Album? What’s an Album?

I am beginning to gain a new appreciation for how the dinosaurs felt as they began their decline into extinction. For a period of time dinosaurs ruled the earth and were the dominant creature that dictated how things progressed.

Depending on what theory you adhere too, there were either outside forces at work that destroyed the environment of the dinosaur or the species simply did not react to changes going on around them and over time nature went a different direction leaving the dinosaur to die out.

During my lifetime I have seen a metamorphosis occur in the music industry. What I am about to describe will no doubt date me and give my children more than enough ammunition to accurately compare me to actually being a dinosaur.

When I was a young boy I remember listening to music on vinyl records. There were the 45’s, which contained one song per side, and then there were the 12-inch albums that would fit several songs per side. The album not only included music but also came in a very cool cardboard jacket that featured artwork on the front and informational tidbits on the back.

The problem with these vinyl albums were that they scratched easily, were susceptible to temperature changes, and were pretty much impossible to take with you to listen to away from home. The music industry adapted and the age of tape arrived. I remember my parents purchasing an 8-Track tape player for the car.

By today’s standards the 8-Track was huge. It had its own issues such as stretching when hot and who could forget the garbled sound you heard as the tape player began eating your favorite tape? I spent many a night helping my father trying to rethread an 8-Track tape hoping it wasn’t damaged too bad.

The great thing about the 8-Track was that it could contain about the same amount as an album so you could carry along the works of a specific artist. The album art was shrunk and now was the label on the 8-Track tape but it still felt like an album.

When I became a teenager the 8-Track was nearly dying. It was being replaced by an even smaller format, the cassette tape. Most of the music from my high school years was on cassette. Rather than having to deal with tracks, we dealt with sides. One side of a cassette was similar to a side on an album. The artwork was shrunk yet again and now adorned the front of a cassette case.

The cassette was the ultimate in portability especially with the invention of the Sony Walkman. You could carry along several albums worth of music and listen to it while you went about your life. The tape players were more durable than the 8-Track but still managed to eat your favorite tape at the most inappropriate time.

The digital age came to music with the invention of the CD. Now we had these little silver platters that looked like a space age version of the vinyl album but in a more compact format. The CD was amazing. It seemed relatively bullet proof (until you left it in the hot car all day). A CD could contain an entire album at very high quality. The artwork of an album again morphed and now was displayed on the front of the CD case.

I remember when the CD came out and I thought it was the ultimate delivery mechanism for music. I enjoy the album experience as you listen to a group and attempt to understand the theme the musicians were attempting to share through the body of work.

At some point though we as a society decided that albums weren’t that useful. Instead we only wanted the hit songs and viewed the others as “filler”. We began creating “Mix CDs” with just a single song from an artist. Everything became a countdown of sorts with music being scattered around.

This concept was further solidified with the invention of the MP3 player and subsequently with the on-line music store. Here you are able to buy just a single song that might be hot this week. Many of the on-line music stores still offer the album but the majority of purchases are for a single song.

The once admired cover art is now an afterthought and the notes and liner data has gone away replaced by an obscure fan site if the listener is interested.

I somehow cannot force myself to embrace this new paradigm. I still like looking at the artwork while I listen and I want to hear the whole album regardless of whether all of the songs will become hits. I want to read about the band and what they were thinking when they built the album.

Now though as recording acts become younger, the concept of the album is beginning to die out. Instead an artist bio is linked to a song or the artwork depicts the artist rather than the album. Songs are single entities designed to stand-alone.

Perhaps I’ll finally come around to this type of marketing or maybe I’ll be like the dinosaur and ignore the environmental changes and slowly fade away as a forgotten market segment.

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