Not my words (although it echoes what I have been saying for some time), but those of a growing number of people connected with the industry. Sales of the venerable format have been falling through the floor for some time, largely because consumers have now cottoned on to the fact that they can pick and choose their own collections of tracks, no longer required to purchase seven fillers for the three golden eggs amongst a singer’s repertoire that they actually want, and of course with the advent of streaming services now able to curate their own playlists to fit a mood or a style.
Like so many other things in the history of the music industry, the idea of the album as an artform in itself came largely as a result of technological advances. Before the invention of the modern “long playing” disc, music could only be distributed on 78rpm discs, each with a limited running time. To purchase an entire classical symphony it was necessary to buy a series of records, all bound together in individual sleeves – hence the expression “album”. Although the need for discs with longer running times was most keenly felt by the film and broadcast industries who needed a more convenient method of storing film soundtracks and pre-recorded programming, it was reportedly an executive at Colombia records who tired of getting up every ten minutes to change discs whilst appreciating a classical piece and so drove the research to find a consumer product which would fit an entire work across two sides. It is not entirely by coincidence that the first ever 12-inch LP record issued was a recording of a Mendelsson concerto in June 1948.
As any music historian will tell you, the elevation of the long playing album from a mere showcase to came in the mid-1960s and particularly later in the decade with the emergence of the concept album as an artistic statement. No longer an excuse to bundle together a collection of new songs and cover versions, the album was a work of art in itself, to be appreciated as a body of work as a whole. Just look how long it took Pink Floyd to agree to list their back catalogue online for digital download – the idea of people buying just single tracks bereft of their context was horrific to them.
The era of the compact disc may have caused that kind of preciousness to wobble, part of its marketing after all was the way tracks could be skipped and rearranged in personal programs at will, but it was also embraced by many acts to free themselves from the time strictures of the 12-inch vinyl record. CD albums emerged with more tracks than their vinyl or cassette equivalent, or indeed entire discs of extra material denied to the purchasers of alternate formats. Technology enhanced the album and it was embraced with enthusiasm.
Which brings us to the present day and music’s latest technological advances this time conspiring to consign the album apparently to history. I’d suggest though that this isn’t the whole of the story. Almost six years ago I was bemoaning the ever-growing habit of re-releasing already established albums in new extended or “Deluxe” special editions, usually to coincide with the Christmas holidays and the peak period for present buying. You can see a brief quote from me in this piece on the BBC website from November 2008 where I am bemoaning the trend as a rip-off of loyal fans whilst label representatives insist it is just their way of offering people a premium product at a special time of year. Even at the time I was fond of reminding people of the Gold Mother incident of 1991 when Fontana records reissued the James album they had first put out a year earlier with brand new tracks in the wake of their unexpected chart success with the single Sit Down. Today this would have been branded as “Version 2.0” or a “Deluxe Edition” but back then it was seen as the decent thing to offer a new for old swap deal to anyone with a copy of the original release who now wanted to replace it.
But here is the thing. For a great many acts (particularly urban, dance and R&B) the ‘album’ is no longer a defined set of tracks whose sequence is set in stone from the day you unveil it. Your latest collection is now a set of songs which you can adjust, remix, add to and rework to your hearts content until you or your label decide the well has run dry. In an age when David Guetta can add almost an entire album’s worth of new songs to the set entitled Nothing But The Beat and call it “Version 2.0” without anyone batting an eyelid or when Ed Sheeran can release as many as four different versions of his new collection, including a track on the physical edition which isn’t even available on the digital versions it is clear that the idea of a modern day album is meaningless. To put it another way, if in 20 years time you wanted to appraise Ellie Goulding’s second album and its status as one of the greatest of its era, which set of tracks would you judge? It is the initial Halcyon release from which its first singles came, or is it the expanded Haylcon Days which added an additional ten tracks to the collection? And who is to say which one is right or wrong?
I remember the first album I ever bought in the week of its release. Introspective by the Pet Shop Boys in October 1988. I slipped out of school on the Friday lunchtime to spend my pocket money on the cassette before carrying it home on the school bus, safe in the knowledge that I would spend the half term listening to it. Today’s teenagers simply sit up at midnight waiting for their pre-order of the latest track from their heart throbs to finally hit their digital devices on the day of release. They don’t need albums.