Seeing a few tweets from my friend @rathmoremedia about the decline in sales of albums (LPs, 33s or records as we used to call them!) made me think a bit about the whole art form and whether it can survive.
Saturday's Guardian reported under the headline: Is the album dead? Katy Perry, Miley Cyrus and Elton John hit by dramatic US sales slump- As artists speak out over rise in streaming, industry tries to adapt to new habits of digital consumers that album sales in the Uk have declined from 800m in 2002 to just over 300m in 2012 and last week in the USA fell to a new low of 4.49m (presumably for the week). Now that doesn't sound like the album is dead, but it is quite a big decline.
Not surprisingly, amongst younger consumers, sales are much lower than they used to be; the generation that has grown up with music available online has tended both to pirate music more and to stream it more, whether it be on a service like Spotify or just via youtube. So it is no surprise to see that the sales of Miley Cyrus' album Bangerz have dropped very quickly after the initial sales to fans took it to No.1. What is perhaps more significant is the drop in sales of more established artists like Elton John, who might be expected to still have a big ageing fan market. The Guardian reports that in its third week in the US, his latest album sold only 11,000 copies.
LPs were first introduced as vinyl 12 inch records in 1948. They could play about 22 minutes on each side (you had to flip them over half way through the album!) though some later modifications stretched this a bit. Unlike digital formats they were not indestructable and one of the pains of them was that if they got scratched you could hear the scratch when you played them next time. Though some would say that is the beauty of LPs, the signs of wear became part of the experience. As the format really took off with rock musicians in the 1960s, leading to some of the massive selling albums of the 1970s, the whole 10-12 song album became the norm and, rather like a book or a film, was the format of the artistic statement that the band or individual artist wanted to make.
A big part of this, of course, was the artwork, which became not just packaging, but a key part of the experience. Many album covers have become iconic as a result; have a look at this selection of black and white covers here, which I recently spotted in a tweet from my friend @GeorgeEBlack. Several of my all-time favourites are there, I realised. When vinyl started to be replaced by CD, a number of things changed- some for the better, some maybe for the worse. Though the CD format meant you could fit on nearly 80 minutes and everything was on one side of the disk, the size of it meant that some of the aesthetic pleasure of the album cover got a bit lost- you can't see it so well on a five inch square as on a 12"! Some people have even suggested that the 80 minute format led to a bit of self indulgence as artists put on tracks which would never have made the cut on a 44 minute disk.
The further move to digital, via sites like iTunes, meant that if you just downloaded it, first of all the file was compressed so that the quality isn't so good and secondly that well, in a sense it didn't really exist at all. You can hear it, yes, but you can't actually hold a digital album in your hands. As with most things in the digital era, it's all very convenient- I can carry all my album collection on my iPod if I want to- but maybe something has been lost.
I'll consider this further next week with more on album artwork, the experience of buying albums, some of my favourite albums and the art of the mixtape...
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