With album sales slipping for an unprecedented third straight year — the first extended slump since the introduction of the CD in 1982 — labels and artists are beginning to wonder if the album is a thing of the past.
More than half a century ago the debut of vinyl LPs was a revelation for
music fans, more than tripling the amount of music that could be
held on a single album side. By the early '70s, albums were being stuffed with up
to a dozen hit tracks and often ran 40 minutes or more.
Flash forward to today, when CDs max out north of 70 minutes, frequently come bundled with a bonus DVD and cost nearly twice as much as those old albums. Balance that against the ease of illegally downloading your favorite song or legally downloading it from iTunes for less than a buck and you might wonder, "Who needs to spend $18 on an album?"
You're not alone.
"The days of releasing an album with 17 or 18 cuts are over," said Charles Goldstuck, president and CEO of the RCA Music Group, home to the Strokes, Christina Aguilera and Foo Fighters. "It's difficult to give full quality with such an abundance of music. ... I think we can expect to see more extras in the future instead of additional songs."
And with the resurgence of singles and EPs, you can also expect to see labels delivering music to fans in more varied sizes and shapes.
According to the most recent numbers from the Recording Industry Association of America, singles sales have seen a precipitous drop-off over the past decade, but don't toss those singles on the 8-track ash heap just yet, Goldstuck said. He is encouraged by success of the debut singles from "American Idol" winner Ruben Studdard and runner-up Clay Aiken, both RCA-affiliated artists. The singles sold more than 285,000 copies their first week out and helped give a boost to the moribund format (see "Has America Changed Its Mind? Clay Beats Ruben On Singles Chart").
"What that told us about the singles market is that with the right repertoire and setup, you can post the kind of numbers we haven't seen in five or six years," Goldstuck said. "I think the success of these songs is causing labels to really look at this area again."
For years record labels had resisted releasing commercial singles because
they had discounted them so deeply the format became a money loser. But with
smashes such as Kid Rock's "Picture," Korn's "Did My Time" and Chingy's "Right
Thurr" proving that fans still want to buy hit songs (see "Kid Rock, Sheryl Crow Bring 'Picture' Into Focus"), the format could be poised for a comeback.
Another potential nail in the coffin of the old-school album is the explosion in a la carte downloading on sites like Apple's iTunes. After all, why buy the entire 50 Cent album when all you really want is the "P.I.M.P." remix?
Since its debut in April, the iTunes store has proven that, given the opportunity, people like to pick and choose their tunes. Of the 6.5 million songs downloaded as of July 16 (the last date for which numbers were available), less than half (46 percent) were sold as part of an album, according to Peter Lowe, iTunes' director of marketing. "People want albums, too, but there is no question that they go to the store and buy the individual song they're interested in hearing. ... That instant gratification factor of finding the song you want is a big part of it."
The 99 cent price tag doesn't hurt, either. "We think digital music has already changed the way people enjoy and interact with music," Lowe said. "We had a campaign a few years ago that had the tagline 'Rip Mix Burn,' and the middle part of that is the most important — taking the music you love and putting it into collections you want and in the order you want to listen to it."
Artists such as Linkin Park and the Red Hot Chili Peppers have refused to allow their albums to be sold piecemeal, citing a perceived destruction of the artistic integrity of their fully realized LPs, which Lowe said iTunes is fine with. "Look at Pink Floyd's The Wall or [the Beatles'] Sgt. Pepper's," he said. "At various times in the music industry, some artists have been able to put together more complete offerings than others."
In addition to singles, the long overlooked EP format is enjoying somewhat of a renaissance. Avril Lavigne and Less Than Jake have offered online-only EPs on iTunes, and several artists have released or are preparing to release abbreviated albums this year. Wilco received critical kudos for a six-song, online-only EP earlier this year that was accessible by using a five-digit code included in copies of their Yankee Hotel Foxtrot.
Other artists with recently released or upcoming EPs include: Ja Rule, Ying Yang Twins, Primus, Libertines, Sondre Lerche, Local H, Ikara Colt, Peter Malick/Norah Jones, Pinback, Beth Orton, Radio 4 and Ben Folds (who is scheduled to release a series of three EPs online this year). The EP has already proven to be a fine alternative, or supplement, to a full-length album in the U.K. When Southern rockers Kings of Leon released their five-track Holy Roller Novocaine EP overseas in early 2003, it debuted at #6 on the English chart and went on to sell more than 200,00 copies.
"That configuration has been used to tease the marketplace in the past, especially in rock," said RCA's Goldstuck. "But I think it will be a stronger trend because it's a lot easier for a fan to buy a five-song EP and get a taste of a band and not spend too much."
Not everyone, though, is convinced that albums are dinosaurs.
"Everybody wants the album," rapper Lil Jon insisted. "They go buy the album for 'Get Low' and then they listen [and] they gonna find something else they like."