Why the album is more zombie than dead.

The other day, I posted a response to Bobby Owsinski’s Six Reasons Why The Album Format Died, and I closed by promising to post some reasons of my own, most of which I thought I had pretty well figured out. Then some insightful comments popped up and changed my point of view a bit. But first, a little post pre-amble (I should have written this before my earlier post).

When I think of albums, I think of vinyl and I always will. When I was growing up, buying albums -- wait, let’s call a spade a spade, RECORDS -- buying records was a ritual I thought would never die. Tower Records was like Norney’s, Montgomery Ward, Great Western Bank. It was a cultural fixture in my town, everlasting.

All of my friends were into music and pilgrimages to Tower were frequent and revered. Tower was my Candyland. To Bobby O’s point, I loved browsing the bins and if I bought something, the more liner notes the better. Reading record packaging while listening to the music that came from within became to me like reading cereal boxes at breakfast when I was a little kid. And now, with two kids of my own, I’m wondering what’s around today that we all just take for granted but won’t be around tomorrow (Microsoft springs to mind, but that’s another post).

But for all the glory that was Tower Records and vinyl there were downsides, to be sure. First, you could not hear the album before you bought it, save for whatever was on the radio. Second, the quality of vinyl slipped every year, going from thick virgin vinyl to vinyl made from ground up unsold records. Third, you often placed your brand new record on the turntable only to see that it was warped, but if you tried to take it back and exchange it, your chances weren’t that good. Fourth, there were plenty of records released with only 2 or 3 good songs, and if you wanted to take those records back, forget it. Fifth, vinyl was delicate, as were turntables and needles and tone arms. I had all the gear -- Discwasher, ZeroStat, special sleeves that would not react with the vinyl, but still, I would leave a record in a sunny window on occasion, spill something on one, forget to put the dust cover back down on my turn table and on and on.

So even though records were a fixture in my life, their faults made me receptive to something new. And lo and behold, the CD arrived. Sure, CD’s cost more, but they were “defect free”, never dusty, forever flat (although leaving them in the sun was still lethal). Even better, because of their size, CD’s let record stores stock bigger collections. Best of all, the CD’s longer record time meant cool add-ons, like “easter egg” songs hidden in the end, alt. takes, live tracks and more. Most important, you could skip around easily -- either manually or automatically. To me, this was a a godsend, as I have always been a chronic needle hopper and short on patience. And as the CD displaced vinyl (and cassettes), I thought good riddance.

But there was a price way beyond retail that this new format exacted. Little did I know it, but the CD would change the music business forever, and not always for the better. And one of its victims would be the record store. Because once music was digitized, it could be distributed without any physical media required, save for a hard disc drive at both ends, and now Tower records is gone. Hell,  the whole ritual of browsing a record store is gone and I am sad for that. Every time I turn onto Columbus Avenue in SF right at Bay Street and see a laundromat instead of Tower I feel a twinge of sadness. It gets easier as the years go by, but in the death of Tower I lost a piece of me and it’s one more reminder that nothing is everlasting.

Okay, I know that wasn’t really about the album, but I wanted to put down those words so that anyone reading this post would know what records meant and still mean to me. But I think all this talk of the album dying as a format is way premature. In fact, I think artists will continue to make albums because it’s practical. Not very romantic, I know, but think about it, the music business for most bands is a circle: record, tour, rest, record, tour, rest, etc. (And for many bands, the rest bit never happens.) It’s done this way for the obvious reason that you can’t doing everything at once, there has to be a sequence. Plus, albums are efficient. You gather up all the players you need, you go into the studio, you focus like mad and create/record music with minimal distractions. To gather up all the required resources for recording in order to do just one song is somehow ludicrous (although, I confess, I have been guilty of such behavior!). More important, it’s not sustainable. No one can afford to make music one song at a time. But what about buying music? Well, that’s a different story, and here’s where the divergence is taking place. Bands are still making albums, because it’s the most efficient way to create music, but consumers are buying ( to Chaco’s point in the comments on my last post) what they’ve always really wanted: singles. And this is a tough problem, because bands are producing something that needs to sell for about $10 but consumers are buying something that needs to sell for less than a buck, if it even sells at all, given the rise of music theft. As a result, the album is not being killed, it’s being zombified, forced to rise into a world that doesn’t really want it.

What to do? I don’t know. Maybe Dave Tutin’s comment about packaging holds the answer. I mean, why not think up a whole new packaging format for CD’s? Why not have the CD be held in something the size of record, or maybe a standard hardcover book, but thinner? Maybe that’s a business opportunity for someone with a little extra cash to pursue. Regardless, times have changed and will continue to change and whatever happens down the road will be replaced faster and faster. As I said in my song for my new baby girls, “Welcome to the World”!