The Art & Science of Sound

How the CD Killed the Album

By Jack Sharkey, August 3, 2018

The album is dead. It may not be official yet, but for all intents and purposes the album is a thing of the past. The way we consume music is different today, but the death of the album can’t be attributed to just that one factor. In 2015, Adele’s 25 shifted 3.3 million combined units (physical product, album streams and downloads). 25 sold 1.11 million in its second week of release and 1.16 in its fifth week of release. By any measure those are not paltry numbers. In 1983 Prince’s Purple Rain sold 1.5 copies in its first week.

So far in 2018, two soundtrack albums have been the strongest equivalent (physical, stream, download) selling albums. Mamma Mia – Here We Go Again! the soundtrack to the sequel of the 2008 movie (which has sold 5,000,000 units since its release) has sold just over 1,000,000 in equivalent album sales – making it the first album of 2018 to do so. By contrast, the second largest selling album of 2018, the much-anticipated Man of the Woods by Justin Timberlake has sold 399,000 units. 

In 1975, Elton John’s Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy sold 1.4 million it its first four days, and in 1979 Led Zeppelin’s In Through the Out Door sold 1.7 million in three days. So, the numbers from Adele to Led Zeppelin are not terribly different. People still buy albums, we're just more selective today. This is because we now have the freedom to download and stream singles. Why buy the entire album for $19.99 when you can buy the two good songs on the album for less than five dollars, or pay ten dollars a month and stream whatever you want?

This new paradigm in music consumption is not merely the result of the new way we consume music. In fact, it’s actually closer to what the music industry looked like before Pet Sounds in 1966 and Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band in 1967 were released. After those two groundbreaking albums, artists were expected to come up with full-length masterpieces every six months or so. Prior to that, an artist had to prove their worth by scoring a few hit singles before a record label would even consider paying for an entire album.

The new business model plodded along nicely for twenty years or so until another paradigm shift began to suck the life out of the album. Prior to CD, vinyl albums were constrained to 22 minutes per side. Even a mediocre artist can come up with forty-four minutes of music every once in a while. And the great artists were able to keep the B-sides in the vault until the money-grabbing record labels all decided to release stuff that was never meant for release in the various and never-ending retrospectives and box sets the market was flooded with after the CD came along.

A CD can hold up to 80 minutes of music, so now record label execs began to look at all of those unused bits as wasted money. Why put out an album with 44 minutes of music on it and leave another 40 minutes of available space blank? The outrage! The inefficiency! The waste! Except they never grasped the concept that unused bits don’t cost anybody a dime.

Nevertheless, artists were compelled to use up all of those pesky unused bits of data. Even untested artists who were just starting out were forced to release music that just a few years before would never have been released. The problem was that we consumers were paying good money for maybe twenty minutes (at best) of good music and sixty minutes of garbage. But we had no other choice – the vinyl single was dead and the CD single never materialized. Oh, and on a sadder note – if those new artists released albums that didn’t shift a million units in a couple of months they were released to the hounds.

But lo and behold, along comes the ability for consumers to download or stream what they want when they want. Digging three or four of the new tunes on a particular album? Have at it without having to waste money on music you’ll never listen to: A wonderful development for music lovers, not so much for record labels. But one has to think, maybe if the labels weren’t so greedy when the fatted calf was roaming the land we might still be interested in supporting the album.

It might have taken thirty years but we may have to blame the death of the album on the CD.

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