Album Era

Bring Out Your Records by James Lloyd

The Album Era was a period in English-language popular music from the mid 1960s to the mid 2000s in which the album was the dominant form of recorded music expression and consumption. It was primarily driven by three successive music recording formats, the 331⁄3 rpm phonograph record (1931), the audiocassette (1964), and the compact disc (1982).

In 1999, peer-to-peer file sharing application Napster was released, popularizing digital copies of music. The ease of downloading individual songs facilitated by it and later networks is often credited with ushering in the end of the Album Era in popular music.

Technological developments in the early twentieth century led to the development of the vinyl long-playing (LP) album as an important medium for recorded music. In 1952, Columbia Records began to bring out 331⁄3 rpm twelve-inch extended-play LPs that could play for as long as 52 minutes, or 26 minutes per side. Musical film soundtracks, jazz works, and thematic albums by singers such as Frank Sinatra quickly utilized the new longer format. However, in the 1950s and into the 1960s, 45 rpm seven-inch single sales were considered the primary market for the recorded music industry, while albums were a secondary market. The careers of notable rock and roll performers such as Elvis Presley were driven primarily by single sales.

The dominance of the single as the primary medium of music sales changed with the release of several iconic concept albums in the 1960s, such as ‘A Christmas Gift for You from Phil Spector’ (1963), the Beach Boys’ ‘Pet Sounds’ (1966), the Mothers of Invention’s ‘Freak Out!’ (1966), and the Beatles’ ‘Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’ (1967). During Pet Sounds’ composition and production, Beach Boys bandleader Brian Wilson found the American version of the Beatles’ ‘Rubber Soul’ (1965) to be ‘a collection of songs that…somehow went together like no album ever made before,’ which inspired Wilson to briefly shift his focus from singles to albums. Frank Zappa has said that within Freak Out!, ‘It wasn’t as if we had a hit single and we needed to build some filler around it. Each tune had a function.’ In reference to the Beatles and Beach Boys mid-1960s work, writer Bill Martin noted: ‘In the wake of these albums, many rock musicians took up the ‘complete album approach.” ‘Rolling Stone’ Assistant Editor Andy Greene felt that, ‘[Sgt. Peppers] was the beginning of the album era. It was the big bang of albums. This was the first concept album. All the songs go together to tell a story, and it’s inspired every musician,’ whereas music journalist Stephen Davis believed ‘Pet Sounds’ to be the first rock concept album for its ‘trenchant cycle of love songs [that] has the emotional impact of a shatteringly evocative novel, and by God if this little record didn’t change only the course of popular music, but the course of a few lives in the bargain.’

The mid 1960s to the late 1970s was the era of the LP and the ‘golden era’ of the album. ‘These were the years when the music industry exploded to become bigger than Hollywood.’ This period, especially the 1970s, is also called the ‘Album Rock Era.’ (Along with the LP record, the 8-track tape as another format popular in the United States in this period.) Although the fall of LP record sales at the end of the 1970s and rise of first the cassette and then the CD as the dominant format for recorded music saw the end of the golden age, the album consolidated its domination of the recorded music market. Seven-inch vinyl single sales were dropping and were almost totally displaced by cassette singles by the end of the 1980s. Yet these were never as popular as seven-inch singles and they and the subsequent CD singles never amounted to a significant threat to the dominance of the album.

The first real threat to the album’s primacy in the 1980s and early 1990s came from MTV. It was quickly recognized that, ‘after the album-rock era of the 1970’s, MTV helped return the hit single to prominence as a pop marketing tool.’ By the middle of the 1990s, single song delivery of music to the consumer was almost dead. In 1998, ‘Billboard’ magazine ended the requirement of a physical single for charting on its Hot 100 chart after several of the year’s major hits were not released as singles. But, despite the dominance of the CD, technological changes quickly turned the tables. In 1999, the internet peer-to-peer file sharing service Napster allowed internet users to easily download single songs in MP3 format. By early 2001, Napster use peaked with 26.4 million users worldwide, and began to eat away at album sales.

Although Napster was shut down in 2001 for copyright violations, other music download services took its place. In 2001, Apple Inc.’s iTunes service was introduced and the iPod, a consumer-friendly MP3 player, was released later that year. This and other legal alternatives as well as illegal file sharing continued to depress sales of recorded music on physical formats. By 2006, downloaded digital single sales outnumbered CD sales for the first time and buyers of digital music purchased singles over albums by a margin of 19 to 1. Even music industry executives were forced to admit that the album was on its way out. ‘For some genres and some artists, having an album-centric plan will be a thing of the past,’ Capitol-EMI’s COO Jeff Kempler said. Other warnings were more dire. Media researcher Aram Sinnreich bluntly predicted that ‘the album is going to die. Consumers are listening to play lists’ on their MP3 players.

With consumers abandoning albums, performers ‘started concentrating on dishing out singles as opposed to churning out albums.’ Critics of the trend argued that single songs ‘never truly showed an artist’s true prowess and every singer or songwriter proved to be a one-hit wonder.’ Although CD and digital download albums continue to be marketed, by the 2010s, many of the best-selling albums were by legacy performers who had seen success earlier in the Album Era.

2 Comments to “Album Era”

  1. Superlative blog! One could get lost in here for hours and not for once feel they’d lost time – only gained by your rich postings!

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