What is an album? I think at different times it has meant different things. In the digital age, the album usually signifies a collection of songs which might or might not have a coherent theme that groups them. Before that, albums were often not much more than retail products – a package defined by its restraints. And if that last sentence rubs you the wrong way, then you are like me, and believe albums should be more than just the package.
I can’t exactly remember the first album I ever bought. However I can remember the first album I ever bought that seemed like a coherent whole. It was Mr. Lif‘s concept album I Phantom, which tells a story from first to last track, the album artwork giving additional explanation. I fell in love with it. It redefined hiphop for me and I listened to it on repeat. The same thing happened a couple of years later, when I discovered Pink Floyd‘s Dark Side of the Moon, or the Beastie Boys‘ Paul’s Boutique, or Venetian Snares‘ Rossz Csillag Alatt Született. These are creations by artists who understood how to use the time restrictions of packaging and turned it into something marvelous.
Music is a creative business, but for most albums, it’s just business. The songs by themselves might be coherent works of art, but the albums are often reduced to compilations of coherent bits of art. I can understand this business choice if you sell a lot of music and the primary way in which this is sold is through CDs or vinyl, though I do not commend your creativity. However, for most artists the reality is that digital and live are the biggest sources of income. So why are you letting status quo-imposed restrictions define the way you release your music? It’s not the nineties anymore: following the status quo is now the worst strategy to choose.
The new package is the MP3, or whichever format you prefer. The new package is the stream.
Those packages are thriving!
As you can see, digital album sales can never make up for physical albums. Why? Because the album was a retail solution, optimising the material cost of the package by adding value to it in terms of music volume. However nowadays, what are you adding value to by putting out releases that are 50 or 70 minutes long? The grand illusion of this industry is that people pay for music. They don’t. Unless you’ve ever directly commissioned an artist, or requested a song from a musician and payed for it, you have not ‘paid for music’. You have bought the package, you have purchased access to a live experience or paid for access to music libraries. You’re not selling music. You’re selling things people associate value with because of your music. Music is not the product.
In the music business, we also love to jump into the role of the victim. I have a theory why this is. Making a comfortable living from music is, and has always been, one of the most difficult career paths. Then came Napster. Influential music executives, whom had been enjoying a predictable market and the comforts of market stability due to their oligopoly, were shocked into utter confusion. Through their influence, this confusion spread. Previously, to many artists, it seemed like there was only one route to get a career in music. Get signed and sell albums. Despite both aspects increasingly being less likely, newcomers would still aim for those paths. Since then, we’ve all remained comfortable in this womb of confusion, letting our roles as victims serve as excuses as to why we should not be thinking more creatively and more revolutionary about our business.
Due to great DIY examples and opportunities created by the likes of CD Baby, Jeff Price’s TuneCore, or Kickstarter, an increasing number of artists is now able to let go of the idea that getting signed is an essential step towards success. And Kickstarter, Pledge Music and other crowdfunding platforms have actually opened artists’ eyes that their albums are not the only product their fans might be interested in.
Now is the right time to ask yourselves: “why am I making an album?” Is the value of the whole greater than the sum of its parts? If yes, great. However if there is even the slightest suspicion that you’re making an album because “that’s the way things are” then rethink. You don’t have to release your music in economically dying formats just because you think that’s what people expect you to do. Doing the unexpected is more exciting.
You don’t have to follow last-century business models into their graves. You are free. Make music.