The remarkable resurgence of vinyl shows there’s life in the LP yet
We live in histrionic times. Keyboards rattle and opinions fizz. One day heralds ‘the death of X’, the next ‘the end of Y’. Yet, for all the white noise, the curious fate of perhaps the most iconic object in popular culture has been drowned out – the album. Occasionally howls about its demise break the eerie silence: but its tale is not one of gradual decline but complex distillation.
The 1950s brought singles to the world, the 1960s the unified album. By the 1970s the model was established: in the best cases, singles – if the artist deigned to release any – combined with album tracks to form something holistic that mysteriously surpassed the sum of its parts. In the 1980s, however, the album reached its nadir, when – leaving aside many stunning counterexamples – the lazy formula of padding two or three singles with sub-par filler was pushed to extremes. The age of the multi-artist best-of, the badge of the 90s, skulked around the corner. Although each new wave of technology – the tape, the CD, the hapless minidisc – much improved consumer convenience, it did little for the evolution of the album.
The arrival of the digital age was at first innocuous: the iPod playlist followed in the distinguished footsteps of the mixtape or CDR, allowing listeners to shake off the baggage of undesirable tracks. Yet, without any need for physical formats, the old market was quickly left behind; by 2015, digital music sales worldwide had overtaken those in physical form. The astronomic rise of streaming music has powered this cultural shift: UK streaming has quintupled in the last three years, with 45 billion songs played in 2016. Spotify, Apple Music, Deezer and the like have shifted the industry’s focus from sales to access. But with unlimited possibilities unleashed by a finger-shimmy, most listeners cherry-pick standout tracks rather than experience albums as a unit. Established artists now prefer to focus on singles. If practically any song can be streamed anywhere, why would customer listen, and why should artist make, anything united as an album?
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