While the idea of the album has been floating around since the German release of Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite in 1909, it was during the 60s that long players become our go-to source of music. As teenage pop matured into rock, albums like The Beatles’ Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band and The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds heralded in the idea that albums were no longer collections of songs and singles, but carefully sequenced and conceptually cohesive artistic statements.
Yet as absolute as this commercial and cultural dominance came to seem, it was slowly ebbing away not much sooner than it had arrived.
As streaming shoots for the throne and instant gratification becomes second nature, will the world continue to have patience for the album format?
In the 70s came compact cassette tapes. Not only were these tapes a portable alternative to vinyl, but consumers could, with a bit of sweat of the brow, record and compile their own compilations and mixtapes. The 80s followed on with CDs. One of the most groundbreaking features of these shiny discs was the ability to press play and skip through to the “best parts”.
While cassette mixtapes might have been a long running precedent, the later advents of CD burning and iPods allowed consumers to become their own personal disc jockeys with relative ease, placing songs from their favourite albums into customised playlists. The more recent arrival of streaming took things further still, listeners were no longer limited to the music they purchased (or otherwise procured), but practically every piece of recorded sound ever commercially released.
Although the long term viability of its current business model remains to be seen, all signs suggest streaming is here to stay. Market leader Spotify continues to cement itself as what may become ‘the’ ubiquitous streaming service. In September last year the company announced it passed 40 million users, up from around 25 million at this time in 2015.
This said, well-resourced Apple and Amazon counterparts are also continuing to expand at dramatic rates. Whether generated by fans, the services themselves or other music industry bodies, the playlists available via these dominant streaming services are becoming akin to radio in terms of influence.
These playlists serve as key focus points in generating interest in artist’s music. The industry knows it too. Music labels at all levels are scrambling to win over the minds of the tastemakers controlling the most popular streaming playlists.
Music in the digital age has an ever shortening shelf life. Listeners are always hungering for more content, but with an endless pool of old and new music this only seems to have accelerated. Listeners are spending less and less time with their favourite tracks. Album narratives are becoming enmeshed in a constant feed of social media and new music.
For those recording and releasing music there’s concern that the time honoured album format could be becoming increasingly out of sync with commercial sense. Is the album doomed to the same fate as CDs and cassettes?
Read the full article in Happy Mag Issue #4. In this issue we chat to Julia Jacklin for our cover interview, go behind the scenes with Sydney’s Polographia and tackle the question: Why are so many festivals still coming through with male-dominated lineups?