The Album: Extinction or Evolution?


Album Collection

Prince gave his album away in a newspaper, and Radiohead broke new ground with In Rainbows by letting fans choose how much to pay.

Animosity toward major record companies is growing faster than US citizens contempt for their government (I’ll refrain from linking out to anything here). The entertainment industry is entering what is known as a paradigm shift.  International acts who have sold tens of millions of albums are bucking the existing system, and thus speeding up its downfall.  Once the major labels are gone (or reduced to distribution entities), a new paradigm for the music industry will emerge.

Imagine there are almost no major recording studios. In this future, albums are considered such a small part of an artist’s career that the effort and attention paid to them diminishes.  A professional musician becomes someone who tours and sells merch exclusively, while the number of live venues and outlets for performance shrink exponentially (Have you heard what is happening in orchestras?).  As internet streams and access increase, the value of going to a live show also drops. In this future, there is zero market for music as a commodity. Almost all musicians become hobbyists, and only artists with marketing budgets to swamp the internet garner popularity. Most musicians will no longer believe that they can live their dreams, and less and less of us will be willing to take the risks that it takes to generate rampant success. In this future, acts like Metallica and Radiohead will continue to make money; their touring and merch machines can support a massive infrastructure.

While this future is depressing, it is not the future we are living into culturally. Major acts are taking actions now that will ensure that the market for music opens up, and are creating an environment where any artist can create success with dedication and commitment. In fact, going back to Radiohead (check out the comments on this article), fans are embracing the opportunity to support an artist, and are buying the album.

Depending on how you look at things now, you can say that albums sales are bottoming out, or you can say that the imbalance of major label influence is being removed from the sales figures.

Imagine a different future, one where albums sell and fans want to buy music they love.  Most of the animosity toward buying music has to do with pricing structures and wealth imbalance between artists and labels.  Even though people can download anything they want for free, albums are still selling.  While the value of albums may drop, the percentage going to artists will increase, balancing out the pot for artists (the only party that fans care about anyways). A billion downloads is not a coincidence.  A la carte downloads are novel now, but just like a six pack is far cheaper than buying one can of soda, the value of buying an album will follow the same path.

We can look at the actions of multi-platinum artists as a litmus test for the music industry, but they do not reflect most artists. Gauging the future of album sales on artists who have sold millions of albums is no different that gauging the future of album sales on major label methodology. The typical mid-level artist has neither the resources nor the savings to write off the value of albums.

There will be a shift in the perceived value of music by fans, too.  Once DRM goes away, and people stop trying to litigate file sharing into oblivion, audiences will begin to give up their resentment of buying music.  With software, file sharing is also rampant.  Yet software companies are selling enough units to stay in business.

People value things more when they buy them. A hard drive filled with downloaded music will never go away, and who among us has no mix tapes or downloaded songs?

While the current environment of corporate pressure raises hackles, audiences want great albums to listen to.  We just don’t want to be told we’re criminals.

The future of music lies in respecting the choice of the audience. If people don’t want to buy an artists music, but they want to listen to it, more power to them. As long as they enjoy it. If people love music, they will buy it.

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  1. J-Ro

    Thanks for the link. It’s nice to be inspiring.

    I think we’re going to see something somewhere between the two situations you’ve put forward above. Artists will never stop creating. That’s a drive that’s stronger than money. And some people will always find a way to live off their art. Like you said, we’ll hopefully see the quality of art go up, and so people will once again be willing to pay for it.

    Right now it seems to me you have a classic market problem. Before Napster, record companies (who control distribution) could put out basically whatever they wanted. As long as they were reasonably successful at riding broad trends, their music would sell. People had no other choice.

    Enter Napster and suddenly people don’t have to pay for broadly marketed crap. I agree with them. Why should I buy it if it’s not really good? I’m happy to support good artists in ways like seeing them live, but why should I buy their latest (often mediocre) album, with only a small fraction of the purchase price actually going to the artists.

    Bring on the change!

  2. Mic Mell


    The path to transforming this industry requires this painful shift. Major label methodology must fail before something new can emerge. In this transition period, it’s going to take a broad revolution against the existing industry.

    We’re just breaking a few eggs….

  3. Anthony C

    All the above comments have some merit, but, let me interject what I have been experiencing as some of the realities now. records sales are down and as far as I can see, still falling. The drive to create may be stronger than money but the drive to get something for free is stronger! Successful bands like Radio Head or Prince giving away their CD can afford it because they are at the top, mainly because of the “Old” system and this is saying something in itself. New artist are left to self promotion in a “ocean of fish” all clamering for attention. The CD becomes a very expensive “card” and your left with playing live to do the selling, just like the old days. Problem is, playing live is expensive and getting more expensive , hence, it becomes a young man’s game only. Tech. has made it easy for every “postal worker” and “drywaller” who dabbles in music to make a cd, which has helped to flood the world with more and more product which in turn has made it harder for the serious artist to push through. Music is subjective enough for these people to enter the music field and drive down the “value” of music. Making a living in this industry has become much harder and as I have stated before, “If you can’t make a living at something, be it a carpenter or a musician, then your a hobbiest and quality is on a slippery slope and the bar gets lowered on a daily basis. I know I sound depressing, but, I have been at this in the trenches for over 35 years and have always made a “living” because I was lucky enough to enter this bussiness at a time which allowed me to hone my craft and still work 6 nights a week and pay the bills. At this point, I am still waiting to see a sustainable path for our industry and the up and coming artist/musician.


  4. dr.xnlb

    AC, you underestimate humanity. For every person that pays £0, there will be someone there willing to pay £20.

    In fact, I know of at least 1 person that got it for free, then went back and got a second copy for £16, because he thought the album was worth it.

  5. Anthony C

    dr.xnib, I hope your right about me underestimating humanity, and I hope that the formula you have seen in the one case, is broad,even though that still would mean 1/2 of potential records sales. My point is mostly about a sustainable path for this industry. Mic Mell’s piece is predicated on established artist, the ones who got there through a label and can afford to give away their product. The future I think, will have to be a balance of the old and new. Self promotion is unbelievably time consuming due to the factors I have put forth, and have discovered for myself.A newartist must hit a certain critical mass of “recogonition” before they can get any attention from a label which I still believe is needed to bring an artist to the heights of a Radiohead or Prince. I have seen very little evidence of any new artist at the top today that does not have the “machinery” behind it. As much as I hated the old label model, I now beleive that it is neccesary for any artist to push into the higher realms of success. The model though must reflect a fairer deal for the artist and I believe that it will and does through the emergence of the smaller lables. This is my little view from here, at the bottom of the industry and I appreciate your comments.


  6. Mic Mell


    Your frustration is understandable. Consider that for an artist to succeed in the modern landscape, we are at the source of our own success or failure. Self promotion is time consuming, and it is one of the keys to the kingdom of success in a post-major label industry.

    The days of relying on an outside company to manage your career may well be over. The good news is, the days of major labels being the only access ot mainstream success are ending, too.

  7. Anthony C


    So true, I guess its now a young person’s game. After a couple of years of self promoting and personal investment of my latest CD, I have come to the realization that it could take a few more years/money and cds to get my investment back.(and without that, I will not be able to continue down this path, hence my frustration!!!)

    Thanks Mic, I truly hope your right and the music industry’s new path will allow new artist’s to flurish and continue their work.


  8. Mic Mell


    I invite you to consider the avenues of spending time rather than money. Creating a cult of personality around yourself, and an interest in who you are as well as your art may make a huge difference in the results you achieve.

  9. Anthony C

    Mic, I appreciate your advice greatly. It has peaked my curiosity though, are you a composer or musician, and if you are, could you direct me to a site where I could have a listen.



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