The death of the album?
This Christmas, Americans are going to be getting a lot fewer CD players in their stockings. Instead, they'll be unwrapping iPods and other devices able to store thousands of digital songs (if analyst predictions are correct). It's yet another indication that music buying is continuing its shift online. And one of the casualties may be the album, the art form perfected by musicians such as The Beatles and Pink Floyd.Skip to next paragraph
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The future of the album - both in its physical form and as a grouping of related songs - is being pondered by everyone from bands who refuse to provide their music to online services to technology analysts, who predict that the CD will become passé within the next five years.
It's a pressing concern, given the decline of record sales since 2000 and the popularity of downloading singles by a public tired of paying $15 for an album with one hit and lots of padding.
Few in the industry are ready to predict the end of the album - even those at the online services, who say the two can coexist. But many agree that the digital revolution will prompt new ways of listening to music. "The opportunity for new formats to emerge is really a terrific thing for musicians and fans," says Dave Kusek, an associate vice president at Berklee College of Music in Boston. "I think the CD will go," he adds. "But a 60-to-70 minute collection of songs doesn't necessarily have to go."
Legal downloading of music is still fairly new - with services like Apple's iTunes and Napster 2.0 launched just this year. But by 2008, 33 percent of music sales will come from downloads, making CDs a has-been medium, predicts an August report by Forrester Research, a technology-tracking group in Cambridge, Mass. CD sales are already down 15 percent from 2000, according to the researchers.
Even with the evolution, some features music-lovers crave in an album will continue: "Online downloads will come with extensive artwork, extras like musician interviews and alternate versions, and lifetime service - none of which discs can match," Forrester reports.
Record labels say they are embracing the new format, offering their wares on the legal download sites, for example. Some maintain downloading will coexist with the CD; others are more resigned to what may be coming. "We're not making millions or even thousands of dollars [on iTunes]," notes Bill Nowlin, an owner of Rounder Records, one of the largest independent record labels. "But I do think it's the future."
Based on the timeline the physical delivery of music has followed so far, a change was due. In the early 20th century, 78 rpm records ruled the day. By the late 1940s, they had morphed into the 45s that popularized the music of Elvis Presley in the 1950s. Long-playing albums were introduced around the same time, but it wasn't until the 1960s, when the Beatles were creating classics like "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band," that the album format took off.
Another big change came 20 years ago with the introduction of the compact disc, which significantly altered the album experience for many who used to curl up on the couch and contemplate the cover art and liner notes surrounding their vinyl.
Today, record companies are putting on quite a show to keep people interested in CDs. Universal Music Group, one of the big-five record companies, cut CD prices by up to a third this year to boost sales. Labels are also trying to entice shoppers by including video games with albums, or by selling pared-down versions for under $10 at Wal-Mart.