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The album, the single, and inertia

It's increasingly hard to see a traditional album format making sense in a world where it's got no physical reason to exist.

Tech Industry

In "The Album is Dead," Mark Cuban wonders:

So the question arises, why don't artists serialize the release of songs ? Why not create a "season" of release of songs, much like the fall TV season and promise fans that Flo Rida is going to release a new single every week or 2 weeks for the next 10 weeks ?

Whenever discussions like this arise, there's always the school of thought holding that most albums only have one or two decent songs anyway. This theme is presumably a close cousin to "all current music is crap" (i.e., they just don't make music like when I was a kid).

However, there's another school of thought. As this comment notes: "Currently, those who only purchase individual songs, rather than entire albums, are missing many lesser known gems, and are missing the cohesive experience of an entire album."

We can  come up with examples where this is clearly the case. Pink Floyd's The Wall, The Who's Tommy, and so forth. However, it seems a stretch to call the vast majority of albums out there as being particularly cohesive. In fact, to the degree that there's excessive sameness within a single album I tend to see that as a bug rather than a feature.

It's worth noting that the album is far more a creation of technology and custom than of art. Columbia produced the first 12-inch, 33 1/3 RPM vinyl "long playing" record in 1948. (According to Wikipedia, the term "album" relates to the fact that the relatively short 78 RPM records that preceded LPs were kept in a book "album.") Although 45 RPM singles (in particular) were popular during the 1950s and early 1960s--such singles generally had a "hit" on the A-side and a less popular song on the B-side--LPs continued to define a great deal about how music was released. Even cassettes and CDs didn't change things much as these new formats adopted about the same capacity as the LP. As Kees Immink wrote in the Journal of the AES:

The disk diameter is a very basic parameter, because it relates to playing time. All parameters then have to be traded off to optimise playing time and reliability. The decision was made by the top brass of Philips. 'Compact Cassette was a great success', they said, 'we don't think CD should be much larger'. As it was, we made CD 0.5 cm larger yielding 12 cm. (There were all sorts of stories about it having something to do with the length of Beethoven's 9th Symphony and so on, but you should not believe them.)

In other words, whenever the industry has come up with a new format it has almost always stuck with roughly the same playing length.

There are many lessons here for IT and other businesses. For one thing, there's backward compatibility. The industry wanted to reissue LPs onto cassettes and CDs without having to routinely use multiple of them for a single album. In practice, you rarely get to start with a clean slate. The digital realm finally banishes the physical aspect of backward compatibility. No longer is there any technical reason to favor selling any particular size of song bundle.

However, there are more subtle types of inertia. Whole sets of practices from booking studio time, to promotion, to going on tour have grown up around the chunk of music that is the album. On the other hand, the nature of digital distribution--and the flat-pricing scheme that Apple has fought for successfully (even though it doesn't really make economic sense)--tend to drive us towards hits-driven downloads, Long Tail notwithstanding.

I don't know if a scheme like Mark's would work. However, it's increasingly hard to see a traditional album format making sense in a world where it's got no physical reason to exist. If we move away from albums, perhaps we have to recreate "B-sides" or other mechanisms that encourage the sort or serendipitous discovery that the album has brought us over the years.

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