Birth and death of an album: we understand how music formats have changed over the past 100 years

    In past articles, we talked about the changing role of critics in the world of music. Now let's talk about how the landscape format lost its former significance - and what came to replace it. Photo Florencia Viadana / Unsplash

    How albums conquered the music market

    In the first half of the 20th century, the music industry was completely different from what we are now familiar with. Part of the changes were associated with then popular technologies - the main music format of that time was shellac records, which were played at a speed of 78 revolutions per minute. A standard 10-inch record contained only three minutes of music on each side - this seriously limited the length of the material. Even orchestral music was deliberately cut to fit on a record. The first recordings of Gershwin ’s Rhapsody in the Blues Style lasted around 9 minutes, almost half as much as the original version of the work. Not surprisingly, singles accounted for the vast majority of releases.

    Albums existed - but there were few. They were distributed in box sets containing several records. Even then, they had some of the characteristics that we attribute to modern albums - for example, included songs of a similar theme . But they couldn’t be called single pieces of music - they were more like compilations. This can be blamed on the “tough division of labor”, which was popular at that time, between music authors and performers.

    Albums often consisted of songs by different composers, written at different times and already published by other people. There was nothing shameful in releasing a "cover album".

    In the early 50s, the vinyl revolution began. Records of a new type, containing up to 45 minutes of musical material, quickly became popular. Then the author’s genres entered the mainstream - blues and folk music. A person who writes and performs his music has a large share of creative control over his records. This allowed the albums to turn from collections of disparate songs into single musical works.

    Photo Fleur / Unsplash

    The transformation is easy to follow by the example of The Beatles - one of the most influential groups of all time. Their first two albums were almost half composed of other people's songs. Subsequently, they practically got rid of covers, and at the same time their work became more holistic and conceptual. The culmination of this trend was the famous “Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts' Club Band ”, with seamless transitions between songs and compositions reminiscent of suites.

    By the 70s, “compilation albums” began to be valued less than more conceptual works. Albums themselves in their structure more often resembled classical symphonic compositions - especially in the prog rock genre, which was formed at the junction of rock and academic music.

    For example, the album “Thick As A Brick” by Jethro Tull consists of one single song, divided into two parts. Double album “Works Vol. 1 »by Emerson, Lake And Palmer opens with a piano concert performed by a keyboard player and the London Symphony Orchestra. The tendency to incorporate symphonic techniques into the material was not limited to the prog. Many popular albums of the 70s also fall under this trend - for example, Queen’s famous “A Night At The Opera” or David Bowie ’s Ziggy Stardust rock opera .

    By the end of the 70s, the process of the academicization of rock music began to decline, but the expectation that the album should be more than the sum of its components remained. Many 80s pop albums continued to develop this direction. Among them are the Sign O 'The Times by Prince and Peter Gabriel's So.

    Sunset era albums

    However, already in the 80s, processes began that led to a drop in the popularity of albums.

    The first of these was the increasing focus on the commercialization of music , driven by music television and its growing popularity among young people. We already wrote about how MTV became the first youth channel on American cable TV. And it was no accident - at the beginning of the decade, studies appeared that described the influence of adolescents on the market economy. Channel management saw an unoccupied - and potentially very profitable - niche that became even more attractive as it weakenedlegislative restrictions related to advertising for children. The artistic value of music has faded into the background compared to its entertaining component.

    As a result, the genre we call teen pop was born. He focused on singles because they are cheaper than albums, accompanied by video clips and do not require long-term attention from children. The influence of teen pop artists was used to sell teens drinks, toys, and even appliances . Artistic music that touches on complex topics (especially in the album format) cannot compete with pop hits as an advertising engine.

    By the end of the 80s, other genres appeared that were poorly compatible with the classical song tradition - dance electronics and hip-hop. The central figures in dance electronics were DJs who put records on the dance floor. To make life easier for a DJ, there must be “buffers” in electronic compositions - a long introduction and a long ending. This makes it easier to find the perfect time to switch between tracks. Traditional album compositions are laconic in nature, and do not give this opportunity. Therefore, the main format of dance electronics has become a 12-inch single .

    As for hip-hop, in this genre the mixtape format began to gain popularity - a home compilation of compositions by various producers, which are united by the poetry of the artist. Dozens of people can work on one hip-hop album, not counting the copyright holders of the samples. This complicates the creation of a holistic work. Concept albums did not bypass hip-hop, but did not become genre-forming.

    The final blow to the album format was dealt by the death of physical media . We also wrote about her in one of the previous materials . In a world where streaming is the main form of music consumption, and entertainment content directly competes with music, attention is hard to keep for a long time. Streaming platforms - a buffet of the music industry. In such conditions, listeners tend to try just a little bit, and not focus on one dish.

    Singles return

    How do performers adapt to the new climate? As news cycles get shorter and public attention becomes harder, the frequency of content takes precedence over its quality. The task of the performers is to stay in the headers and user playlists rather than make their album their playlist. If a performer spent six months recording a record, and it took the public only a week, then this is money wasted.

    Moreover, albums as such are only getting shorter . Studies show that even on the most hit records, most of the auditions fall on 3-4 songs.

    Therefore, performers focus on singles . People are more likely to listen to them to the end - not to mention the fact that by releasing one song per unit of time, it’s possible to create info leads more often. This opinion is shared by producer Savan Kotecha, known for working with One Direction and The Weeknd. If such well-known names are preoccupied with creating a constant stream of singles, then for medium-caliber performers it is all the more necessary for most of their songs to be heard by the album's release.

    Japanese singer Siina Ringo recently released her first album in four years. 8 out of 13 songs on it were released as singles. Two more songs became available after the opening of pre-orders. As a result, by the release of the album there were only three new tracks on it.

    Due to the focus on singles, more remixes and duets are coming out . Working with other performers - whether adapting a song to the dance floor or appearing on someone else's track, helps to promote your brand and remain in the focus of the general public. This is partly influenced by the growing popularity of hip-hop, a genre that encourages collaboration.

    Photo by Søren Astrup Jørgensen / Unsplash

    Some artists, inspired by Hollywood and the explosion of cinematic franchises, release sequels to old works and a series of albums . This helps them repeatedly exploit the same successful “story”. In 2013, Eminem released a sequel to the already classic recording of “The Marshall Mathers LP”. All albums of the legendary emo bandAmerican Football have the same name and differ in numbers (like the early work of Led Zeppelin). The 1975 and Foals groups create a series of albums , in the hope that an emotional investment in the first part will allow them to “save” the audience.

    The genre of the album is not dead. But business realities force performers to rethink their approach to work. This state of affairs has both positive aspects (more joint musical projects, fewer fillers, tracks to fill the album) and negative ones (albums reminiscent of compilation). True, it is too early to draw final conclusions. In the end, no one knows what technology will change the music industry in the next five years.

    Additional reading from our “Hi-Fi World” and habrablog:

    Forgotten audio formats: 8-track magnetic tape Stereo 8
    Audio cassettes in pop culture: why the obsolete sound recording format is considered fashionable again
    Forgotten formats: flexible records
    “Just take and listen to music”: 5 ways and formats to choose
    New-old formats: HD-vinyl and DIY-records
    What was on the first iPod: twenty albums that Steve Jobs chose in 2001
    Pay what you want: how this model showed itself in music, and who tried it make money

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