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6 Reasons Why The Album Format Died

I think it’s safe to say that we’re at the end of the “album age,” and although the format will hold on for a while, it’s clearly waning in popularity. I’ve given this a lot of thought and have come up with what I think are the reasons, but be aware, they’re not all exactly what the popular wisdom assumes. So let’s begin with the 6 reasons why the album format has, for all intents and purposes, died.

1) It was a visual experience. The album format in the vinyl record age had the advantage of that wonderful piece of cardboard known as the album jacket. The album jacket contained the cover art (still found on CDs), and most importantly, the liner notes on the back, which we’ll get to in a second. But one thing that everyone either forgets or has never experienced is the fact that millions of albums were purchased completely on impulse because of the album artwork alone!

It may be hard to believe, but it was quite common to come across an album cover that was so cool that you’d buy it without knowing a thing about the artist. Sometimes it would be a total loser, but you still had the liner notes to read, and occasionally that would still make it a worthwhile purchase.

2) It was an informational experience too. Those of you too young to have experienced this don’t know how much the liner notes meant to nearly everyone who bought an album (the picture on the left gives you an idea how extensive they could be). You could spend hours reading a well-written gatefold jacket, checking out every credit, wondering just where these exotic studios were (Smoketree Ranch in Malibu was the one that always intrigued me the most as a kid), and generally just soaking up any info you could about the artist. Of course, this was way, way before the Internet, so the liner notes were sometimes the only place to find any of info on the artist at all.

To say the least, the visuals and information along with the music made buying an album a total experience that today’s album doesn’t some close to.

3) The demise of the record stores. Once again, this may seem hard to believe but nearly every community had someplace that sold records, even if it didn’t have a record store. There was an entire network set up to supply records to department stores, supermarkets, even diners. You couldn’t help but to run into someplace selling records during the course of a day.

But the record store was the place to not only buy music, but to spend hours browsing. Why? Because of the cover art and liner notes. You’d peel through a bin of records, stopping every so often to look at an intriguing cover, which made you want to read the liner notes, and maybe even buy the album as a result.

But the record store was also the best place for word of mouth. The people that worked the record stores always knew what was hot, what was underground but about to pop, and what was overhyped. You could go into a store and ask a clerk, “What’s really good?” and he’d give you 10 choices, most of which were pretty high quality. This is something that the music industry is still looking for today online. Now we call it “music discovery” and VC’s still throw big money at anyone who claims to have an app.

4) The price. Albums used to be a bargain. A 45 RPM single used to cost anywhere from $.99 to $1.29 (ironically what a download costs today, except you got two songs then), but an album started at only $3.98, before prices gradually began to increase. Either way, in the beginning the album was a no brainer even for a kid on a tight allowance. For the longest time, the album was priced at $8.98, before it was discounted, which was still a bargain.

The greed started in the early 80’s as the major record labels were taken over by multi-national companies, the attorneys and accountants ruled, and the prices of the album began to rise - first with what they called “superstar pricing,” which tacked on an extra dollar for a superstar act (Tom Petty sued his label keep the price at $8.98, a gesture that would be very unlikely today by a big music act).

5) The CD. Then came the CD, and the business went to hell in hand basket. The packaging was different, so the jacket was no longer needed, and as a result, the cover art became less important, and you couldn’t really do extensive liner notes because the print would be too small to read. Then the record labels really got greedy, charging outlandish prices (called “technology charges”) on a product that eventually cost them less than the vinyl records they previously were making. In fact, prices soared to $19.95 for a front line artist’s CD. If you bought one of these and weren’t completely and totally satisfied, you were pissed, since dropping a deuce on anything was a real commitment.

And of course, there were no more impulse buys anymore because the artwork behind a 5 inch piece of plastic just doesn’t have the same impact as on a 12 inch piece of cardboard.

6) Too much filler. Most vinyl albums are between 35 and 45 minutes long. This was out of necessity because of the physics of a record. Make it any longer and it starts to get noisy, the frequency response suffers, and it won’t be as loud. But 40 minutes or so turns out to be the perfect amount of time for listening. There’s a time commitment you have to make, but it’s well within reason, especially if you like the music.

A CD is capable of containing a bit more than 73 minutes of music. Unfortunately, artists began to think that it was a really good idea to put all the garbage that they normally would’ve tossed from a vinyl record, and put it all on their CD. Now instead of having 40 minutes of great music, we had 55 minutes of mediocrity. Even if the artist had some great songs, it was frequently buried under another 50 minutes of crap. Now not only was the fan paying more money, but she was paying more money for less quality. Something had to give.

Which is just about the time MP3’s and Napster came on the scene, which eventually helped push the music business from an album business into the singles business that it has now become. Ironically, popular music started with as a singles business, to whence it now returns.

It’s easy to say that online music slayed the album, but it was only the final dagger after 6 long swords.


Bobby Owsinski is a producer/engineer and author of 13 books on music, recording and the music business including “The Mixing Engineer’s Handbook” and “Music 3.0: A Survival Guide For Making Music In The Internet Age.” His posts every day on The Big Picture production blog and the Music 3.0 industry blog.


Reader Comments (35)

That's a good point about album filler. I remember being ecstatic when CD burners first came out, because that meant I could skip all the junk tracks.

December 20 | Registered CommenterDerek Miller

Reasons 1 and 2 are not actually reasons why the album faded, they are discriptions of what made an album cool. Reason 3 is a direct consequence of filesharing and digital music. Reason 4 is irrelevant - people paid $20 for an album for almost 20 years, they would have continued to do so if they had not had other options. Reason 5 is irrelevant too, for the aforementioned reason - people still bought and enjoyed CD's by the boatload up until 2000 or so. Reason 6 never stopped anyone from buying an album either. I would wager the albums with a greater amount of filler were the pop albums that actually sold the most.

The ONLY reason the album continues to die is because music is digital.

December 20 | Unregistered CommenterJustin

Great post. I am waiting for the next "physical experience", that sense of ownership that I used to feel because of holding or buying an album has to come back in another form. I think $10 is a good price point, but there should be posters, stickers and buttons etc... included

December 20 | Unregistered CommenterTommy Dubs

I just got an excellent history lesson.

I fell in love with music at the end of tapes, beginning of cds.

I loved messing with my brothers records though!

December 20 | Unregistered CommenterStreet Spirit

interesting....... thanks

December 20 | Unregistered CommenterReal J.O.B

Good reading, but i tend to disagree on most of the points mentioned:

1. albums can easily still be a visual experience. Nothing beats a nice vinyl gatefold, but putting a PDF along with a download can still make for a great visual experience, although not tangible

2. There's no reason not to include any information. Aren't we living in times known as "the age of information" ?

3. true, record stores are shutting down wherever you look. Still, the word of mouth is the most prevalent reason for people to get into new music. To popularize an old slogan: " recommendations killed the record store" ?

4. Keep the costs low. Focus on selling more at a lower price.

5. Even CD's can be a visual experience with a high information rate. Use digipack, include documentaries, movies and other data on the CD. CD offers opportunities that vinyl lacks.

6. Don't create filler in the first place. In this day and age, nobody will listen to a 70 minute record without distraction. Just focus on the best material you have, and don't exceed anything beyond 35 minutes.

I guess what it comes down to is: make sure the music and the artwork are splendid, and focus on distributing in as many ways possible: CD, vinyl, DVD, online. There's still a lot of people out there who prefer albums over singles.

December 20 | Unregistered Commenterriekus

i don't think it has died. i think it is hibernating.

December 20 | Unregistered CommenterAndy

This is definitely an old school take on the topic, but I don't think you put quite enough thought into it. You totally forgot to talk about how the internet and digital age revolutionized music, and how that consequently affected the record format:

With the internet, people are able to buy/download singles from anywhere and keep them on a multiple small portable devices (consider itunes). The process allows one's music to be ubiquitous, space and energy saving, and easier to acquire. I think that says a lot more about the album than the visual or informational experience. I'm not saying those weren't factors, but they are definitely insignificant when compared to the effect that computers and the internet had. When a person can pick and choose each song he wants to buy and then have the songs safely backed up forever on a device smaller than a phone, he will inevitably choose that over an album. Also, the internet was arguably the cause of record stores going out of business, even while albums were still popular.

December 20 | Unregistered Commenterevanomics

and besides, Vinyl sounds better, feels better and smells better.

good post, but the most interesting thing is how everything goes round and round, we find ourselves in the first half of the 20th century, singles are the thing. Also. before the recording industry, artists got sponsorship from rich people with a will to support art. nowadays, many artists who seeks for budget to make their records go for the microfunding (like posted in MMT couple of days ago), ask their grandma, or find a nice investor who's not scared to loose his money.

who goes to record labels nowadays? only people who can produce trash pop.

December 20 | Unregistered CommenterYair Yona

I don't think the album format has died... has it? I still like albums.

December 20 | Unregistered CommenterMarvin

One thing that wasn't mentioned was that often times,there was free stuff in vinyl albums (like posters,iron on decals of the cover,bonus 7'' records,ect.) that you can't put into cd's....well,maybe posters,but how can a poster like what was included in "Chicago At Carngie Hall" be reproduced for the cd reissue? (And I mean the huge one with the group photo.)

December 20 | Unregistered CommenterG Price

I think digital EPs may be a viable album format: 4 or 5 good tracks priced around $5. It's more convenient than single track downloads, and sufficiently cheap that I'll take a chance on a new musical group. When album downloads (including filler) get up around $10 or so I'm more inclined to consider file sharing alternatives. I also think the shorter EP format would allow musicians to produce better albums by focusing on a smaller number of stronger tracks.

December 20 | Unregistered CommenterQwipster

I'm not sure I agree 100% with the death of the album or reasons why it's fading. To me, an album is a collection of songs that an artist wrote at a certain point in time--and so together they represent an emotion, idea, concept, and so forth. And over time, one can see an artists line of thinking. It's fine now to release a song here and there, but to me traditional artists can't say everything they want to say in one song and so it becomes an album.

On the points, I believe what has happened is that people are consuming music in an ADD fashion today. There is less focus as the author points out on the story behind the songs (aka liner notes) and album and more on whether a song is good or not. It's not that people don't care, it's just easier to move on to another artist. But I believe some of this is generational and due to technology--I still buy albums, but someone 10 years younger (in their early 20s) probably isn't likely to do so. I think the younger generations were raised on building playlists as their music collection than albums.

Brian Franke

December 20 | Registered CommenterBrian Franke

The demise of the music business model was probably inevitable. And in hindsight they record business sowed the seeds of its own destruction. The loss of the compelling package/artwork was just step one. Then the CD becoming a computer peripheral was step two. Broadband networking was step three. The failure to productize digital downloads before Shawn Fanning was a critical mistake.

If you're one of those mid level artists that still has a label deal, you've got the worst of both worlds. They record, put out a CD and because of the archaic royalty deals, they never recoup, and their gig sales are declining because of downloads, illegal and legal. It's time at least to own 100% of the smaller pie.

There are probably some artists doing just fine on legal downloads, and still some fans buying digital albums. $10 isn't really a bad deal for a collection of songs, if most of the songs are good. In the album days, you might find some cuts grew on you. You had already paid for them, and it wasn't so easy to skip around. Now your playlist leads you to the next single - by somebody else.

Another important layer is: original music is no longer the dominant cultural currency that allows us to identify ourselves. It has much competition for dollars and attention from games, social networking, YouTube, mashups and even branded clothing. So music becomes background for games and TV shows, and fodder for corporate marketing.

I always get a laugh when I see Iggy Pop songs like "Lust for Life" used on commercials. I am pretty sure that song was not written with the intention of being used in a cruise ship commercial. I can't wait to see Mothers Little Helper used for a pharmaceutical. "What a drag it is getting old!"

Bruce Kaplan

December 21 | Unregistered CommenterBruce Kaplan

@riekus your ideas are spot on, dude.

A lot of great bands are still pressing vinyl, and people are still buying it. There's still a market for it, otherwise why the hell would all these bands still press it? Nostalgia? Also, the visual and informational experience of a vinyl record hasn't changed, so why'd you stop buying them? Too pricey? Builds clutter? What?

Also, none of these 6 things are reasons for anything. They are just observations about music formats and prices. Im sick of people parroting that things are dead. I buy dozens of albums a month, most of which are vinyl. This is coming from a 22 year old. The format isn't dead. It's suffering, yes, but dead, no. Stop being parrots.

December 21 | Registered CommenterChris Bracco

Me and my friends used to spend whole Saturday afternoons pouring over Vinyl albums, examining them in every detail. Was never the same when CD's started replacing them.

December 21 | Unregistered CommenterThe Day I Snapped

I agree that it was the CD more than the internet that ultimately began the album's downward slide as the music format of mainstream choice, and that the major record labels kind of brought it upon themselves.

But I disagree that the album is "dead." It is most certainly not dead. I talk to musicians all the time and they all still think in terms of albums. They all still want to record albums. Yes, the market for albums has obviously shrunk, but there is no reason to presume a "waning in popularity" equals "death." Yet again-- are we tired of this yet?-- we are being baited by a sensationalistic headline. It might in fact be more interesting to discuss why intelligent writing is now "dead" and that the main culprit is the sensationalistic headline.

December 21 | Registered CommenterJeremy Schlosberg

vinyl records also died because weed got so good that you no longer needed the jacket to shake out the seeds.

December 21 | Unregistered Commentervinyl record fan

Excuse me, but no mention of MTV? They overemphasized the importance of singles in the 80's and definitely deserve to be mentioned in this piece. I don't know if your first point was meant to imply that the visual aspect of popular music is gone, but if it was, Lady Gaga's outfit and Justin Bieber's haircut would have something to say about it.

I don't think that the "death" of the album (in the popular/commercial sector) is a good or bad thing. It simply suits certain artists to release singles while others thrive making larger and more ambitious works. As far as pop goes, artists like Ke$ha, Nicki Minaj, Katy Perry, etc. are at their best in small doses; making simple hooks that are (sometimes painfully) catchy and easy to wrap your head around. On the other hand, whether you love or hate Kanye West, his new album is an ALBUM and not just a collection of songs. Furthermore, indie music is crossing more and more into the mainstream (Aracde Fire's #1 album) and the album format is and has been a prominent tenet of indie music.

A more appropriate topic of discussion would be "The Resurgence of Singles"

December 21 | Unregistered CommenterJared

IMHO there's no other logical way to organize a set of songs written within a particular timeframe.

Think of songs as pictures that go in an album. Artists have to simply take better pictures and include extras like footage, personal interviews, studio stuff, "bonus" tracks, etc.

There will always be a need to organize a set of things under a certain umbrella. Just figure out how to do it right.

December 21 | Unregistered Commentervik

I first saw this post on Owsisnki's blog and I commented because I mostly disagreed with him. Sadly, he chose to not publish my comments, which were critical, true, but polite. Rather than re-list them here, I'll just provide a link my blog where I wrote out my responses. Comments are un-moderated, so have at me if you want!

December 21 | Unregistered CommenterJeff Shattuck

someone better tell Jack White that vinyl is dead, because Third Man Records keeps selling out of their limited run vinyl -- consistently. Maybe they'd do better if they just had digital ports for downloads like those Starbucks Hear music stores that went out of business??? hahaha.

December 21 | Unregistered CommenterVince

There seems to be a lot of confusion on what exactly an album is. It is, by definition, a collection of more than one recording. The album format is not dying. In fact, most artists are still releasing more than one song at a time under a collective title, thus creating an album. Vinyl phonographs are certainly small market format, but they have been since the 1980s.

As far as a visually stimulating experience is concerned, you would be hard pressed to find a successful artist that did not have a well designed website loaded with extra information, various forms of media, and interactive content.

December 23 | Unregistered CommenterSolomon Tomer

I love and much much prefer the sound of vinyl thru a great stereo and love listening to old 10 track albums. (Aerosmiths 'pump' just this morning!!!!! 20 odd years on) I would buy everything on Vinyl if it were priced more realisticly and everything was made available.
Too late I know, but why did the record companies, artists and studio's start to record digitally in the first place? They'll say for better sound quality what they really mean is ease of use and time saved in production= money saved.
There is no doubt a C.D has a cleaner (Digital) sound than Vinyl but who said it was better? Not me. The world has been force fed and brainwashed into what they think is good and what is not.
I doubt anyone who listens to the earlier mentioned 'Pump' on Vinyl thru my stereo and A/B's the C.D in the same stereo will say the C.D is better. Though I would settle for C.D over the disgusting MP3 anyday.
Its the same with instruments wether its digital v's analogue synths, V drums v's real drums, digital amp modeling v's a tube guitar amp, plugins etc the list goes on and on. The digitised versions spend millions on trying to (and failing to) get their products to sound analouge and why? because even the digitised industries think that analouge sounds better in music.
Anyway, wont happen but I cant understand why the industry doesn't go back to recording to tape and push vinyl back to the forefront of peoples minds as the way music and an artists album is supposed to be consumed.
My view anyway.

December 23 | Unregistered CommenterArron Luther

Like Jeff Shattuck I mostly disagree. Jeff has a very good response on his blog.
Find it here,
I'd like to add that yesterday I bought a new vinyl copy of "Californication" .
People familiar with the cd will know why.

December 24 | Unregistered CommenterCharlie Hendrickson

Good points, but I still think the album concept has value in music. I love concept albums that try to tell a whole story by letting each composition be a part. This is still possible with digital albums, and Apple's new LP format may help. Creating a great pdf of the album art and text is another way. Of course these new format can't compete with the old LP cover, though. I remember how exited i was when running to my local post office to pick up the latest pile of brand new LP's I had ordered from Tandy's (I live in Norway, Tandy's was in UK) as a teenager. Oh, how I miss the feeling (the paper, the visual art, the text, the smell) of opening the DeLuxe LP cover of Led Zeppelin II, II and IV. - Another think I have been thinking about often, is how sad it is that the more music that is availlable to me, the less I enjoy it. Internet killed the music... or is it still hope?

December 25 | Unregistered CommenterHelge Krabye

Yeah... some good points I agree with. Although... I don't believe the album will die out any time soon. The album is a collection of songs that an artist has worked up to a point of satisfaction over however long a period that are generally related to each other in some way. Releasing songs singularly can be good but it won't keep fans interested for very long if you're only releasing a single song from time to time. I think there's too many people out there who still want albums. I for one go for all formats; CDs, vinyls and if I can't get either of those two I'll download it from iTunes or whatever but I need the album. Perhaps for the more casual music fan the album is dying. They probably just used to buy the singles anyway but for artists' biggest fans, I don't think the album is going away at all

December 26 | Unregistered CommenterLachstar

The album will only die if we let it die. And by album I mean a collection of songs in a fixed format, not just vinyl or CD. Many of my music friends think I'm wasting time putting money into my own 10 song album titled "What Could've Been"...the $250 I spend on a 4-panel digipak design, the money for mastering the whole album, pressing it up...etc. But when I look at the alternative...I feel I am devaluing myself as a songwriter and artist.

For instance, most everyone wants us R&B/Pop artist to believe that all you need to do is put most of your money into one song...that hit song. Put all of your resources into that, and it will be enough to grow your fan base. The new demand will help fuel you to create more supply. But as some of you have already pointed out on here...we are artists, and all of our creative ideas can not be restricted to just one song. NO! If I believe I have 10 great ideas/stories that will connect with people, I am going to push them. Filler is only created when you are going after a number.

I read a blog highlighting a CD that was selling extremely well called "Songs for Dogs"! What!! Yeah that's right, a CD containing songs for man's best friends was selling tons. What does that mean for us? Any "product" or "content" can die off if it is not finding a market. Forget about the people who do not support your music, find the ones that do. For every one person that does not like your music, there has to be another that likes it...that's always the case. Just think of something that you hate that one of your friends just so happens to like.

The music industry would have us believe that "albums" are dead, but what is dead is the old way of doing things in the music business, that's all. If you are a person who can change with the times, or even if you can't, all you need to do is seek out the people who will enjoy what you do. Guess what...if you write songs as good as Taylor Swift, you too could sell 1 million albums. It may take longer, but the fact that 1 million people bought her "Speak Now" album in it's first week, means that 1 million people enjoy her and her songs.

Let's stop thinking negative and think positive.

"You believe money is power. But believe is power" - Unknown

Jared Jones

December 27 | Unregistered CommenterJared Jones

Dave Allen covered all of this almost 2 years ago in his essay "The End of The Music Album as The Organizing Principle."

December 28 | Unregistered Commenterscottandrew

albums will always be there, they are just evolving. Whether it's vinyl, tape, cd and now a digital archive, the concept is still there. Sure you can buy your singles on itunes and the likes but the album concept will remain for at least a little while.

People have been saying this for the entire decade....

(Dec 2000) The Album Era
(Feb 2001) Napster and the Death of the Album Format
(Mar 2002) Meet the Music Pirate
(Dec 2003) The Death of the Album
(Nov 2003) The death of the album?
(May 2004) The Way The Music Died
(Feb 2005) Death of The CD? Or The Death of Vinyl?
(Aug 2006) The Album is Dead
(Mar 2007) The Album, a Commodity in Disfavor
(Aug 2008) The death of the album
(Aug 2009) Radiohead and the death of the album
(May 2010) Graphic Proof Of The Death Of The Album
(Dec 2010) Why Vinyl Is the Next Format to Crash...

Get over yourselves, buy a turntable, and listen to some quality music without distractions for at least thirty minutes a day. You'll be a happier person.

January 5 | Registered CommenterChris Bracco

Brilliant post !

My first album was ' tommy' by The Who. Amazing artwork...

January 14 | Unregistered CommenterMike mckenna

this post doesn't make any sense.. there is no better way to contain a specific set of songs other than an "album"

an album is just a folder for a specific set of songs written in a specific period of time by a certain artist.

nothing more nothing less - and it will always exist

this simple logic can not be refuted.

January 14 | Unregistered Commentervik

I'm in my mid 20s and I still perceive music artists in terms of albums they do. A single doesn't really say much when it comes to the artists' abilities, overall vision, and state of mind during a particular period in time. And even if I do my share of downloading, if I like the album enough I'd still go out and buy the physical record when the opportunity comes. Besides the sound quality of downloads still pales compared to those found in CDs or vinyls.

I know many people claim that the CD was what started the downfall of the album format. I can't fully agree with that cause I was raised during the latter part of the CD era and I also LOVED reading the liner notes (if I didn't need a magnifying glass to check it out, it wasn't too small) and looking at the artwork of the albums. But then again I guess what you grew up with can greatly affect your preferences when it comes to these things, but I'm only talking from my experience as someone born in the late 1980s.

Anyway, as long as there are people like me out there (of all ages) who see this topic the way I do or at least can sympathize or identify with it, then the album will certainly NEVER DIE! Just my two cents... :)

August 29 | Unregistered CommenterRealist

Not sure that Bobby's 6 reasons cover it all... how about "we now have a generation of music users without the required 40-minute attention span".

August 7 | Unregistered CommenterBob

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