In the last issue of Rolling Stone (Issue 1090 — Madonna is on the cover), on the front page of their news section is an interesting little think-piece on how more artists are moving away from the format of expression known as ‘the album.’ For the sake of distinction, an album is defined as a collection of songs, usually divided among 12-15 songs, running about 30 minutes long. Instead, artists are focusing in on singles and EPs — a collection of songs that is usually shorter than 30 minutes, and featuring more than just one or two songs that a single would have. The article cites recent releases from Radiohead, and up-coming work from the Smashing Pumpkins as evidence of artists embracing the shorter formats; in addition, they also cite the increasing trend of purchasing individual tracks from iTunes and the ‘dated’ experience of buying a CD (the largest demographic still purchasing compact discs are 50+) as evidence of it being a smarter economic-based decision for companies and artists alike.
For artists, the benefits of focusing on singles is primarily economic. Short-form releases means a consistent presence in the minds of the audience, generating constant anticipation for their music. Creatively, it gives artists a chance to go after the perfect pop tune, much like in the 60’s of yore, when local markets were competitive and equally reflective of national music trends. Similarly, for the record companies who are increasingly present in the other facets of the industry (according to the article, most companies have deals to get a cut from ticket sales, t-shirts and other merchandise), it means finding new methods of distributing product (woah — the companies themselves are getting creative now?!), and getting more out of smaller, more frequent releases.
Of course, this is all based on assumption. The reality is, we don’t have regionally competitive marketplaces anymore, because most of the radio stations that air the singles are owned by a conglomerate. Then there’s whether or not people will be willing to pay more for EPs, t-shirts, and concerts, and whether or not it’ll be even worth it. Sure, artists are focusing more on creating a quality single, but the energy will balance out to be the same. To call the album an unjust and arbitrary economic decision can be fairly held to the return of the single, but it comes down to sentimental greatness as well. We’re all attached to our favorite songs, but people debate the greatness of albums as the more impressive output. Albums show consideration for cohesiveness in ideas and scope more than the sheer disposability of a single. It shocks me to hear the man who composed all of “Melon Collie and the Infinite Sadness” refer to the idea of an album as “forced” and “obviously an economic decision made by mothers and not an artistic decision made by the creators.” Then again, when you’re Radiohead or Smashing Pumpkins, you can say such things because they’ve made lasting albums. They don’t have to prove themselves anymore.
However, for a serious artist, especially a younger one, an album shows your worth as a potential great. Focusing on singles implies a weakness for craft or a lack of ideas, and is generally fine for mainstream pop charts where most rock leaning bands have turned to generic balladry. It sells out, sure, but most young pop-minded bands will suffer the fickleness of trends. Bizzare enough, it’s this fickleness that gives us reason to worry about the state of the album.