In Defense Of The Album

Guest post by Scott Perry of New Music Tipsheet. If you haven't already, sign up for his great free weekly new release newsletter.

We have a branding problem. Somewhere in the past five years, artist release cycles haAlbum on turntableve sped up from a CD / album cycle to an MP3 "leak" given to a blog to a random, “Oh yeah, I remember that” download 
that shows up in your iPod's shuffle a month later.

I remember a recent Lefsetz Letter telling musicians to stop making albums. And I just can't agree with that advice — establishing yourself as a singles artist is akin to committing financial suicide. You may be able to make quick money now if the song is a smash, but it does verrrry little to show that you merit the chops for me to spend $50 to see you live or $1.29 on your next single.

I still feel that the album is THE focal point of the launch of an artist's marketing cycle (but of course, the marketing shouldn't stop there if the first single doesn't click). I just don't feel like you get the same impact if your album is just a compilation of three four-song EPs (I love Ben Folds, but for the life of me I can't name a single song off 'Supersunnyspeedgraphic').

Lefsetz compares releasing an album to dropping the whole relationship, from courtship to divorce, right in the fan's lap in one huge chunk — and I am cool with that. I see the single (cover your eyes mom) as a booty call – sure, it's fun, and you go back to it again and again until the novelty wears off, but if you want a RELATIONSHIP with the artist, then you get the album — you WANT to take that 45-minute journey into that band's world.

I don't want Neko Case's ‘Fox Confessor Brings the Flood' in three segments delivered monthly, I want the whole thing at once! I'm glad I got MGMT's ‘Oracular Spectacular' as a whole album — them boys had a multi-dimensional vision they needed to flesh out over the course of 10 songs, and the impact would not be the same had those songs been parsed out one at a time over the course of a year. You dig into Pearl Jam's ‘Ten' or Dr. Dre's ‘The Chronic,' and you're there, in their world – and the impact of those ALBUMS personally resonate with fans moreso than if they had just gotten the singles.

And if you're just starting out without a real fanbase, you NEED to show you're more than just a clever act that can write one good hook — I think “She Loves Everybody” by Chester French is one of the best songs ever, but I'm really excited to hear the full album, to see what the band is fully capable of at this stage in their career. At the same time, I love Janelle Monae's 2008 debut EP, but left feeling, “That's it? I want more!” after seeing her play for only 20 minutes last year.

Unfortunately, as consumption habits change from CDs to downloads to streams, in only a handful of cases is an album's worth of material offered altogether in sequence; CDs / iTunes / Amazon / Rhapsody / Napster / eMusic all offer paid album options, but of all the free streaming services, only certain titles can be found each week as full-length streams on MySpace Music, AOL's Spinner, imeem, and Buzznet.

Things are moving pretty fast these days; we all need to slow things down a bit and add CONTEXT to the content before music becomes completely worthless. We need to build that artist's mythology, build a world to replace what's been lost in the absence of album art and liner notes.

Maybe back in the day when singles were sent out as 45s, there was money to be made on a single-by-single basis. And yes, there is still good money to be made via download and ringtone sales for certain acts. But in a world where illegal torrents and legal streams eat into single sales revenues, it's going to be a lot harder for singles acts to make the cash in the long run.

Sure, if you have a smash on your hands, get it out there as soon as you can to as many ears as possible. But in a time where you can be on Stereogum today, KROQ tomorrow, and in the virtual cutout bin next week, without the depth afforded by a good album's worth of work, the best you can do is pray your single makes it on an episode of “House” and maybe next year's NOW compilation in order to pay the bills.

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  1. We can see a lot of musicians they just put singles or feature another singger only.
    But,some masters like Dr.Dre, they still working hard to build their own world for us.
    Man, I still have ‘The chonic’ in my ipod these days.

  2. THANK YOU! I was honestly really pissed when I read the Lefsetz Letter last week about the album being dead. I think Bob once had his hand on the pulse but today he too often sounds disconnected and his conclusions over-simplistic, mean-spirited and frankly, wrong.
    The worst thing in the world would be for labels and artists to buy into the doomsday prophecies of sideline commentators; the tail wagging the dog. Physical media is NOT dead; the album is NOT dead; the music business is NOT dead!

  3. That or, you know, be a real artist and do what your heart says, and create what you want to make without worrying about how it will sell.

  4. I’ve put out albums for that very compelling list of reasons. But. I look at my sales, I look at the requests I get at shows and it’s clear to me that people ARE very singles oriented. They will buy an album sure, but I’m not convinced they WONT buy an ep if that’s all there is. You know?
    Also. Albums are expensive to make. I spent $10,000 on my last full length before I blinked (and unfortuanteky before I thought to save some dough for a publicist). I toured it, promoted it, sold some copies but haven’t recouped.
    Now I’m getting a little older (26…) I’ve put out 3 records and the places they’ve done well have been surprising and the places they’ve failed equally so. It seems no matter how finely tuned my strategy it’s still a crapshoot.
    So this time I’ve decided to just lower the stakes. Put out a 4 song with a pro looking video, tour a little more smartly and give the ep away to collect emails and establish a group to upsell to. I think nobody disputes that the album is a cool format, a great way to express yourself. But 7 years of industry ups and downs and the expense of album-making have left me searching for ways to lower the stakes and retain my sanity.

  5. I can’t believe how out of touch with reality this guest post is..scarily out of touch. It completely misses the point of how music fans, and I mean people who buy, purchase and consume music, access that music these days. Lefsetz and myself are simply trying to inform musicians and labels about the tectonic shift in popular culture that is happening on their watch. More single tracks are accessed, streamed or purchased these days online or via mobile devices, than album-length works.
    The CD will be in massive decline very soon as mobile ubiquity gathers speed with the oncoming technology of 4G. The album as the organizing principle is disappearing, as it should. It’s an old fashioned technological device. Who asked musicians if they’d be happy being constrained to about 40 minutes of playing time on vinyl? Who asked musicians if they’d be happy having their analog music digitized at inferior bit rates to be released on CD? No one..so why do musicians complain today when they have a vast, unfettered amount of time to deliver anything they would like online? Artists will continue to make as much music as they feel they should – how they package that music and sell it is rapidly changing. Holding on to the nostalgia of an album is the kiss of death for an artists career.
    If anyone’s interested I expand this thinking in an essay here – http://www.pampelmoose.com/mspeaks/2009/04/the-end-of-the-music-album-as-the-organizing-principle

  6. What’s next though?
    Why can’t there be something more interesting than the album….? That paradigm came about as a direct result of the limitations of the medium…Polyvinyl chloride.
    We plan on releasing our new 45 song album beginning June 1st at wheatus.com as a seasonal series…with DSD for Playstation 3 Downloads and a PDF comic in the place of liner notes….
    Why do we bother kicking around the merits of these old ideas when the glass ceiling is gone for good?…Try to make something new and interesting, says I.
    brendan b brown

  7. Why is it that we’ve all become so lame lately? As if writing songs, recording them and releasing them to the public has become such a puzzle. If you take pride in yourself and your art, you’ll do what it takes to present it properly. People talk about freedom from record companies these days, but if you ask me we’re still all jumping through hoops. We need to sit down and redefine the meaning of ‘selling out’.

  8. When I hear a single a like, I want to hear more from the artist, unfortunately, much of what I hear, is corny or lame. Fans of music have been complaining about lame albums for the longest, the digital revolution now allow fans to cherry pick their music. If they only like 3 or 4 songs on a album they can buy those 3 or 4 songs. If the album is a great conceptual albums that works as a whole, people will buy it. Fans are only going to pay for music they want now. If you’re only good for a single only make a single, if you’re good for an album go for it. If people are only buying a single from an album that has been marketed properly, it is likely because they don’t like all songs on the albums. I’m currently producing an album I follow the creed of all thriller and no filler, no plain vanilla. Just say no to filler music as an artist, make music you and your fans will love to listen to and play a thousand times over and you should be fine.

  9. Let me preface this by saying that I’m coming from an urban music background and have spent the past year working on a thesis about urban music consumption and marketing practices.
    With that being said, full-length albums make very little sense in today’s market. There’s a place for them, but only once an artist has proved himself/herself album worthy. I hate to use this guy as an example, but look at SouljaBoy. This guy sales MILLIONS of ringtones and recently had the #3 song on Billboard’s Hot 100, but his sophomore album was released in December 2008 and as of last week had yet to sale 200,000 copies. That’s just inexcusable. It makes no sense for ringtone sales from that album to be so disproportionate from full album sales. Interscope could have saved a lot of money of marketing and production if they switched him over to just releasing singles and ringtones. It’s not a stretch to say that Souljaboy doesn’t have an album’s worth of stuff to say.
    It’s time for record companies to embrace the state of the industry. Mr. Perry hinted at the days of 45s, and I believe those days have in essence returned (at least for urban music). Sure, a lot of it had to do with the technological limitations of the records, but brevity was key back then. It’s a great way to develop artists. I believe that mp3 “leaks” and singles are the “new” way to build buzz, and that certain genres lend themselves to the single format. Record companies need to stop shoving full albums that only have 3 songs worth listening to down consumers’ throats. It would cut so many production/marketing budgets in half.
    This is not to say that the album should die. There are plenty of artists I’d love to hear full albums from, like The Roots, Jill Scott, Janelle Monae, etc. But these artists are album worthy. I trust that they can provide an album with 12 notable songs instead of Souljaboy’s offering of 4 singles and 8 fillers. Again, not knocking Souljaboy. He’s good at what he does and his songs are hits on mobile phones and at parties, but I can guarantee you that I won’t be reminiscing about his album with my kids 20 years from now.

  10. How much are you selling it for? And not to be rude but why would I sit and listen to 45 songs from the same artist? Unless you’re Prince (Emancipation 30 Songs, and all 30 were good), I can’t imagine doing it. Which goes to the point of one of the replys below, Artists need to put out quality material to become album worthy. Singles are fine but I really believe people long for artist who can fill up a CD with good material. It’s part of the human makeup. When something is good we want more of it.

  11. Excellent discussion here guys.
    Scott’s original post missed the point; he used old examples to justify his habits and expectations of what music should represent.
    It’s a trap! Just because you liked Pearl Jam’s Ten doesn’t mean that they have to keep cranking out albums of 2 good songs (if that?) and 10 shit ones.
    Thanks for providing the impetus for discussion, though, Scott!

  12. It’s an optional donation system…free if you want…OR…if you want to give us money you can donate.
    Seasonal EP episodes following narrative elements until there are 45 songs total.
    YOU wouldn’t listen to 45 songs from one artist…I would listen to a million if they were great…Sometimes I wish Richard Ashcroft had 1 million tracks to listen to…depends on what type of music fan you are …I guess.
    brendan b brown

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