EDITORIAL: THE ALBUM IS ALIVE
April 04, 2009
Technology Doesn't Mean The End For Extended Work—Or Artistic Packaging
Reports that CD sales continue to decline—they fell 14% in 2008 compared with 2007—have once again inspired a pundit-led roll call of the music industry's dead and dying institutions: major labels, record stores, terrestrial radio and the CD itself, to name but a few. Recently added to the obituary page is the album itself, thanks to industry "experts." However, I'm happy to say that the reports of the album's death are greatly exaggerated.
The true album—with the capital "A"—is alive and well. I'm not talking about an album that offers a compilation of songs strung together without meaning or purpose (other than to sell a hit single). I'm talking about the Album. The true Album. A narrative series of songs that an artist has purposefully created to work together as a whole, from the sequencing to the artwork and packaging. It resonates. It takes you on a journey. You put it on, and it's evocative and satisfying. It becomes an essential part of you.
If you think I'm being nostalgic, imagine your favorite album right now, the one you would take to that deserted island if you could only choose one. You know where I'm coming from. And that's why the album is still relevant.
We're told that the main threat to the album is digital technology—the widespread availability of music via downloading; the increased popularity of iPods and other portable music players; and the diminished sound quality of MP3 and AAC files.
One of the ironies of the CD format is that albums have gotten longer, while attention spans have gotten shorter. We live in an age when information in available instantly from computers, cell phones and satellite TV. Music can be sourced from all over the Internet, from online radio stations to artist Web sites. When the computer becomes a listener's main source of listening to music, it's hard to focus for 40 minutes, let alone 70.
But the argument that technology killed the album is a diversion—the mere availability of downloadable music is irrelevant to the question of the format's viability. It's just as easy to download eight songs from the same record as it is to download eight tracks from different artists. An iPod can play songs in order as easily as it can mix them up. Indeed, the widespread availability of digital music from virtually unlimited sources only increases the access to albums and gives artists an entirely new forum in which to distribute them.
One of the great pleasures of the album is its artwork: the lyrics, liner notes, photos and packaging. Artwork can complement the music within, on some sets more elaborately than others—the spinning wheel on "Led Zeppelin III" comes to mind, as does the triple-gatefold "Yessongs." The immediacy and tactility of that experience vanishes when it's reduced to 5 inches square, encased in plastic and coupled with an eight-page booklet that's hard to read. No wonder artwork came to be considered disposable. And yet it can now be downloaded in high quality, in various sizes. The ability to present images and lyrics is no longer limited by physical packaging or label budgets, only an artist's imagination.
Technology isn't the enemy of the album. If anything, the opposite is true. Widespread broadband, cheaper hard drives and better compression formats allow listeners to access files that sound as good as CDs. The top two online stores—iTunes and Amazon—have found success selling high-quality files, proving that sound quality matters.
As CD sales continue to plunge and the jewel case CD itself prepares to join the cassette, the 8-track tape and the MiniDisc in the dustbin of history, artists and labels need to devise new ways to sell physical products. They've had considerable success selling good old LPs, which fans keep buying as CDs fade. Another bright spot is deluxe or limited-edition albums that include additional features like bonus tracks, video footage, surround-sound mixes and more elaborate packaging. This month many U2 fans bought a $96 limited edition of the album "No Line on the Horizon." Just this week Sony released a $200 reissue of Pearl Jam's "Ten" that caters to the album's diehard fans.
Such releases would have been inconceivable 10 years ago. And technology should facilitate, not hinder, their release. Give album lovers something aesthetically pleasing to buy—and trust me, they'll buy it. ••••
Steven Wilson is the founder and lead singer/songwriter of Porcupine Tree and a member of several other bands. He recently sold out a 4,000-copy run of the deluxe edition of his first solo album, "Insurgentes," which contains a coffee-table book of photography related to the album.