Does the music album have a future? The answer seems to be ‘no’: Alan Cross

A close-up of a spinning record player. Getty Images

While trying to wrap my head around the concept of moles and trying to remember Avogadro’s number, Mr. Richards, my Grade 11 chemistry teacher, said something that has stuck in my head all these years: “A gas expands to fill the space available.”

This rule of chemistry and physics came to mind when I was preparing a history lesson for a college class I’m teaching on the music business.

One lecture dealt with all the formats on which music has been stored since Thomas Edison first demonstrated his rotating cylinder in 1877.

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By the time we reached the First World War, it had been decided that Emile Berliner’s rotating disc was the best approach. Revolving at 78 RPM, each side of the 10-inch disc could hold around four minutes of music. Because this was the maximum capacity of a record, it helped standardize the length of the popular song to between three and four minutes. And so it remained for the next 50 years.

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Seventy years ago this month, Columbia Records introduced a brand new format: the 12-inch long-playing microgroove album — the LP. Using a new raw material called polyvinyl chloride, Columbia figured out how the grooves of the record could be made smaller and placed closer together. This allowed for up to 22 minutes of music per side, perfect for “serious” music like classical and original cast recordings of Broadway shows.

Another new invention, the 7-inch 45 RPM single (also made of polyvinyl chloride and using microgroove technology) became the chosen format for pop music.

Twenty years later, though, artists like the Beatles and Pink Floyd were using this new LP pallet to make music far beyond the usual three-and-a-half minute song, paving the way for intricate conceptual pieces. The music expanded to fill the space available.

It worked, too. It marked the beginning of albums becoming the basis of the music industry, something that would continue for the next five decades. And there was more to come.

After the compact disc came along in late 1982, artists were tempted to fill all 74 minutes that could be stored on the new 120-centimetre disc.

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The absolute CD-stuffing champion seems to be 1991’s Blood Sugar Sex Magick from the Red Hot Chili Peppers, which runs 73 minutes and 55 seconds, just five seconds under the standard theoretical 74-minute maximum capacity of an old-school CD.

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It’s the perfect example of quantity over quality. Mr. Richard’s chemistry-fact-turned-music-business-aphorism proved correct once again. If there was space, artists felt compelled to fill it. This didn’t necessarily increase value, but it did accommodate an artist’s ego.

But then the Internet hit. With no physical constraints, some artists started contemplating works that could run much longer than a measly 74 minutes. At the moment, the longest officially released song is The Rise and Fall of Bossanova (A 13:23:32 song) by PC III, which, yes runs almost 13 1/2 hours.

Here’s half of it. Fill yer boots.

But the main effect of the Internet was to set millions of songs free from the confines of the album. Everything became available a la carte, first illegally via Napster and its ilk and then legally through iTunes.

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Artists committed to the album format were angry and then devastated. They wanted fans to approach music the way they did: a unified work of art designed to be heard in a specific order. Even though we’d been tearing albums apart for personal mixtapes for years, iTunes formalized and legitimized this practice at the label level.

“Don’t worry!” we were told, “People will keep buying albums, except they’ll be digital! After all, albums have been the way people have been buying music since the 1960s. Nothing’s going to change.”

It didn’t quite work out that way, of course. We increasingly eschewed full albums in favour of cherry-picking just the songs we wanted. After a short rise, digital album sales began to slip. Today, they’re in complete freefall.

With the rise of streaming, playlists are the new albums. When an artist releases a new record, it’s immediately pulled apart and stuffed with other individual tracks on a multitude of playlists. A quick search of Spotify will turn up a race to post the longest playlist on the platform.

Here’s one with 1,010 songs.

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Once again, the music has expanded to fill the available space. And with infinite space, there’s no telling how crazy this, er, space race could become.

But back to the concept of the album: If we’re all gravitating to single tracks and playlists, what’s the point of slaving to make an album that will only be ripped apart? And if you dig deep into streaming numbers, you’ll find that the only songs that get any kind of traction are the singles. What we used to call “album tracks” — i.e. songs that aren’t chosen as singles — don’t get any plays at all. In other words, no one is listening.

Hip hop artists understand this. They either release new material in a continuous drip or rein themselves in when it comes to the length of a release. Kanye West showed wise restraint by having just seven tracks on his Ye release. It’s over in less than 24 minutes. Pusha T’s Daytona also has seven tracks but is done in 21 minutes.

I like it. Wouldn’t you rather have seven super-strong songs instead of one great track, three mediocre ones and nine songs you’ll never listen to even once?

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A quarter-century after the Red Hot Chili Peppers insisted on filling a CD up to the brim, it looks like the emphasis is switching to quality over quantity. Yet so many people in genres other than hip hop seem welded to the idea of the old-school album. Seems like a waste, no? All that time and effort and money to create music that no one will hear?

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But the back end of industry needs to figure this out, too. Too many things — marketing plans, awards shows, contract requirements — are still rooted in the process of releasing albums.

But labels know what’s happening with the world of streaming, which is definitely our way forward. Sure, there will be people who will always want those unified bodies of work from their favourite artists, but we’re increasingly living in a world dominated by playlists made up of individual songs.

I wonder if Mr. Richards has a pithy way of describing this?

Alan Cross is a broadcaster with 102.1 the Edge and a commentator for Global News.

Subscribe to Alan’s Ongoing History of New Music Podcast now on Apple Podcast or Google Play

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