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The death of the album?

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But the extras may not be appealing enough: Forrester says that half of those who get their music online say they buy fewer CDs. More worrisome for bands who take great care when designing song lineups: Those who track online habits say that singles are definitely the preferred format, appealing to young and old alike, who like to create their own "albums," à la the mix tape.

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"It's not a close race. Downloading multiple songs from one CD or one artist is very much the exception, not the rule. For the most part, the online music market is still a singles market," says Eric Garland, CEO of BigChanmpagne.com, a site that tracks online file-sharing.

That could change with exposure to legal downloading of albums. The music store from Apple, iTunes, says that of the more than 17 million songs purchased since April, about 46 percent were downloaded as part of full albums.

"[Our customers] have demonstrated that, like with vinyl singles before and with CD singles most recently, the availability of individual tracks ... does not destroy the album as an art form, or as a business form," says Peter Lowe, director of marketing for iTunes.

Even if the online formats prevail, there will probably always be those who prefer the CD, just as some purists still cling to vinyl.

Music labels can take hope from Kevin DeLue of Randolph, Mass., who owns some 8,000 CDs. "I buy a lot of music," he says modestly, while shopping for new acquisitions at a Newbury Comics store in Boston.

Also, many people 30 and over - who account for slightly more than half of music sales - aren't comfortable with downloading yet, or aren't happy with the quality of the music.

"I want to hear good quality sound," says Lee Gardner, a jazz musician in his early 30s browsing at a Virgin music store in Boston. Downloaded music is good for the gym, he says, but not for serious listening.

Some bands - such as Metallica and the Red Hot Chili Peppers - have said they won't participate in the online services because they don't want their albums sold as individual songs. It takes away creative control and could bring the death of the album format, they argue.

To highlight the drawbacks of a world filled only with singles, some observers point out that an album like "Sgt. Pepper's" could never have been made. But most of pop music is Britney rather than the Beatles, say others.

"Concept albums" would likely continue. But what constitutes an album's worth of music might also change as artists, freed from the restrictions of a 70-minute CD, could make their collections longer or shorter. If a band only has 20 minutes of good songs, then it doesn't have to pad out the material.

At Rounder Records, Mr. Nowlin says they are already preparing for the coming changes. The label was among the first to embrace the CD format when it debuted, and is already thinking about how it will work with artists to market their music online - offering liner notes and finding ways to pitch bundles of songs.

Mr. Nowlin predicts there will be rapid evolution to a new format, most likely online, even if some traditional delivery of music remains. "It's inevitable, and I'd rather put my energy ... into how to take advantage of it," he says.

For those troubled by the possible loss of those gleaming silver discs, Kusek says: "When vinyl was replaced by CDs, did you really miss having to get up and flip the record over? I think the next format is going to give similar benefits, whatever it may be."

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