Unbundling Albums – The Silent Killer

Record Shelves
Record Shelves (Photo credit: FourthFloor)

Spotted on: The Register

Capgemini recently broke down album sales in Britain since 2004.  While the report is still confidential, The Register reported on a few details.  And what is the reported main source of lost revenue in the British recording industry?  Album Unbundling.  File sharing came in at 18% of the projection.

The iTunes music store was originally launched with the blessing and backing of the four major record labels   It wasn’t until the major labels unbundled their catalogs that the idea was popularized.  In unbundling albums, audiences have lost the incentive to buy complete musical works.

Considering that the major labels are upset over their falling revenue, it doesn’t seem like a shining moment when they devalued the recordings in their catalogs.

Would you buy part of a painting?  As Jim Griffin pointed out in 2004, would you unbundle books of poetry?

It is valid that many albums only have a couple of good tracks, and the rest are filler.  However, most albums are created and put together as a total piece.  Ciccone Youth released an album quite a while back titled “The Whitey Album”.  The second track is “Silence”, and consisted of a little over a minute of… silence.  Admittedly, this is not the first track of its kind (the band joked that the track was a sped up version of John Cage’s 4:44).  This track sold for 99 cents on the iTunes store until stories started popping up in the media.  Artistic visions are undermined through unbundling, and shorter or more experimental tracks are not always as valuable as stand alone fare.

What do fans lose from unbundled albums?  When I think of some of my favorite albums, I can see that I would miss some gems through album unbundling.  Many Pink Floyd albums are meant to be listened to as a continuous piece.  Primus‘ (Primus’s?) early albums contain many short interludes that I love, but wouldn’t buy as a single.  What about experimental ramblings or noise tracks?  Clearly these tracks are intended to be part of those musical experiences.

Does it serve artists to have their musical works picked apart?  While the single is still a viable format, it has a specific design: a track meant to generate interest in an album, and often the “money track”.  By unbundling albums, all tracks become singles, and fans often miss the gold in favor of a single serving mentality.  Radiohead’s In Rainbows is not available on iTunes for this very reason.  The album can only be obtained the way it was created: as an album.

I’m a proponent of freedom of choice, and I believe that audiences have the right to buy the music they want, and how they want it.  I’m a believer that if a song is a hit, don’t withhold the single.  When you buy your tracks in single servings, the overall cost is higher.  It costs between $2,000-$10,000 to fill a 40GB iPod, depending on whether you buy the music as albums or singles.

However, as an artist, I want my vision to be experienced.  As as a lesser-known artist, the incentive for people to buy a single track over the album is apparent.  While it’s an honor to have people tune in at all, is there an incentive in creating a full album if people only buy one or two tracks?

The Bottom Line:  Album unbundling has the potential to eliminate the art of the album entirely, although it does provide an opportunity for fans to expand their musical tastes in low cost increments.

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  1. Michal Migurski

    All of pop music is a response to a changing technological landscape, from sheet music to vinyl to cassingles. Didn’t albums only become viable when the long-playing record was developed 30/40-ish years ago?

    With digital music, the album is as easy to get as the single, and for the first time the audience has the choice to acquire music how they want it: some people just want the one song, others want the whole thing. The people who give a fig about your artistic vision will surely spring for the whole deal.

    Personally, there’s a very small percentage of albums in my rotation that deserve to be considered a complete, gestalt work of art, though the individual tracks are top-notch. I think you do a great disservice to singles by calling them out as mere promotional bait for the “real” product.

  2. Mic Mell


    Thank you for your comment, and you raise a great point.

    I agree with you wholeheartedly that freedom of choice is the greatest thing that ever happened to music. I would rather people listened to one of my songs than none.

    My position isn’t so much that singles are a carrot dangled to audiences as the lure to the album. Consider that artists create albums, whether they are a total work or merely a collection of songs. An album is a collection of ideas put together. While audiences now have all the power in choosing what music they buy, the matter of artistic integrity is still a valid issue.

    If I wanted to release a series of singles, I would do so. Instead, I put time and effort in collecting songs that go together, working out a track listing, and measuring my output in terms of albums, not a stream of tracks. How you choose to listen to them is up to you. Whether you choose to have one track or the whole album, the important thing is you are moved by the music.

    OH! I just thought of something! What if one of the future platforms for music is artists releasing their work one track at a time? Seems like it would be more difficult to build a fanbase one track at a time. Then again, the single’s power can’t be underestimated.

    The question I pose to you is:
    What impact will unbundling albums have on the album format?

  3. { dr.xnlb: The Almighty Album }

    […] Mic Mell, of Polyvibe Records, posted an inquiry on his blog today about a study in the UK about their Music Industry, and the revenue they are losing. They estimate that 18% of the album sales are lost to p2p and piracy. But the biggest killer to their sales? Un-bundling albums on digital markets like iTunes. Read his entire post here, but this is the first quote that caught my eye: Does it serve artists to have their musical works picked apart?? While the single is still a viable format, it has a specific design.? A track meant to generate interest in an album, and often the best track (sometimes colloquially referred to as the “money track”). […]

  4. dr.xnlb

    I don’t know about that – I have to side with Michal a little bit. Sometimes they are just hot songs, and sometimes the album is a journey. Very few are in the latter category.

    And, I do think you could build a fan base, one track at a time. In fact, I’ve toyed with the idea of helping Drone Operator do that – either release every song he’s done on a podcast one at a time, one a day, until he has no more tracks. Except he’s so prolific he’d probably be able to keep up with it until the end of freaking time.

    Also, think about it this way… Plenty of bands made a decent following on Myspace – 4 songs at a time. And many of them will blast their fans messages when a new song is available on their myspace player.

    So you may want to re-evaluate this.

    But then again – I’ve had the privledge of seeing how you work, how multiple albums are built along side each other in different folders, as you find the perfect songs to go with each one. So I know what you are putting into it – and it works for many of the styles your perform in (Funk, Jazz, Electronic, Dub) where whole albums – the kind the should be listened to in in one sitting are the norm.

    But Michal nailed it: this is all just a response to a changing technological landscape – one that the Majors can’t figure out how to use yet – but they’re slowly learning.

    Independents need to be moving fast to scout the new landscape for opportunities.

  5. Michal Migurski

    Thanks for the reply, Mic!

    That’s a good question, about the effect on albums … the only way I know to respond is to look at previously obsoleted technologies. I think that when the album stops being the default, primary delivery mechanism for pop music and starts being a conscious choice that artists have to make, then it will really come into its own among connoisseurs. Most pop will be released in single, track, or (shudder…) ringtone form, but some artists will choose to build entire albums. Most people will not be connoisseurs.

    I recently read that Brian Eno claims that curation is the most important skill for the new century, and I think this is what’s going on with albums. Used to be the artists putting songs together into an album-length experience, now it’s the audience and iTunes, the musical spreadsheet.

    I always though They Might Be Giants were the first musicians to really see this, with their Dial-a-Song service (apparently still in operation?!) and the sub-30 second cuts on a number of their albums. I’m slow, so I’m just catching on now.

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