Life After the Album? It’s Complicated

If the album is dying, then the stuff that goes into the album has never been more alive.

We still have the songs and creative processes, the recording has never been so free-flowing, artists still go through creative cycles and evolutions.  But how do you release all of that?

Welcome to one of the most complicated questions for an artist today.  Do you release a traditional album with ornate packaging, treat it as an event, tie it to a tour, give it an iTunes exclusive (if they care)?  Or, are songs and outtakes released as soon as they’re baked, online or onstage, spread out over time?  Or, it is one of a million variations in between?

For most artists grappling with a completely devalued recording, the ‘event-style’ release is becoming ridiculous.  Let Hollywood have its tentpole smashes, because mega-releases create huge breaks in between these ‘events,’ resulting in disengaged fans.  The album, as traditionally defined and released, is dead to them.

But wait: the ‘album is dead’ rhetoric only goes so far, simply because albums are still a big part of the fan experience.  Just think about all the great albums that have come out recently, from the likes of Arcade Fire, The xx, Mumford & Sons, or Adele, just to name a few.  If you love these artists, you’ll complete your album on iTunes, you’ll buy it on vinyl, you might even experience it front-to-finish on Spotify.

Which means the decision about how to release is now almost as creative as the music itself.  And every artist has to weigh their release strategy against a number of factors, including the fan relationship, the amount of label backing or budget, the demographic of the audience, the genre involved, the amount of music being created, and the creative process itself.

In the end, the result is typically a hybrid.  For example, the Red Hot Chili Peppers just announced the drib-drab release of 17 different tracks that didn’t make their last album.  These will be released across digital and 7-inch formats, with the idea that each song will perk the audience and not get lost.  “It’s really one of those cases where they had too many good songs to fit on an album,” pianist Greg Kurstin told Rolling Stone.  “They have this cohesive thing in the studio – when they get that take, that’s the take that they keep.”

The release decision must be tailored to the artist, and there are huge extremes here.  Susan Boyle releases albums, that’s what her audience understands and buys in tonnage.  On the other extreme, someone like deadmau5 has so many remixes and new tracks floating around, even dedicated fans have trouble mapping them to ‘releases,’ if there’s even a connection to be made.  Then again, that doesn’t mean there aren’t great deadmau5 albums and focus tracks, it’s just not where the action ends (or begins).

But one thing’s for certain: albums are rarely moneymakers, unless they are pumped sky-high by a major, have an Arcade Fire-style success story, or are catered towards a much older demographic.  Which means, in most cases, your recording – album or otherwise – isn’t your breadwinner, it’s your attention-getter.

The data is now screaming this.  Over the past few weeks, some interesting data has started to emerge on the album sales picture.  At a top level, we all know the album is sharply eroding, both in terms of sales and in the way that we frame music.   But earlier this week, Seattle Weekly music editor Chris Kornelis discovered something funny: for the first time ever, older albums are now outselling new releases.  Technically, Nielsen Soundscan counts ‘catalog’ as something older than 18 months, though recent releases are now facing heavy competition from ‘deep catalog,’ ie, deeply-discounted classics like Appetite for Destruction.

And if you need more proof, feast your eyes on this.

  • Save

All of which means that the perfectly-shaped, perfectly-released album is now a creative luxury.  And the specifics on how to release an ‘album,’ if you want to call it that, boil down to your instincts and your read of the data.

Written while listening to Mozart, Minnie Riperton and 50 Cent.

7 Responses

  1. @georgedearing

    Good post

    “the decision about how to release is now almost as creative as the music itself.”

    • Big Swifty

      Thanks for pulling out that quote. I had a good laugh.

      It is a perfect reflection of the state of pop music today.

  2. @continuumflux

    A sad sad story for today, a great victory for yesterday.

  3. ASM

    The album is still important, even if it’s not currently popular.

    Seems all too easy to just look at the album superficially, in terms of sales. What about what it means as a medium and why it worked well in the past?

    If interested, here’s an article I wrote on re-envisioning the format of the album through technology: Releasing an Album as Website

    It’s just one perspective, but better to be constructive than complacent.