AOR RIP

While you were busy not paying attention, the world changed: “Buyers of digital music are purchasing singles over albums by a margin of 19 to 1.” That stat could be a smidge misleading, since an album may consist of, say, 12 songs, and only get counted as a single purchase, but still, “Individual songs account for roughly two-thirds of all music sales volume in the United States.”

We all know that the theory was that digital downloads would let people only purchase the songs they liked, rather than the entire album, but I had no idea the tide had shifted this far already. Me, I’ve bought exactly one single from iTMS in the past few years – a track from Don’t Crush That Dwarf, Hand Me The Pliers, which I needed for a performance piece we were prepping for a friend’s wedding.

That wee melanoma aside, I still think almost entirely in terms of albums. Doesn’t mean I think the album is sacrosanct – I do delete duds from the collection without regret when they don’t warrant a place in the stash. But at eMusic, iTunes, and name-that-download-site, I smoke only full albums (though I don’t inhale). It’s not some kind of pride thing, and it may in fact indicate a form of stupidity, but it’s just the way I am. Perhaps a sign of age.

Two factors at work here: 1) The gestalt of the album is dead (or at least it smells funny) – people not raised on vinyl don’t have that flip-it-over, we’re-not-done-yet thing in their blood, and 2) Artists and labels are being punished for a decade of dross. When the ratio of keeper tracks to flotsam gets low enough, no consumer in their right minds is going to pay for 90% fillah.

Most importantly, I think the atomic nature of data structures on the internet are having an effect on our brains. We don’t read entire web pages, let alone books. We Google for the keyword, then Cmd-F to find the answer on the page. We don’t channel surf to discover, we BitTorrent the stuff we already know we like. We don’t buy an album per week and digest it two dozen times from the comfort of a beanbag chair, we download a track from MySpace and listen to it twice in the background. Jeff Kempler of EMI nails it:

Perpetuating a business model that fixates on a particular packaged product configuration is inimical to what the Internet enables, and it’s inimical to what many consumers have clearly voted for.

Trying not to sound maudlin or sentimental, but dammit, we’re going to lose something important here. AOR is not a bad word, and Out of the Blue is not just some brachiating XML tree waiting to be parsed.

Bits are winning. I miss atoms.

Music: Jimmy Smith :: The Organ Grinders Swing

8 thoughts on “AOR RIP

  1. Sean Graham

    Trying not to sound maudlin or sentimental, but dammit, we’re going to lose something important here.

    Eh, I’m an album guy too, but I think if we do “lose” something, it will be replaced by something else… The recorded music industry is way too young to say that “albums are the natural way, and anything else is not as good”.

    This reminds me of this great George Carlin bit, where he is talking about humans always assigning themselves importance over everything:

    The planet has been through a lot worse than us. Been through all kinds of things worse than us. Been through earthquakes, volcanoes, plate tectonics, continental drift, solar flares, sun spots, magnetic storms, the magnetic reversal of the poles…hundreds of thousands of years of bombardment by comets and asteroids and meteors, worldwide floods, tidal waves, worldwide fires, erosion, cosmic rays, recurring ice ages…And we think some plastic bags, and some aluminum cans are going to make a difference? The planet…the planet…the planet isn’t going anywhere. WE ARE!

    We’re going away. Pack your shit, folks. We’re going away. And we won’t leave much of a trace, either. Thank God for that. Maybe a little styrofoam. Maybe. A little styrofoam. The planet’ll be here and we’ll be long gone. Just another failed mutation. Just another closed-end biological mistake. An evolutionary cul-de-sac. The planet’ll shake us off like a bad case of fleas. A surface nuisance.

    You wanna know how the planet’s doing? Ask those people at Pompeii, who are frozen into position from volcanic ash, how the planet’s doing. You wanna know if the planet’s all right, ask those people in Mexico City or Armenia or a hundred other places buried under thousands of tons of earthquake rubble, if they feel like a threat to the planet this week. Or how about those people in Kilowaia, Hawaii, who built their homes right next to an active volcano, and then wonder why they have lava in the living room.

    The planet will be here for a long, long, LONG time after we’re gone, and it will heal itself, it will cleanse itself, ’cause that’s what it does. It’s a self-correcting system. The air and the water will recover, the earth will be renewed, and if it’s true that plastic is not degradable, well, the planet will simply incorporate plastic into a new paradigm: the earth plus plastic. The earth doesn’t share our prejudice towards plastic. Plastic came out of the earth. The earth probably sees plastic as just another one of its children. Could be the only reason the earth allowed us to be spawned from it in the first place. It wanted plastic for itself. Didn’t know how to make it. Needed us. Could be the answer to our age-old egocentric philosophical question, “Why are we here?” Plastic…asshole.

    Perhaps the album was a transitional thing, and whatever we are moving towards is better and we just don’t know it yet… As someone who has probably bought a dozen single tracks in his life, but who has bought more than 1000 albums, I agree it’s scary and uncomfortable… But it’s going to be a fun ride to see where we are going… :)

  2. shacker Post author

    Sean – Wish I was as optimistic as you are. Either this is the new state of things, or the album will be replaced by something else not yet known. But whatever that thing turns out to be, it almost certainly won’t be physical, won’t be romantic, and it will cater to shorter and shorter attention spans. Not that I can see the future, but it’s very hard for me to imagine something replacing the album that not only has the physical qualities of the album, but also the same level of attention an album demands (demanded).

    aharden – Not so sure about ironic – I think it’s Apple’s response to the clear trend.

  3. Sean Graham

    I just authored a reply but it seemingly got eaten… :(

    shacker:

    See, I see the “physical qualities of the album” lost their charm quite some time ago… Nowadays, when I choose to buy an album on CD vs. digitally, the first thing I do is rip it, put it on my iPod, and put the CD on the shelf, where it is likely to never be touched again. Any attachment I had to the physical form of the CD (or LP) has been lost, and I am happy about that…

    Singles were around for so long, and even though their popularity waned in the CD era, I don’t think we should be surprised to see their return today… There have always been people who are interested in purchasing one song from an album, and they have typically been catered to (45s, “Cassingles”, and now, iTunes).

    I think the album really isn’t going anywhere… There will always be artists who release collections of songs as a “logical unit”, and people who enjoy those artists and “the album experience” will buy them as a set. To be honest, I am excited about the flexibility physical detachment will provide to the artist…

    Think of it up until now.. Say an artist records an album, but it turns out that all of those songs add up to 90 minutes… What do they do? Do they chop off 3-4 songs? Do they make it a double album (and then charge double album prices for it)? If so, do they pad out the double album with some more songs to make it seem like a “good value” to the consumer? Things like this has been prevalent in the industry for eons… Without the 74/80 minute constraint of a CD, this becomes irrelevant… The artist makes an “album”. The end.

    When I was a kid, there were plenty of people who were only interested in obtaining music piecemeal… Either they bought the singles, taped things off the radio, or made mix-tapes from a friends record collection.. I really think the doom-and-gloom of the articles of late are really just reflecting record industry fear that their grip is crumbling and foggy memory of a era which hasn’t existed for a long time (if it ever existed at all).

  4. Les

    There is no doubt it will be an ‘interesting’ time going forward, it’s the exhiliration and fear of change that makes the tension so bittersweet.

    I’m 34 (in 3 weeks) and music has always seemed to be present in my life. From listening to my parents and grandparents 45s while we played ginrummy in the summer during my pre-teen youth to the era of early teen (I think they call it ‘tween’ now or some marketing BS) top 40 and Casey Kasem. Entering my full on teens I found rap (when living in NJ) and punk (in DC). During all of that time there were times I wanted to buy just the song and others I wanted the album.

    Now-a-days, when I purchase music (I’m down to about an album a month) I rip it, add it to the SLIMP3 server and call it that. I may also burn some of the songs to a mix CD for the car but on the Slimp3 I make a playlist for each album and when there’s a gathering of friends I play an album at a time, occasionally giving in for the mob’s desire to throw in a few playlists and shuffle it up.

    Music has been the wallpaper for much of my life and there are still some people coming of age who pour their youth into finding vinyl, following the gems and just being into music who realize that. For the masses though, it will be sitting in the car, waiting at a red light 10 years from now listening to whatever incarnation of JackFM is on then and then ‘that song’ will come on and they’ll get a grin on their face and turn it up and sing along and then promptly forget all about it 10 minutes afterward. This is magic of music in our lives today the ebb and flow of it all will continue and maybe we’ll make more plastic.

  5. shacker Post author

    Sean:

    Nowadays, when I choose to buy an album on CD vs. digitally, the first thing I do is rip it, put it on my iPod, and put the CD on the shelf, where it is likely to never be touched again. Any attachment I had to the physical form of the CD (or LP) has been lost, and I am happy about that…

    I’m with you on the first part – I also rip first and rarely touch the CD again (I do play CDs in the car though). But I haven’t lost the romantic attachment to LPs – hard to put it in words, but I really do miss them, and feel like the world is worse for their loss. That’s not a snobby thing. I just love the feel, the artwork, even the flipping.

    I think there’s a kind of market split going on here, where part of the audience will remain interested in integrated collections of songs, and another (mostly younger, probably) audience that won’t “get” or care for the idea. From a dime-for-dollar perspective, singles just make more sense. I wonder whether there will be many “concept” albums released from here on out.

    I really think the doom-and-gloom of the articles of late are really just reflecting record industry fear

    I haven’t seen many articles on this, but aren’t the articles coming from listeners / music-heads, rather than from the industry?

    Even if it’s always been possible to get stuff piecemeal, the fact was that the albums were there if you wanted them, and that artists were thinking in terms of a collection that spanned an idea or a time of life. I fear that could largely go away, and there won’t be much option for longer arcs of music even if that’s what you’re looking for. It’s not like it’s all going away tomorrow, but the trend seems clear.

  6. Sean Graham

    I think that the album, and even the concept album, aren’t going anywhere… Sure there will be commercial music that will be single oriented, but it has been like that for some time, and the fact that they happened to release an album with a bunch of filler on it didn’t matter much.. That’s a consequence for the industry, not the listener (they won’t be able to gouge the consumer out of 15 bucks for the one song they want)..

    And concept albums seem to have actually been having a bit of a comeback in the past few years… Green Day’s “American Idiot” was (apparently) a concept album and sold huge numbers.. And the new Nine Inch Nails album, “Year Zero”, is not only a concept album, but also has a huge Alternate Reality Game intertwined with the album concept…

  7. BalladMusician

    I am happy for your review, I love to collect album constiting of my favorite songs either 12 songs and above. This can make easier way to purchase songs and grabbed list for more available song most specially in ballad music. Structures on the Internet? I don’t have an idea about it to affect our brain.

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