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 Downloads, EPs, Singles Conspiring To Kill The Album Format

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-- by Gideon Yago

This summer, in a frenzy of bloodlust worthy of the Discovery Channel's Shark Week, the record industry declared open season on individual consumers, laying the groundwork to sue thousands of file-sharers, young and old, at the rate of $150,000 per song, per hard drive, per download.

It is a desperate attempt by the record industry to make up for yet another lackluster sales year. But while the major labels and their lobby, the RIAA, continue to pump millions of dollars into a legal campaign aimed at seeing 16-year-olds in handcuffs, there is an easy, low-cost solution to their financial woes, one that doesn't involve alienating a generation of loyal buyers.

Stop making albums. They cost too much and they aren't worth the price tag.

I reserve the music industry its right to purvey mediocre music to an adoring public. But why must it do so in such big loads? The album is a bloated, outdated, overused, unnecessary idea in post-Ritalin, Mixtape America where DJs are heroes and the only surefire hit is a Now That's What I Call Music! compilation.

A complete album that flows effortlessly from track to track (think the Beach Boys' Pet Sounds, the Stooges' Fun House or The Eminem Show) is tough to demand of mainstream hit machines that are often not even responsible for writing the music they perform. This is not to say that I don't like albums (I love them!) or that there aren't any good bands, groups or MCs out there making great LPs (I spent yesterday afternoon listening to one), but big hits are expensive to produce and promote. In order to recoup that money, record labels tack on a dozen filler tracks that nobody wants to hear and sells it as an album.

 Read: Downloads, EPs, Singles Conspiring To Kill The Album Format
But what if the record labels gave less and charged less? Cut the track count and the price in half? Retail music might not go the way of the dodo bird. Switch to a four- to five-track EP ("extended play," a term dating back to the days of vinyl.)

Today the album is the standard unit of operation in the music business. Contracts and success are all based on albums. But what if that changed? What if contracts were written by song or EP and budgets were slashed accordingly? Most stuff on the radio gets ProTooled within an inch of its life anyway, but why spend millions of production dollars on 17 tracks? Once again, the record industry is on the wrong side of technology and paying for it. Or suing music fans to pay for it.

What this would inadvertently do is create a new kind of album and a new kind of artist. Compilations would supercede traditional albums and the DJs who archived the track listings would suddenly be on equal footing with the people who created the material. You're already seeing this happen in hip-hop, where mixtape DJs are stars, low-cost productions (freestyles) become hits and artists get a chance to develop while building a fanbase — all before going off and making a big concept record (think 50 Cent).

I believe that if the record industry tightened its product, offered greater diversity and focused their album efforts on music compilations, they might be able to make it out of the business world alive.

What made albums (post-the Beatles' Rubber Soul) so great was that they were intended to be heard from start to finish and you were almost always guaranteed a couple of good songs. But the album as an art form is a relic in the age of file sharing. Thanks to the innovation of the fast-forward button, today's listeners go cruising from track to track in search of a sucker cut. Right now, consumers are hesitant about plunking down $16.99 plus tax for an entire record that might turn out to be utterly disposable. I believe that's why so many are turning to downloading — to hedge their bets.

The labels need to sell a product the people will pay for, and that means they've got to take what is great about the album and abbreviate it. Put it out more frequently and in smaller batches. It keeps costs down, keeps bands developing and keeps fans interested.

Instead of sacking whole bands, just sack unnecessarily big productions. Keep a diverse roster, encourage quality and sell the archive. Kill the album.

File sharing is forcing the record industry to adapt or ... not make the same fat profits. Its current policy of suing downloaders will not dissuade many pirates or curb online file sharing. But it may worsen their financial problems by driving away brand-loyal consumers who feel the record industry's failure to adapt a working business model is not their fault.

Already, computer companies are circling the record industry like it's a corpse in the water, waiting for the major labels to sink under their own costs and give up their copyrights. Software companies learned almost three decades ago that copyright piracy must be outwitted, not outfought. The record labels can do the same, but that means offering the album up as sacrifice.

Do you agree that the album should be abolished?
Yes — and right away! Replace them with four- to six-song EPs and charge me less 
No — I enjoy getting 10-12 new songs at a time from my favorite artists, and I'm not really into compilations 
Who cares? Music is music. 

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Photo: MTV.com

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