by Chris Bodenner
A reader writes:
I call bullshit on the musician who thinks iTunes contributed to the death of the album. That trend started once music studios figured out that they only needed to have three good songs on an album; once they realized that they could get 2-3 albums out of an act and then hire someone else sing the same style of music at a lower rate of pay; when CDs in stores were more than 2x the price of movie tickets. The timeline he picks pretty much predates the wide use of MP3s.
If anything, I listen to MORE albums now that I did before.
Because iTunes allows me to purchase the thing piecemeal and listen to samples, I don't get buyer's remorse and have become more diverse in my choices. The "complete the album" function on iTunes is genius. The fact that Amazon often sells albums for $5 is also genius - I've purchased a band's entire catalogue because they were all on sale. Buying a physical album is not a nostalgic thing for me - seeing that piece of crap CD that I wasted $15 on is frustrating, not romantic. The joy of music is about discovering new sounds that you love. iTunes divorces the money from the discovery process, which makes it better for music lovers.
Like I said, pop music has almost always been a been an industry driven by singles. Yes, you can point to specific albums that everyone owns, but usually, most people have artist/genre preferences that are fairly specific and influenced by top 40 radio. I may like one song by an artist, but I am never going to buy the entire album. With iTunes, I might click through the rest, might by a second track, or might buy the whole thing. It increased the probability that I can experience the tone of the rest of the album and allows me to judge whether or not it is for me.
The album argument seems more about the artist than the listener. Nothing stops a listener from downloading the whole thing if they want to. I can see how it can be ego-damaging for an artist to see how many people don't want to download everything they do.
I must politely disagree with your reader. While I love my iPod, I listen to everything in playlists. I spend hours carefully arranging, curating, testing how one song flows into the next, how the mood starts joyful and carefree and gently slows into casual, then mellow, and finally heartbreak - all from one singer or band.
"Ten songs in a row from one artist" is a challenge? I have 35 in my Billy Joel playlist, 46 in Josh Groban, and 89 in Elton John. I have all three Lord of the Rings soundtracks, in order, in one playlist. Sure, I'll mix it up with "Eighties music," "Dance," "Classic Rock," or "a cappella," and I have two playlists for parties which are meant to be played on shuffle, but for me, the relationship between one song and the next is as important as putting together a menu for a dinner party.
This hagiography of the history of pop music in 20th Century America overlooks one very important and critical point: the reason albums came to exist in the first place. Back in the late '40s through early '60s, the main retail delivery mechanism of pop music wasn't the album, or the EP - it was the 45. Yes, two songs, one single and a B-side, not 10 or 15 or 20 songs stitched together and forced upon the consumer.
It wasn't until the success of bands like the Beatles (and the introduction of viable LP vinyl) that record companies realized they could take advantage of their rent-seeking, incredibly restrictive ownership model of the intellectual property surrounding music to force consumers to buy something they didn't want. Instead of having the choice to buy only the songs you want at a reasonable price (a 45 cost about $3 in inflation-adjusted terms in the '50s), as both my parents and most likely the parents of your reader did, as we're approximately the same age, now the ONLY way to purchase a song that you liked was to pay 3 to 10 times as much to also buy a bunch of songs you weren't at all interested in.
Sure, there are many great albums that were written and released in the '60s through the '90s. But let's not kid ourselves - this wasn't because it was what the majority of music consumers wanted, but rather the result a craven ploy by the music industry to maximize revenue and profit at the expense of consumer (and artist) choice. All the mp3 and its successors have done is to open the model back up so consumers have the choice to buy what they want. And guess what? They don't want albums.
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