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MP3s Killed the Album Star

So the music album is dead. What a shame.

This is certainly no epiphany. There have been matter-of-fact eulogies for the Album for several years now. In many ways popular music has simply come full circle. In the earliest years of recorded music, music was packaged a small doses, at most a few very short songs. The technology of the time placed a severe limit on the amount of music that could be placed in a single package. 78 RPM records could hold only a few minutes of music on each side. Eventually companies started grouping several 78RPM discs together in an elaborate package, which was where the term “album” originated.

However, the format really blossomed when Columbia Records introduced its long play disc that played at 33 and 1/3 RPM. This allowed for somewhere in the neighborhood of twenty minutes of music on each side. Suddenly artists could explore whole programs of music, grouping songs together in sequences designed to highlight connections or provide a flow that became an important part of the music.

The album was very important too my generation. Artists started writing music specifically for the format. Would The Who’s rock opera “Tommy” exist in the same way had the format not developed? Of course not. Neither would “Dark Side of the Moon” or “Kind of Blue”. Every month Rolling Stone magazine devoted a number of its pages to pretentious reviews, dissecting the albums as “Art” with a very capital “A”. When “Thriller” came out, everybody bought a copy. Okay, “everybody” is undoubtedly an exaggeration, but I didn’t know of anyone who didn’t own a copy. There was a definite communal experience associated with albums.

But the convenience of digital distribution changed the game in recent years. Now fans no longer had to haunt their local music store and wait for the latest release by their favorite band. If they heard a song they liked, they simply went online to download it. To me, this has fostered a much more casual relationship with music for the current generation. Call me crotchety and out of touch if you must.

Of course, it could be argued that the album is far from dead. There has been a resurgence of interest in vinyl, of all things. That format was obliterated by the compact disc several decades ago, but now has made an unlikely comeback. Don’t get me wrong, I love vinyl. But it is still consigned to a niche experience. Music fanatics buy vinyl, but the world at large simply fills their phone with MP3s. The relatively small sales potential of current album sales has taken away the incentive to create album length works. Changes are very good that we simply won’t see another “Dark Side of the Moon”.

Time marches on, I guess. But for someone like me, for whom music was a vital, important part of my existence, it is hard to reconcile the shift away from epic works that we were so convinced truly meant something.

In 1987 the Dead Kennedys, a band that really didn’t sell all that many records, released an album called “Give Me Convenience of Give Me Death”. Oddly, it looks like the music industry got both.