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.
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.
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.
"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."