries.

Simply put, the album as an art form is endangered.  There is, however, a bright spot.  Many fans complain that artists and bands cobble together albums around a few singles-worthy songs and stick them with filler.  We may see the EP return, released with more regularity than full albums and containing more popular songs.  After all, finding a few songs likely to be popular is certainly easier than finding 10-14 of them.

For artists who craft an album as an artistic statement, though, rather than a commercial product, the album will continue to be their canvas.  When Bruce Springsteen gets it into his head to write and record, he will continue to produce an entire album.  The same is true for Bob Dylan, Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson, Jimmy Buffett and every other singer/songwriter out there who works his craft.  Really, the final result of the decline in album production will only benefit commercial acts and their fickle fans.  Actual artistry is not threatened, and those who appreciate the work of those artists will not be punished.  Will those albums be issued on CD, vinyl or only digitally?  It's hard to say for sure, but the album has already survived three technological eras.  Just as stage acting has survived despite the rise of film and television, and now the ability to post videos of your work online, the album will continue to exist--for those artists who wish to craft them--in one form or another.

6 comments:

  1. Keep it comin'. Love reading about this stuff. This blog had Matt and I talking for a bit about music and the album: will the album ever come back, or are we doomed to a single-based-society?

    Also, has Wal-mart (Walmart?) officially deleted the hyphen?

    ReplyDelete
  2. Dude, I'm a bit confused. I think Part I has been mistitled. While certainly a rundown of the history of formats of audio recording is important to the art form that we know as the album. Even more so, it is important to the overall statement of the piece (if it holds to the title of the post). However, you've failed to accurately track the rise or fall of the album. You've focused on all the whys without stating the whats. When did albums become a medium for making an artistic statement. Not the moment LP's were created, though that certainly influenced it. How was the album used as an art form in its prime? What is the eveidence of its demise?

    I think this makes a fine introduction to your overall idea, but you really dropped the ball on the title, yo.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Yes, Walmart has now dropped the hyphen. Someone in their marketing division thought it would make them seem reinvented or new in some manner. Like when we all show up and the same slow, ugly middle-aged women are still working there we won't know what's up.

    As for the title of the piece and all that, I'll have to actually read the blog to see where I did and did not go. I finally posted it when I realized that if I didn't break it into parts I would soon hit whatever limit blogspot has for the length of these things. Incidentally, I adore that after you say I've addressed the "whys" but not the "whats," you immediately ask a "when" question.

    ReplyDelete
  4. There, I've re-read and revised Part I. I think I've addressed the concerns of charting albums as an art form, though I'm trying at this point not to get too wrapped up in what those key works have been over the years. A later part might explore some of the history of the art of the album; my series is more on the commercial history of the album as a product.

    ReplyDelete
  5. Dude, I'm a bit confused. I think Part I has been mistitled. While certainly a rundown of the history of formats of audio recording is important to the art form that we know as the album. Even more so, it is important to the overall statement of the piece (if it holds to the title of the post). However, you've failed to accurately track the rise or fall of the album. You've focused on all the whys without stating the whats. When did albums become a medium for making an artistic statement. Not the moment LP's were created, though that certainly influenced it. How was the album used as an art form in its prime? What is the eveidence of its demise?

    I think this makes a fine introduction to your overall idea, but you really dropped the ball on the title, yo.

    ReplyDelete
  6. Keep it comin'. Love reading about this stuff. This blog had Matt and I talking for a bit about music and the album: will the album ever come back, or are we doomed to a single-based-society?

    Also, has Wal-mart (Walmart?) officially deleted the hyphen?

    ReplyDelete