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Six Reasons Why The Album Format Died

It's easy to say that online music slayed the album, but it was only the final dagger after six long swords

By Bobby Owsinski August 1, 2011

This article is provided by Bobby Owsinski.

I think it’s safe to say that we’re at the end of the “album age,” and although the format will hold on for a while, it’s clearly waning in popularity.

I’ve given this a lot of thought and have come up with what I think are the reasons, but be aware, they’re not all exactly what the popular wisdom assumes.

So let’s begin with the six reasons why the album format has, for all intents and purposes, died.

1) It was a visual experience. The album format in the vinyl record age had the advantage of that wonderful piece of cardboard known as the album jacket.

The album jacket contained the cover art (still found on CDs), and most importantly, the liner notes on the back, which we’ll get to in a second. But one thing that everyone either forgets or has never experienced is the fact that millions of albums were purchased completely on impulse because of the album artwork alone!

It may be hard to believe, but it was quite common to come across an album cover that was so cool that you’d buy it without knowing a thing about the artist. Sometimes it would be a total loser, but you still had the liner notes to read, and occasionally that would still make it a worthwhile purchase.

2) It was an informational experience too. Those of you too young to have experienced this don’t know how much the liner notes meant to nearly everyone who bought an album (the picture on the left gives you an idea how extensive they could be).

You could spend hours reading a well-written gatefold jacket, checking out every credit, wondering just where these exotic studios were (Smoketree Ranch in Malibu was the one that always intrigued me the most as a kid), and generally just soaking up any info you could about the artist.

Of course, this was way, way before the Internet, so the liner notes were sometimes the only place to find any of info on the artist at all.

To say the least, the visuals and information along with the music made buying an album a total experience that today’s album doesn’t some close to.

3) The demise of the record stores. Once again, this may seem hard to believe but nearly every community had someplace that sold records, even if it didn’t have a record store.

There was an entire network set up to supply records to department stores, supermarkets, even diners. You couldn’t help but to run into someplace selling records during the course of a day.

But the record store was the place to not only buy music, but to spend hours browsing. Why? Because of the cover art and liner notes. You’d peel through a bin of records, stopping every so often to look at an intriguing cover, which made you want to read the liner notes, and maybe even buy the album as a result.

But the record store was also the best place for word of mouth. The people that worked the record stores always knew what was hot, what was underground but about to pop, and what was overhyped. You could go into a store and ask a clerk, “What’s really good?” and he’d give you 10 choices, most of which were pretty high quality.

This is something that the music industry is still looking for today online. Now we call it “music discovery” and VC’s still throw big money at anyone who claims to have an app.

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About Bobby

Bobby Owsinski
Bobby Owsinski

Music Industry Veteran and Technical Consultant
Bobby Owsinski is an author, producer, music industry veteran and technical consultant who has written numerous books covering all aspects of audio recording. For more information and to acquire a copy of The Recording Engineer’s Handbook be sure to check out his website.


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Freedomsound says

You left out a big one, Bobby: Dynamic Compression. The CD format made extreme dynamic compression possible (more so than the LP format), and as a result, record producers for the major labels were under pressure from the labels to maximize the average loudness of the track, rather than maximize the dynamic impact. As a result, we’re left with music that has been stripped of a significant portion of its musical content (dynamics are just as much a part of music as pitch and timbre), and the resulting product fails to keep and hold the listener’s attention. In other words, today’s musical product necessarily fades into the background as listeners turn it down from listening fatigue. Digital formats have huge dynamic range, but the labels don’t seem to recognize the true impact that dynamic contrast has on the listening experience to delight the listener and hold the listener’s attention, and as a result they’ve devalued their own product.

biff henderson says

you said “dropping a deuce”

George says

Bobby!  Love the question, and some good answers but that’s mostly peripheral stuff.  And the music didn’t got to “hell in a hand basket” due to CDs. CDs came in the early ‘80’s and people were amazed by them and bought them over 20 years in ever-growing numbers. Sure we missed the album art, but look at the sales, grew from invention of the CD up until Napster’s piracy made it stupid to buy a CD when you could get the same music for free. I think you’re missing the main elephant in the room: due to theft and lost of money, musicians lost the basic control of our recorded music’s distributed best form:

The main reason the long-form album died is primarily due to the fact that 85% of the music consumed today is stolen, and, most importantly, stolen song-by-song. As well, in the transition to digital download distribution, the main distributor, Apple/iTunes, found they could make more profit on the hardware side if they took away the rest of the music control from the music makers (artists/writers/labels/studios/publishers) by removing all theft protection.  Steve Jobs famously double-crossed the musician by looking at the iTunes/iPad vs the actual music file profit columns and deciding that it was the hardware that was going to make him even more rich, and quicker. Amazon quickly joined in, they had to compete. Who cares if now over 85% of all music on smartphones and iPhones is stolen MP3s? Steve Jobs cared! And he went right to it and to the bank with his silicon, steel and plastic - not music - profits: the iPod, iPhone and iPad liked piracy.  Why? More music, illegal or not, and more hardware got sold.  And the album? Around 2007, with piracy blossoming - and when this was all happening there were serious discussions regarding giving the music creators the control of deciding whether they sold their music only in groups of album-sized bundles, (or six songs (EP), two songs (45) or singles groups)- but that could never happen even though what musician wouldn’t mind grouping his songs as albums, digitally, if they wanted to, and if the songs weren’t available for free?  Creating an album is no big deal with any sort of copy protection. And then had a totally transparent and excellent and painless music protection system - DRM - that they suddenly Apple smoked, threw away, to allow Napster style music stuffing into their iPods and iPhones, totally growing their sales fabulously.  Had they not stopped protecting our music, we might have had the ability to make “album” be how the world would hear our music.  Remember, it’s living in an insane asylum to live in our present world where we are told that music has no value when its actual consumption (hours people spend listening to it) has more than doubled since 2000! Yet the money we get paid has evaporated.  That’s why there are no albums, there’s no reason why in a digital world that has the world paying serious bucks for a 2-hour movies and 300 page - again, paid for - Kindle releases, we couldn’t have the wonderful, artistic and totally gratifying long-form album, but we got sold down the river.

Kenneth says

I think that other problem now, is, that people dont care that much… they forget more quickly. Your single could be hot today, tomorrow i dont know who are you

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