Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Is the Album Really Dead?

I have always been a huge fan of the album, and even bigger fan of the double-disc unitary theme of such classics like Pink Floyd's "The Wall." The album tells a story; if not literally, historically. It serves as a point of reference for the collection of influences impacting an artist's work at a particular time. With an album, you get to here a many songs that could range in styles and tempos and moods. You get a snapshot in time.

With a single, you get one song. It may be typical (though finding a song that typifies any band is about as easy as defining them to a genre) or a complete departure. If a listener has never heard an artist's prior work, they are going to be no closer to understanding that artist by listening to a single song. They could love or hate the rest of the music; they could fall in love with the band and want to recommend them to all of their friends; they could want to go on tour with them forever. With a single, who knows?

My point is that most people who appreciate music know this concept very well and shutter at the thought of buying a single. So why, then, does every commentator and the industry in general seem convinced that the consumer doesn't want albums anymore and only want singles? Honestly, has there been any true consumer research on this point?

From what I can tell, virtually everyone that references the demise of the album will first point to the popularity of file sharing networks and how that distribution is fundamentally singles-based. However, this conclusion ignores three principal considerations: (1) just because one file = one song does not necessarily mean that one song is desirable, it's just a technical requirement that an entire album not be bound up in a single file; (2) can we say for certain that the average downloader is not trying to acquire the entire album and does so when it's available?; (3) despite the prevalence of file sharing, does anyone believe that those sharing represent true music fans who would have purchased any music if they hadn't gotten it for free?

I believe that the prevalence of the single in file sharing is initially a result of technical issues - files have to be broken down by song and offering a collection of songs by album is more difficult due to issues with keeping files grouped (the causes vary among platforms but basically, it's easier to share one thing than a bundle of things).

To the extent albums are available, I have yet to see evidence or think of logic that would compel someone to opt for a single over an entire album in the file sharing realm. After all, it's free! Where storage and bandwidth are virtually non-issues, why would I choose to get one song when I could have 12 for the same price?

Third, do the majority of file sharers represent the target music audience? I fully appreciate the fact that physical sales have declined (though I have thoughts on that as well) but question whether any significant number of file sharers are largely the same people to whom labels want to sell a record. To a large extent labels admit that every music file shared does not represent a lost sale - a great number of file sharers would have never acquired the song but for file sharing. So, to the extent file sharers are hooked on the single, do they really represent a shift in preference for the target audience?

The other major indicator for those citing the death of the album is the number of single sales in digital stores. However, I question how much consumer tastes have to do with this conclusion. First, there are a limited number of digital retail outlets and while accounting for sales at most, the commentators use purchasing trends at iTunes as the benchmark. However, iTunes has always marketed the 99 cent download and the entire iTunes experience heavily encourages a-la-cart purchases. Moreover, can we say that iTunes consumers really represent the target music buying market?

We know that iTunes sales, while substantial, are still relatively small. A great number of its customers are probably encouraged to buy singles due to the marketing and experience. Another large lot of them are probably the types who would have bought singles in the store if it were easier and more feasible. My guess is that most iTunes a-la-carte sales are not made to the people record companies should be interested in. The share of people who buy singles because they want to buy singles are those who like whatever is popular in the moment; they have no allegiance to an artist or band and will listen to a song for a few weeks or months and move on to the next big thing.

I think this position is supported by the utter lack of sound quality in lossy digital formats. If I really care about music then I want it to sound good. Casual listeners don't care if they get a sub-par digital file. The serious music fans want full, rich sound.

I count myself among those who have an allegiance to bands. There are a lot of them, more now than ever. If I hear one song, I might be interested. If I hear a couple, or if I read a glowing review from a respected writer, then I'll buy the album. If I like the album, I will buy every other album that band has put out and will go see shows.

The vast majority of people I still see in record shops are just like me in this respect. They are loyal to artists and would never dream of buying by the single. Which brings me to the main point - these people are still buying physical records; these people don't like lossy formats; these people wouldn't steal music because of their loyalty to bands and desire to support them.

I believe that there has been a great deal of misdirection in the debate over digital music and the changes in the industry. I believe what we are seeing is a correction of sorts - the market for physical product is being whittled down to its core audience and that core audience will not go away in the natural course of things. However, it can be destroyed if industry powers start chasing after wrongheaded strategies.

If the industry believes that singles are the way of the future and stop funding album projects, it will alienate its core audience. If the industry starts moving away from looking to record sales as a primary revenue stream (as it is doing - the evidence is in every new major recording contract I've seen in the last 6 months) and focus on merchandise, it is definitely headed down the wrong path. Music is music. If music is used only as a means to sell merchandise . . . well, that's just ridiculous.

Powered by ScribeFire.