Analysts and commentators in the music business are a gloomy bunch. Dogged by devils around every corner, they’ve foretold the death of their industry since its birth. Rapid changes in the way musical product is composed, recorded, manufactured and distributed — brought about by constantly advancing technology — have made the record business a tumultuous one, giving recording companies plenty of reasons to worry along the way. Now, many believe technology finally is bringing about the end of the recording industry, and that its first victim is the album format that dominated the second half of the twentieth century.
They are wrong, again.
Even at their bloated, decadent peak in the 1970s and ’80s, the major labels scrambled for self-preservation against the threat of “home taping” enabled by the insidious Philips Compact Cassette. Convinced that consumers equipped with cassette recorders would simply record all the music they wanted from the radio — or from friends’ copies — and never buy records again, industry consortia RIAA and BPI fought for years to defeat the technology through lawsuits, Congressional pressure, and public campaigns.
We know the story: No one could stop the audio cassette’s wave of destruction. Profits soared anyway. Failure! Success!
Of course, that wasn’t the first time (nor the last) that shrieking publishers of creative works rang alarm bells and fought a desperate war against the perils of sinister new technology. Jack Valenti and the MPAA frantically lobbied Congress in 1982 to thwart the rise of the VCR (Valenti: “We are going to bleed and bleed and hemorrhage, unless this Congress at least protects one industry … whose total future depends on its protection from the savagery and the ravages of this machine.”). That didn’t work, but somehow, the VCR went on to earn countless billions for movie studios. Failure! Success!
In the 1970s, the photocopier was the folk devil of book publishers, certain their sales would seize once the public had the ability to Xerox all the books they wanted. Even the quaint player piano and the gramophone, at the beginning of the twentieth century, had their opponents (including John Philip Souza) who worried over the threat of “mechanical music” against real art and its creators. Technology is scary! Still, industry thrived.
In the late 1980s, the music industry was enjoying its greatest-ever boom, with labels re-releasing their back catalog on Compact Disc (and persuading customers to buy their record collections all over again), when a new threat appeared. Digital Audio Tape (DAT) prompted a whole new “home taping” panic, along with a new wave of Congressional pressure from hysterical major labels. The RIAA kicked and screamed and foretold the apocalypse: The “perfect fidelity” of digital recording (a sad fallacy, in fact) surely meant no consumer need ever pay for music again; one could simply keep a library of “perfect” copies on DAT!
Electronics manufacturers were coerced into a compromise: the Audio Home Recording Act of 1992. Under the AHRA, a substantial tax was levied on digital recording devices and blank media — ostensibly a royalty to be distributed to artists through performing rights organizations and musicians’ unions. (The convoluted distribution structure allots the majority of royalties to labels and music publishers.) The AHRA also mandated the Serial Copy Management System, wherein all but the most expensive “professional” machines were fitted with hardware that disabled them from making second-generation copies. Marketing stalled, confounded consumers balked, and DAT never saw widespread use outside of professional studios, where the copy-protection scheme (among other technical problems) vexed recording engineers. As a consumer medium, DAT was doomed, along with its SCMS-yoked cousins DCC and Minidisc. Success! Failure!
The more recent story of MP3, Napster and the DMCA has more than its share of irony. Industry reactions to the first actual threat of illicit music copying exacerbated the problem at every turn. The 1999 lawsuit against Napster brought such widespread attention to the file-sharing service that many millions of new users joined, and a number of similar services sprang up around it. The inherent copy-ability of digitized music and the Streisand effect of the industry’s efforts to stop it fueled a global explosion of “music piracy.” Meanwhile, consumers who paid for their music were punished by rising prices and unadvertised copy-protection encoded into their CDs. Public sentiment toward the RIAA continued to darken with its wave of lawsuits against hapless grandmothers, children, college students and other “pirates.” The recording industry was alienating its own customers and fighting a hopeless war against uncontrollable technology, ostensibly (as ever) to protect artists and copyright owners (who are usually not artists, but their labels and publishers).
(By the way: As reported by techdirt, the $64+ million the RIAA spent on anti-piracy lawsuits between 2006 and 2008 yielded about $1.4 million in settlements. Great job!)
It was the RIAA’s longtime nemesis — innovation from the consumer electronics industry — that saved it from certain death. Steve Jobs’ audacious Apple iTunes Store launched in 2003 and quickly proved that many consumers would pay for music when given a convenient, reliable alternative to illegal downloading. By 2008, iTunes was the top music retailer in the U.S., a position it still holds. Yet even this effort was partially undermined by industry paranoia: In their initial agreements with Apple, the major labels insisted Digital Rights Management be used in all downloads from the iTunes store, to hinder copying. It didn’t really work, instead causing its own problems, as perhaps best expressed in Jobs’ own 2007 screed against DRM, “Thoughts on Music.” Apple later that year discontinued the use of DRM (although some of their catalog is still encoded with it).
While illegal downloading continues, the success of iTunes and other legitimate download vendors is undeniable. Their sales statistics are increasingly cited as the metrics of music consumption, and they are good enough to provide some reassurance that, although the previous music industry model is inoperable, there can at least continue to be a music industry (with some adjustment of methods and expectations).
They are also the numbers trotted out by those sounding the death knell of the album, and they can be compelling, as shown in this graph from a 2010 Ars Technica article:
In terms of units, single songs outsold albums in 2009 by an overwhelming margin: 1.1 billion downloaded singles against 76 million albums. It seems clear that, as the article asserts, people “just aren’t buying albums.”
Then again, 76 million is still a significant number, and when you consider that a typical album comprises ten or more individual songs, the data appear rather less one-sided. Moreover, when we take into account the revenue from downloaded albums — and from physical CDs — a very different picture emerges. Here is a more complete data set, from 2010:
If $1.2 billion in singles is worthy of attention, $4.2 billion in albums probably shouldn’t be ignored either. It’s true that recent trends show a steep decline in overall sales, with a telling rise in sales of singles. But is this really enough to pronounce the album dead? 309 million albums (in the U.S. alone) is not a small number. And you can add another 2.8 million to that number for vinyl albums, a market that continues to grow steadily. (Neilsen SoundScan reports an even higher number, 326 million total albums sold in 2010.)
But even if sales figures reliably foretold the total dominance of singles, there’s a more important principle at work here: The creation of art, even commercial art, stubbornly refuses to be driven by demand. Most music is made by artists, and artists like making albums.
The rise to prominence in the 1950s and ’60s of the album format, and its pervasive presence in our culture since then, were not accidental, nor driven purely by industry. The album format makes sense — especially for music creators. Being a group of songs recorded within a specific time frame, by a particular team of people, often in the same environment(s), a proper album has a sonic identity that represents that unified effort. More than a collection of songs, the album is its own form of expression, a portrait of the artists’ lives in the time — a week, a month, a year — that they spent working on it. Many albums go further, weaving thematic threads throughout: lyrical, musical, emotional, even visual. And the fact missed by those watching only numbers is that people who create music really like working this way. The practical, economical, and creative advantages of recording an group of songs together as an album hold undeniable appeal for artists, and for labels. In 2010, according to SoundScan, about 75,000 albums were released in the U.S. alone.
Numbers people may be quick to point out that this number is down 22% from 2009’s album releases (96,000). Gasp! But while analysts speculate on the devastating implications, they ignore previous years’ statistics: 2009 represents a curious rise in U.S. album releases since 2006 (76,000), peaking in 2008 (at 106,000). Recent SoundScan figures also fail to account for all of the releases marketed by independent artists directly to their fans through newly available self-distribution channels. (Independent releases can be set up for Soundscan tracking, but not all artists do so.) It’s probably too soon to derive concrete meaning from this rise and fall in the wake of the file-sharing explosion, but the fact remains: 75,000 is a hell of a lot of new albums in one year. Remember, too, that most of the single songs being purchased today were recorded and released within albums, and otherwise wouldn’t exist to be downloaded individually. The album as a creative framework remains the primary impetus behind singles.
Music, and the industry that exploits it, have always been powered by the naïve optimism and unrealistic ambition of artists and music lovers. Few teenagers ever picked up a guitar and started a band because they (or their parents) saw it as the pathway to a lucrative career. Nearly every record label ever launched — including those that went on to great success — was founded not by a savvy entrepreneur keen to capitalize on a sure thing, but by an idealistic music fan with just a few dollars in the bank and the urge to share great music with the world. At least 99% of all music is made as an expression of ideas and emotions, not as commercial contrivance to make a quick fortune.
When industry ignores the creative forces behind genuine art and forgets the people who make it, we get fabricated pop pabulum. And we do — all the time (check this week’s top ten). Thankfully, human culture is not built solely on commerce. Thankfully, most artists continue to find inspiration from sources other than sales figures and market demand. Thankfully, they continue creating and producing within and without the system wrought by major labels, with no end in sight. They make albums — and they sell them, in increasingly innovative ways, to hungry audiences.
Until they stop doing that, the album is very much alive.