The Album's Last Gasp

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Last updated on July 23, 2019 Comments: 9

For a good thirty years or so, starting in the 1950s, musicians released singles on vinyl discs called “records”. You could also buy a full album of music by one artist, and some were worth it, but you also had the option of buying just that one song that you liked, that you kept hearing on the radio.

(You’d also get a second song on the “B-side” of the record. Mostly people just considered that a bonus.)

Vinyl made way for cassettes, and the cassingle was born. Then cassettes made way for CDs, and while I remember seeing some CD singles, they were never as prevalent as those on vinyl or cassette. I believe that’s because the vinyl and cassette singles were cheaper to make than the full album version, since they used less raw material, but a CD single cost as much to make as a full CD.

Consumers, en masse, didn’t complain about the death of the single. I did, because I won’t pay $18 for two or three songs. And let’s face it: the majority of your average pop/rock album is filler material. But for some reason, I was mostly alone in my anger.

Then everything went digital, and all Heck broke loose, people were making lossless copies, yadda yadda, you know this part. Now we’re finally at a place where you can once again pay for just the music you like, for a completely reasonable 99 cents, and there’s nothing stopping you from sending a copy to, say, your wife. (See also this controversial article: “Is it Ever Okay to Steal Entertainment?“.) In the music scene, DRM is dead, and yet somehow, the recording industry still lives. Who’d’ve thunk it? (Me. You. Everyone without a vested interest in obscene profits from album sales.)


Photo by stevecadman

But record companies, bless their pathetic little hearts, are still trying to find a way to sell full albums. There are at least two options in the works, something called “CMX” and Apple’s version codenamed “Cocktail”, which we’ll almost certainly learn more about at their upcoming press event on September 7th. These new digital album covers are meant to be interactive, and include videos and lyrics, and other mysterious “stuff” that has yet to be identified.

It won’t work. If I had an extra $1,000 (or even $1,000 that wasn’t extra), I would bet it all that this won’t work. These efforts will all die. Technical compatibility issues aside, people are simply done buying things that they don’t like. I’m not in the habit of feeling schadenfreude, but in this case, I am happy to sit back, point and laugh.

That all being said, when a music group proves itself to make consistently good albums of mostly-non-filler (in my opinion, people like Ben Folds, They Might Be Giants and “Weird Al” fit this description), I’ll buy a whole album. They deserve it. Also, good movie soundtracks. Music tastes are incredibly subjective, of course, but until music goes non-digital again, you’ll have very few reasons to buy a whole album.

New digital album format doesn’t have a prayer, Matt Rosof, CNET News, August 11, 2009

Cocktail part of Apple’s September event, Greg Sandoval, CNET News, August 14, 2009

Article comments

Anonymous says:

i purchase albums too, mostly on cds. i do not listen to the radio and 97% of the time do not buy things that are ever aired on the radio….

a coworker said he got rid of all his cds because moving (them) was a pain. (i agree but years ago, put nearly all of my big cd collection into books, discarding/recycling the plastic boxes.) coworker bragged that all his stuff on computer. well, one day it all went POOF and he had not made a backup(!). he was completely bummed.

i have run into cd players that do not like burned cds and my ipod was stolen (but now replaced). i prefer lower tech (paper, books, etc) eventhough cds weren’t always that….. many of the cd albums i have are out of print now, many are extremely hard to find and i am glad i own them. i understand that digital is a tremendously great fit for the right people. i just don’t want to go that route exclusively.

my boyfriend still regrets parting with his record collection in the last decade. (i kept a cubic foot’s worth of my vinyl.)

Anonymous says:

Buy an album from an artist you hear on the radio and you’ll most likely be disappointed. You’re right about the filler, and this is unfortunate. However, there are literally thousands of artists out there that value the artistry of their work and value the concept of The Album even more. My recommendation is to branch out a little bit and look for stuff you might not normally come across (go to a local record store and ask for recommendations). I think you’ll find that there is a whole other world of music that isn’t covered by mainstream news or radio.

And don’t give up on vinyl! I purchase music almost exclusively on vinyl and not just old stuff either. Of my entire vinyl collection, roughly half of it was released within the past 4-5 years.

Anonymous says:

I don’t think that albums are always intentionally stuffed with filler songs in addition to the hits. Artists can’t write/perform 10 songs of the same quality or caliber. I’m sure Monet had some pieces which were not masterpieces. The problem with just buying single tracks, (let alone the fact that compressed MP3’s don’t sound as good as the real full quality CD track), is that some of the non-hit songs on an album are often better songs. They’re just not as acceptable to the mainstream for pop radio so you don’t hear them. Also, some artists develop a sequence of songs on an album to flow or tell a story or put you in a series of moods.

I will continue to buy CD albums, (mostly used), because that’s how I get the best sound quality, discover songs that often surpass the ones I already know about.

Long live the album! 🙂