The Finch Formerly Known As Gold

26 March 2007

Get back to where we once belonged

Up until 1948, all records were singles: 78-rpm discs, ten or twelve inches across. Once in a while you'd see a set of five or six of them bound together in one very thick package, which was called an "album."

CBS, which in 1948 began selling a 33⅓ rpm disc which could contain the contents of five or six 78s, eschewed the term "album" in favor of "LP," or more precisely "Lp," which they registered as a trademark. The customers, even then not willing to take their marching orders from record companies, persisted in calling them "albums."

And they still bought singles: from RCA Victor, also in 1948, came a 45-rpm disc, a mere seven inches across, which duplicated the format of the 78 — the hit and the B-side. RCA also developed a 45-rpm record changer that plugged into your RCA television using — yes! — an RCA plug. And despite the higher profit margin on CBS's LPs and such, the record industry learned pretty quickly that there was no way to generate those profits, except in minority formats like classical and jazz, without coming up with some hit singles once in a while. This was the way of the world, and the 45 ruled that world.

So this should surprise no one:

Last year, digital singles outsold plastic CD's for the first time. So far this year, sales of digital songs have risen 54 percent, to roughly 189 million units, according to data from Nielsen SoundScan. Digital album sales are rising at a slightly faster pace, but buyers of digital music are purchasing singles over albums by a margin of 19 to 1.

Because of this shift in listener preferences — a trend reflected everywhere from blogs posting select MP3s to reviews of singles in Rolling Stone — record labels are coming to grips with the loss of the album as their main product and chief moneymaker.

Which, again, should surprise no one:

I distinctly remember recognizing that it was a pure ripoff to plunk down several dollars for an 8-12 track album, when all I wanted was the one or two songs that were hits. I adopted a three-song minimum as a requirement for buying an album; if you’re at all familiar with the past twenty-five years of pop music, you can make a pretty accurate guess as to the paltry number of albums I wound up purchasing.

I realize I was in the minority. Plenty of my peers scooped up those albums, and justified it as the only way to get at the popular tunes. The potential bonus was the discovery of an unpromoted gem in the album's filler tracks; realistically, that was usually just wishful thinking. But for me, it turned me off on developing any sort of music-buying habit.

Further complication: musicians had long been hiding some good stuff, not on the inner tracks of their LPs, but on the B-sides of 45s, where presumably the truest of fans would find them. In 1966, Dylan had sneaked a live version of "Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues" onto the back of "I Want You," a track you simply couldn't get anywhere else. Even Simon and by-gosh Garfunkel did this, dropping the irritable "You Don't Know Where Your Interest Lies," never issued on an LP, underneath "Fakin' It." ("You Don't Know..." didn't even make it to the S&G Collected Works CD box.)

Is there a future for the "album"? It might be something like this:

I think albums can revert back to what they were in the '50s and '60s: Less concept packages and more like compilations of proven hit singles, released after they made their noise. That dynamic's already made a comeback today, with the proliferation of "greatest hits" albums from artists that had barely three or four notable singles releases.

The Beatles, who recorded their singles and their album tracks as wholly separate entities (though their US label tended to mess up their scheme) were very much anomalies in the couple-of-hits-plus-filler milieu, and when Led Zeppelin, for whatever reason, refused to allow "Stairway to Heaven" to go out as a 45 — a few white-label promos were pressed, but no store stock — radio stations treated it as a hit single anyway. The circle, I'm tempted to say, is complete.

Posted at 2:36 PM to Fileophile , Tongue and Groove

I'm okay with everything coming full circle. But, I do miss the packaging. I miss the album artwork. I miss lyric sheets. I miss the liner notes. I miss the smell.

Posted by: Dwight at 3:30 PM on 26 March 2007

Well, you still get some of those things (except the smell), but they're too small to see, and some of the more bizarre foldouts of the era — think Tull's Thick as a Brick — are simply no fun as CDs. (And, I suspect, even less fun as downloads.)

Posted by: CGHill at 5:10 PM on 26 March 2007

Again, nothing to do about the smell, but I've been thinking that digital packaging has the potential to reverse the drawbacks that came about during the CD era.

Digital books are offered on iTunes, which are basically electronic liner notes and serve as a minor incentive to buy the whole album (can't buy them separately). If those don't fly, there's a standard lyrics tag on iTunes-bought song files, which Apple can start to populate with each sale. (When this was first added, I foolishly thought that it would allow iTunes player/iPod to run a scroll of the lyrics while the song played; maybe for future versions.)

Album art can be embedded into a music file's tags, and again, has been used as a hook by iTunes. In fact, labels/artists can really take advantage of this: Distinct art "covers" per song? Which can be offered in larger, hi-res/print versions for separate sale?

Posted by: CT at 10:44 AM on 27 March 2007