When the world closed its doors in March of last year as a result of the pandemic, everyone found a way to cope with the possibility of spending the foreseeable future at home. Binge-watching comfort TV. Or baking loaf after loaf of sourdough. Or swearing to never wear jeans again. Or binge-watching more comfort TV.
Yet with the possibility of not being able to attend a live show again for what could have potentially been the rest of the year (and it turns out, the beginning of the next year and counting) I did what I considered the next best thing: I listened to records. Lots of them. I flipped one side after another, dropping the needle on records I hadn’t listened to in years. I rediscovered old records that became new favorites. I got reacquainted with those I’ve played dozens of times. I went through the complete catalogs of Prince, Bowie, Can, Brian Eno, The Cure and A Tribe Called Quest. In the absence of much else to be excited about, I found comfort and a new kind of exploration in music I already knew—records that had kept me engaged and nourished in years past. The album, in a sense, gave me something new to look forward to every day.
That might not square with the repeated publication of the album’s obituary every couple of years for the last few decades. The album supposedly died with Napster and then with the iPod, and it’s sixth or seventh life is, ironically, being cut short to more digital methods of music discovery.
At the beginning of January, The New York Times published a conversation between its culture editor, Gilbert Cruz, and its pop music critic, Jon Caramanica, in which Caramanica repeated the all-too-familiar declaration that the album is, indeed, dead. At least as far as our digital overlords are concerned. “[T]he minute albums hit streaming services, they are sliced and diced and the songs are relegated to playlist slots, and everything after that is a crap shoot,” he says. “The truth is that albums worked as a medium only because everyone was a captive. When you look back at your favorite older albums now, I’m sure you see the weak spots that you’d happily have programmed out if you had the technology then.”
The Algorithm Always Wins
This line of argument is becoming increasingly common in the age of Spotify playlist algorithms. Digital platforms that know your listening habits can filter out every song you’re kind of iffy on, give you only the stuff it knows you’ll like and you never have to worry about having to engage with music on the artist’s terms ever again. This, of course, has led to a listener base without the attention span to listen to anything longer than four minutes at a time, Forbes‘ Bobby Owsinski suggested in 2018 (and in 2016). And as such, recording an album probably isn’t worth the cost in money or time to most artists.
“No longer does anyone consistently sit down for 40 or 50 consecutive minutes to listen to an album from front to back like they used to,” Owsinski says. “In our portable music society today where streaming music from Spotify or Apple Music is the king, there’s no reason to be tied to the music playback system or to listen to songs that we don’t care to listen to. If that’s the case, why should an artist even bother to spend the months it takes to create an album?”
There’s no question that platforms like Spotify have dramatically influenced and changed the way a lot of us listen to music, and as such, artists don’t have as much control over how their music is consumed. It’s also true that making music, especially when it involves studio hours, can be expensive. But both of these arguments seem to amount to little more than “You can’t fight city hall.” In other words, Spotify makes the rules, so it’s best simply to let them dictate the terms of how you release your own music.
The problem with that argument, aside from being bleak, is that it’s suggesting artists fundamentally change how they create—something that can’t be boiled down to simple marketing techniques—just for the sake of being able to capitalize on an algorithm, and one that will almost inevitably replaced in the future. Only the algorithm we have now is more ruthless than even the retail music market; as musician Damon Krukowski pointed out in a Pitchfork op-ed in 2018, more than 99 percent of streams comprise only the top 10 percent most-streamed tracks, leaving the remaining millions of songs within that bottom 1 percent. (And I probably don’t have to remind you that the royalties in that pool aren’t great.)
Being a Better Listener
Owsinski concludes that “an album just isn’t the product that consumers are looking for,” which ultimately gets to the heart of the argument, which is one that only pertains to the marketability of a product as determined by people who neither create it, own it, or have any interest in fairly compensating those who do. But to view an album only as a product—instead of an artistic work—is to essentially remove the artist and their intentions altogether. It becomes a cold and ultimately faceless discussion about inventory that might as well be about whether it’s better to sell rolls of paper towels individually or in 24 packs.
There are real costs and risks involved with making an album, and it’s up to the artist whether they want to take those risks. But a lot of them are clearly still making the effort in spite of those costs, and the reward is potentially one of a longer-term engagement with listeners. What too many “album is dead” arguments seem to ignore is that the consumer has a choice in this—it’s easier to be a passive listener and let the machine feed you what it thinks you want, but we can choose to be better listeners and more actively engage with music on a deeper level. The song might be the primary unit of popular music, but an album can tell a larger story—perhaps not literally, but the best of them still serve to transport you away from the mundane and into a self-contained world that’s worth exploring repeatedly.
Last year, Treble came up with a list of 50 albums we loved that might have had their share of individual standouts but still ultimately worked best as a front-to-back listen. Take for instance The Soft Pink Truth’s seamless ambient techno protest work, or Yves Tumor’s cosmic glam-funk LP, or Jeff Parker’s glitchy jazz tribute to his mother. There are moments among these that can be picked off and slotted into playlists (and if you’re one of our Patreon subscribers, then we’ve done this for you), but it’s potentially more rewarding as a listener to understand them in the context of the whole, to understand the bigger picture. If the purpose of music is to provide a form of escape, or catharsis, or emotional stimulation, then why would we want to minimize that experience?
What about those “weak spots” that Caramanica mentions? They’re inevitable, they’re subjective—no artist is intentionally putting “bad” songs on their albums—and (hear me out) they’re also something that can make albums potentially more interesting. There are songs on albums you like that you might never end up liking, and those blemishes become interesting aspects of the overall narrative—some of my absolute favorite albums are those that still have one or two songs that I don’t care for. But over time, perhaps a closer listen, a more attentive listen, and the context that an album can provide, might make you appreciate those songs in a different light. I didn’t like Pixies’ “Dead” the first time I heard it, but now I can’t imagine Doolittle without it.
Similarly, there are albums that simply don’t work as a whole that might have a handful of songs that are great, but perhaps if they weren’t released in the context of an album might have never been given a suitable platform. I think of albums like David Bowie’s Tonight, which I’d consider his worst LP overall—released in a hasty effort to follow up the success of Let’s Dance—but which contains the all-time great opener “Loving the Alien.” And while the best possible result here might have been a better version of Tonight, there’s a parallel universe in which the album wasn’t released at all, and that song buried somewhere as a b-side, which would have been a shame.
If those albums do end up being sliced and diced, however, that’s beyond the artist’s control. Most artists will probably tell you that once you put something out into the world, it’s no longer up to you how it’s consumed or processed. The various songs on an album might be chopped up and distributed to different playlists, just as they might have been with mixtapes in the ’80s and ’90s, burned on CDs in the early ’00s and so on. That doesn’t necessarily mean that the albums they were taped, burned or dragged and dropped from will never be heard again. I can only speak for myself, but even as I’ve spent 10 months listening to full-length records for between five and eight hours a day, I still obsessively made playlists.
What’s more, there’s still plenty of evidence that demand for deeper listens on album-length statements exists and is arguably even healthy, even if that demand isn’t nearly as massive as that of streaming on shuffle. Last year marked a number of new sales records for vinyl since sales data tracking began back in 1991, with two of its best weeks ever recorded happening last year. Additionally, last year’s Bandcamp Friday events, in which the platform forgoes its percentage of sales for 24 hours in an effort to benefit artists who have been adversely affected by the loss of tour revenue, brought in $40 million. Though not all of those sales were albums, tens to hundreds of thousands of those sales were, all purchased and downloaded and now part of fans’ permanent collections.
The Classics Never Go Out of Style
There is a flipside to this, which is that the best selling vinyl record of the past decade is actually one that’s 50 years old: The Beatles’ Abbey Road. Perhaps that speaks to a certain kind of nostalgia brought upon by algorithmic fatigue, or maybe it simply suggests that some music is never really out of style—or that some of the oldest copies are so worn out from use that eventually they need replacing. But Abbey Road, in particular, is the kind of album that can’t be broken up, not really—once side two begins, you’re in it for the long haul. And if that’s the kind of experience that listeners are seeking, even after all this time, then maybe there’s something to be said for music as a long-form presentation after all.
There’s also no reason that demand can’t translate to new albums. Certainly great new albums are being made now, as they have been for decades. The days in which a single year would produce multiple monocultural musical moments—as 1984 did with Springsteen, Prince and Madonna, for instance—are perhaps behind us, but the connection that can be made between listener and artist over two sides and 40 minutes isn’t one that’s easily measured through analytics. A streaming service doesn’t make that decision for us, though at best it can offer us a means of accessing the albums that do mean something to us when we aren’t able to access them otherwise.
As for right now, I have nowhere to be, and nothing better to do than continue to make my way through this stack of records.
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Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.