Once upon a time, there was a complicated decades-long ritual involved in listening to music.
You’d purchase a piece of plastic from a store, unwrap it, place it on a turntable, and then lay back and listen to the songs that spilled forth over the next 30-40 minutes. Enjoying an album — a special collection of songs written, recorded and carefully ordered on the record by the artist — was one of life’s great pleasures.
Listening to a vinyl LP was great, but the compact disc made the experience even better because you didn’t have to get up midway to flip the thing over. And if there happened to be a song you weren’t so crazy about, meh. Just let things run. A better song was coming up in just a few minutes.
Sometimes, though, you even learned to like those songs, too. They just needed time to be properly revealed to you, something that could only happen with repeated exposure.
Now let me ask you this: When was the last time you listened to an album the old-fashioned way? Front to back, start to finish. Chances are it’s been a while.
One of the first revelations about CD players was that they came with remotes that featured a skip button. Don’t like that song? Zap it away from anywhere in the room.
One of my first CD players came with the ability to create a wholly different running order for an album. It was a pain to program, but the option of creating an entire new sequence for the songs on the album was available.
Still, though, most people listened to records in the way the artist intended.
Now, though, old-school album listening is fading away. It’s all about playlists, blends of the best songs and sounds from a variety of artists.
This trend goes back to the cassette era. We wanted to listen to our music in our cars and on our Walkmans, so we curated special collections that became known as mixtapes. When music went digital via CDs and MP3s, we burned custom discs using a technology called CD-R.
Then came Steve Jobs and iTunes.
Knowing that the record labels were in deep trouble with piracy and file-sharing, Jobs pushed them to unpack albums into their constituent parts for sale through the iTunes Music Store. Artists and labels were appalled at this heresy, but Jobs correctly pointed out that MP3s had turned music into a giant a-la-carte menu already. The public wanted to be able to buy individual songs and not be forced to purchase a full album just to acquire a specific track.
Jobs won and iTunes started selling single tracks for 99 cents. And with a few drags and drops, users could not only create their own playlists within iTunes, but burn those songs to disc.
The labels only had themselves to blame for this. In the late ’90s, flush with cash generated by year-over-year increases in CD sales, they began to phase out the idea of singles. “Want that one song? Too bad! Buy the whole CD!”
And despite years of promising that the retail price of CDs would drop, they never really did. So when the ability to acquire individual songs came along in the MP3 era, consumers rebelled.
The album was wounded. but survived. Then came streaming.
Sure, services like Spotify, Apple Music, and Tidal offered streams of full albums. But almost all the attention went to playlists, the modern and virtual incarnation of the mixtape. Now playlists are driving the music industry.
Deezer, the Paris-based streaming service, was curious about this development. It surveyed 8,000 users in France, Germany, the U.S. and Brazil about their listening habits. The results aren’t promising if you’re concerned about the health of the album format.
Fifty-four per cent of those surveyed said that they listen to fewer albums than they did five or 10 years ago, with 40 per cent expressing a preference for playlists.
Only nine per cent said they preferred to listen to albums the old-school way. Why? At least 10 per cent said it’s because “they don’t make albums like they used to.”
There’s more. Only 36 per cent listen to an album in the prescribed order (track 1, track 2, track 3, etc.), preferring to jump around through the record.
Bloody Millennials and their short attention spans, right? Actually, no. According to the Deezer research, Millennials were twice as likely to play a full album than Gen-Xers or Baby Boomers.
Well, then, we can blame pop fans — those are the people who only care about singles.
Uh-uh. Deezer says that pop fans are slightly more likely to listen to a full album (39 per cent) than rock fans (38 per cent).
The big offenders are R&B (only 20 per cent of fans will listen to a full album), rap (19 per cent) and hip-hop (18 per cent).
At the bottom was gospel with just 13 per cent.
I confess to being a part of this. Unless it’s one of my classic albums, I won’t sit through a full record. In fact, the last time I really enjoyed an album from start to finish (and in the proper order) was Tool’s Fear Inoculum last year.
Is the album dead? Not yet, largely because the format still forms the basis of so much of the music industry. But it may be living on borrowed time.
Hip-hop artists have figured out that fans prefer a constant drip-drip-drip of songs over an album.
Other artists find that it’s more cost-effective to space out a couple of EPs instead of releasing one album.
Industry analysts keep talking about the “song economy,” in which individual songs are the only things that matter in the modern music eco-system. And data coming back from the streaming services says that deep album cuts don’t get many listeners. Why bother recording and releasing them?
It could be that we’re headed back to the pre-album era, which really began with The Beatles, Bob Dylan and The Beach Boys around 1965. If that’s the case, the album had a pretty good run.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to go listen to Dark Side of the Moon again. It’s the only way to go.
Alan Cross is a broadcaster with 102.1 the Edge and Q107, and a commentator for Global News.