The Album is Dead. No, really, it is. Everyone’s saying it.
Just this week, Taylor Swift’s label proved how deader-than-disco the album is, first by refusing to allow her new album on Spotify, and then by stroppily pulling the rest of her collection from the service.
Newspapers said that she was, “Taking a stand against streaming revenues.”
Actually, by acknowledging that she’d make more money in the first few weeks by flogging CDs and downloads at $8+ per unit, she was hammering the last few nails in the coffin of the old album system.
Look, people aren’t stupid – even though the recording industry cartel treated us as such for decades – and the reason why people want to stream stuff and not buy it is obvious: why pay a lot for one thing, when you can get more of it, more easily, for cheaper?
Yet Taylor Swift has proven that at the highest level, the old mindset prevails – get ’em to pay the old amounts for the album. We’ll make millions!
And why not – it’ll work, for a bit, for artists the size of Taylor Swift. She’ll sell a million LPs – to parents of kids who want the album, or to obsessives, or to people uncomfortable/unaware of streaming.
Meanwhile, the rest will wait for her album to pop up on Spotify in a few inevitable months, and in the meantime, they’ll watch “Shake it Off” on Youtube – the biggest streaming platform which generates less money per stream than Spotify – and then will go and stream Lorde’s album or something instead.
I’m more concerned about what an album is, and what it means if it actually is dead.
Which, err, it isn’t.
Besides wondering what happens to the, “what was the first LP you bought?” conversations, the Death Of The Album postulation has all sorts of other problems with it.
Will the majority of people buy LPs in the future? No. Will they just want playlists of their #fave #bangers?
Yes – just like they always have. That’s why the Now! That’s What I Call Music CDs always sold zillions, and why mixtapes are still a thing.
Album buying will be a large-niche activity for ten thousand, discrete, intimate reasons which will never be satiated by a Spotify playlist.
Here are two of them.
1) Teleportation. Whenever I listen to Underworld’s “Second Toughest In The Infants” – which I listened to a lot when I lived in New York City – I’m instantly and viscerally yanked back to the cold winter streets of Greenpoint’s grubby tip; and I can feel my hands pulling the collar of my ludicrous red dress coat close to my lips against the dry, biting air.
Malcolm McLaren’s “Duck Rock” teleports me back to hanging around on the Subway stations of the G Line.
Primal Scream’s “Vanishing Point” plops me back into the hot summer of 1997, vibrant with teen energy.
And so on.
2) True understanding. The difference between digging into an album and simply adding songs to a playlist is the difference between owning a volume of poetry and enjoying a single poem.*
I never liked Sarah Lucas‘ art. My friends at art school thought she was a genius.
Meanwhile, I struggled: she was the YBA I Couldn’t Figure Out. I got her work. I admired it. But I didn’t love it.
And then, a few months ago, I saw her retrospective at the Whitechapel gallery in London.
And there it was, piece after piece, filling the room: sexually-charged penis sculptures flopping against concrete sofas; sinewy sculpture shoved up next to stained matresses; teak tables supporting limp, cold fried eggs; thick grease smudging graphically obscene wallpaper.
Hits mixed with album tracks. Killer next to filler. Pop classics rubbing up to odd misfits.
The show made her ideas blindingly obvious for the first time. In a context she had invented, pushing it all into one space. It all made sense.
*I loathe poetry, but a metaphor is a metaphor