The death of the music album


Kids don’t buy albums any more.

Okay, so that’s a sweeping statement. I am sure that some kids buy some music albums. But for many the internet has replaced the music collection.

If my son wants to listen to music he will search for it on Youtube. That is a fresh Google search every time he wants to listen to a song. He doesn’t download music. He doesn’t even save his favourite songs in his browser. He searches from scratch every time.

He has learned how many letters he needs to type into his search engine for the song he wants to come up. And the search engine remembers what he has searched for in the past.

A couple of years ago he was into a song called Gangnam Style. He played it so often that Google would offer it to him after he had typed the letter “g”. Within five seconds he was listening to the song. Thankfully, on headphones.

I have bought him CDs, of course I have. I am a doting father. But he doesn’t play them. The idea of an album of music – more than forty minutes – means nothing to him.

But then the idea of an album isn’t particularly old. It’s a baby boomer thing, which might be about to die out. Let’s have a little bit of history…

Up to the late 1800s, if you wanted music in your home you had to make it yourself. If you were posh, you bought sheet music and gathered the family round for a home-made concert. Mater would play the piano in the sitting room. Pater would accompany her on the violin. Little Grace would toot away on the recorder. Roger would get the dogs howling with his trumpet.

If you were poor you went dahn the boozah, when someone would bash out “Knees up Mother Brown” on the pub Joanna. And everyone else would join in, usually in varying degrees of inebriated tunelessness.

Then the frightfully clever Victorians invented the phonograph. For the younger readers, that’s a machine for playing music on plastic discs in the days when the world was in black and white.

Now you could have music even if you couldn’t play an instrument.

At first, these were limited to three to five minutes of music on each side of the record. That was just enough for a single song, but not much else. If you wanted to listen to an entire symphony, you had to buy several records. The music publishers were delighted to sell you a complete set of up to ten records for the major classical symphonies. And these collections of records become known as “albums”.

In 1948, someone exceedingly brainy invented the LP – the long playing record. This squeezed up to 45 minutes of music on a plastic disk that was 12 inches wide. And these became known as “albums” even though they weren’t albums any more. I suppose the idea is that you can get an entire album’s worth of music on one record.

If history had plodded on quietly at this point, these albums would have been mostly full of classical music. Symphonies, arias and operas with plump ladies pretending to be slim-hipped love-sick heroines.

But two things happened at this point to shake the music industry up – the Second World War and Elvis Presley’s hip gyrations. Which he may or may not have picked up from Forrest Gump.

In the post war era of the forties and fifties, the western world was in the mood for a party. We didn’t want to listen to sad music written by long dead Germans. We wanted lively music, sexy music, fun music. Most of all, we wanted to have a good time, damnit. And that meant rock and roll, pop, soul, disco.

Actually, I don’t think we ever truly wanted disco. It was probably an example of mass hypnosis. The American Government trying out some of the mind control technology they salvaged from the Roswell UFO. Or something like that.

This new music and the long-playing record were made for each other. The old fuddy-duddies could have their records of Beethoven’s Fifth. For the rest of us, the LP became a collection of around about ten pop songs.

And that meant a party. You could put a record on and have twenty minutes or so of uninterrupted dancing. Or whatever else you enjoyed doing to music which lasted about twenty minutes…

Then came the Beatles. Their first innovation was to include songs they had written themselves. Up to that point, groups made records which were a collection of standard songs. The Beatles ripped up that rule by writing their own. The recording industry would never be the same again.

In 1967, the Beatles (again) released “Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band”. Arguably for the first time, here was a pop record that linked all of its songs together (more or less). The album was not just a collection of songs. It had a theme. It was quite probably the first concept album.

I was born in 1964, so I wasn’t really paying much attention to the Beatles when I was three. But it was deeply ingrained in me that music came in two forms. There were songs lasting around 3 to 4 minutes. And then there were albums lasting forty to forty five minutes.

In fact, this idea of a forty five minute album was only around sixteen years old at the time of my birth. Records had only been widely available for even less time.

We might think that there is something magical about the album. The reality is that it is a very recent invention. It only looks and feels right to us because it is what we know.

There’s another thing. An album is 45 minutes long because that is how much the engineers managed to cram onto one disk. It’s a physical restriction, not an artistic one. It has become ingrained in our thinking, but there is no reason why an album could not be thirty minutes long. Or an hour. Or anything else. It has only stayed at 45 minutes because it has become what we expect.

I may have missed Sgt Pepper, but I was there for the next big milestone. I can even tell you the date. It was 10 November 1975. A little known British band called Queen released a single called Bohemian Rhapsody. Rather than perform it live on Top of the Pops, they made a promotional video.

The rest is history. From that point on, pop music wasn’t just sound. It was the true multimedia experience. Sound and vision.

The invention of the CD didn’t actually change pop music all that much. In many ways, they were simply “better records”.

Fast forward to today. Downloading music has taken some of the fun away from collecting music. There was a time when we had to hunt for rare recordings of our favourite bands. Now they are only a click away.

Music has become more convenient, but also a little less magical. It’s always there, like electricity or water from the taps. You don’t have to work at it. Press a button.

And it’s not just music any more. Thanks to Queen, it is music and video. Or more accurately music and video and social media.

The album will no doubt stagger on for a while yet. Us older folk will keep on buying them, because that’s how we expect music to come packaged.

But I do wonder if in future musicians will stop releasing their music in big lumps known as albums. Instead, maybe they will give us a more steady stream of songs. Songs that they will sell us for pennies each instead of pounds for an album.

And then we can make up our own albums of our favourite tracks.

It’s a brave new world. Perhaps we shouldn’t criticise it for being different to our world. Because our world was in its turn different to the one that came before us.

Now if you will excuse me, because we have been talking about it I have an itch to watch Bohemian Rhapsody …

On Youtube, naturally!


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