Joe Sparrow : Narrow and deep: the undead album, and seeing work in context

I’m not sure what’s more prevalent right now – to point out that The Album Is Dead, or to comment on what a Cliché It Is To Point Out That The Album Is Dead.

I studied art for years. At school, then at art college, and then at university, and then at university again. When I started being interested in art, in the 90s, the YBAs were the colossuses, and I obediently worshipped at the alter (which was a big tank with a shark in it).

The one artists I never enjoyed was Sarah Lucas: I got her work, and admired it enormously. I just didn’t get excited by it.

And then a few months ago, I saw her retrospective at the Whitechapel gallery, and as the scales fell from my eyes, I was hit by the waves of enjoyment that I’d missed. I could see all her work together, in context, all subtly relating to one another; holistic, complimentary, brilliant.

There will always be a market for albums of music as long as there are people like me, and possibly like you, who enjoy a collection of work: the difference between enjoying a Sherlock Holmes story and owning a big book full of them.

What’s clear is that common consensus now agrees with the people at the top of the ladder – and they’re right, too. It’s funny how quick that happens, but the public is ruthless at moving on from one established norm to another, as BlackBerry and countless others will attest.

So, albums are, indeed, dead, if your starting point is the assumption that the outrageous album sales figures of the 90s were always going to be sustained, in which case, let’s book some time in our diaries and I’ll show you this new email thing that everyone’s talking about.

It’s more and more clear that albums are going to be a bit like like vinyl: a (big-ish) niche market. So, the Ed Sheerans and Adeles will shift a zillion albums, but for the rest, releasing an album is a secondary activity: something to put out as an added extra, like a really glossy bit of merch.

And thus, albums and vinyl find perfect solace in each other, feeding a desire for something more than one-off pop songs through a delivery system that looks, feels and smells good.

But most importantly, the continuing existence of albums encourages narrow and deep discovery: the listening and re-listening of a body of work. In a time when fast-and-loose media-consumption is de facto, this may be the most valuable thing of all.

NB: huge hat-tip to the inimitable Louis Barabbas for introducing me to the idea of the undead album :)