Circa 2014, rock band Muse declared the album dead. One of music’s most lasting legacies since the emergence of recorded music, the longest format, with its relative simplicity, the band claimed, in the face of the digitalisation and ubiquity of music on the internet, had perished.
They weren’t entirely wrong. A statistical study published on the website Statistica recorded the annual music album sales from the year 2007 to 2017 (with ‘album’ including “CD, CS, LP and digital albums”). Most years, total album sales fell lower than their preceding years. Between the years 2016 – 2017, album sales dropped by 9.4 million units from 205.5 million albums being sold in 2016 to 169.1 million in 2017. In fact, only in the year 2011 did album sales see a marginal bump up from its predecessor (from 326.2 million to 331 million, a rise of only 1.5%). Overall album sales had fallen from just above 500 million units in 2007, to under 200 million in 2017. With streaming today giving many people the choice between paying $20 for 12 tracks or $10 a month for access to a seemingly infinite music database, the shift is hardly shocking.
In today’s age of digital music, where the number of streams and views on a song online is bigger news than an album’s garnering platinum success, the standalone single has emerged as the most popular format. It’s almost logical: give a time-pressed world a short three-minute catchy song with a video that looks good on YouTube (but perhaps not in your mother’s hands) and sticks in their head, and the world will reciprocate with its attention. It’s as simple a thing as giving people what they need. The radio will take care of the rest.
In today’s age, people want variety, entertainment and familiarity rolled into one, and they want it quick.
The fifty-minute Length Play can hardly keep up with anything less than a traffic jam. The concentration asked of most experimental records won’t keep your eye on the road during your morning jog. And it’s no fun trying to keep up with something completely unfamiliar in rhyme or rhythm in the shower or on the dance floor. This is where the album, with its structure, discipline, and some may say, conformity, loses out in 2018. It’s also where your curated Spotify playlist wins.
Listening to the modern chart radio reveals a few patterns.
Either in the contents of the lyrics, vocal and tonic technique, baselines or drum machine patterns; something seems homogenous. Something sounds familiarly like the last fifty songs you’ve heard. Something in the song knows what makes your foot tap from past trials and is here to serenade you again.
Out-of-breath crooners are back in fashion. Trance baselines have been in for a few years and stubbornly refuse to leave the charts alone. Acid bass drops get you moving. Minimalistic drum taps interfere the least with your dance floor groove. (As a disclaimer, this is all terminology coming from a rock music listener who’s spent way too many holiday car trips with the Tops 40’s radio.)
There’s always a story, either vocal or instrumental, that you’ve heard before and it becomes easier to fill in the rest.
But there’s always something almost obligatorily new: a synth melody in a new key, a different chord progression (Hmm, perhaps playing ‘A#-D#’ this time instead of playing ‘D-A’ will sound extremely novel), a new instrument thrown into the mix; something to make a case for your argument in favour of variety.
What this sums up, to me, is a tired, wary society. We like our variety, in fact we’re wired for it, but only in micro dosages. We cling to familiarity and will take our blankets and pillow along with it. This is a generation that has seen more than its fair share of experimentation and variety in life and wants no more hard surprises. Yes, you can dye the cat purple for all I care, maybe the colour will even look good on her. Just don’t let me know that I can’t afford my rent this month. Don’t tell me my student debt has doubled and that I’ll probably never be able to retire. Keep the papers away. Oh, and while you’re at it, don’t mess with my music.
Pop music—historically short for popular music—is in this sense still quite a good reflection of society and its current mental state.
Most of today’s adults the teens and preteens of the mid-00’s, a generation that grew up under the dominant reign of Disney Channel. This decade’s rise in (or perhaps, resurgence of) Disney artists in the popular music charts could well mean a generation of now-grown kids holding onto the last of their childhoods—a time when things seemed simpler, or were at least taken care of, and there seemed a lot more to look forward to in the future than they grew up to realise—through their childhood stars.
So are we holding on to something that’s over and smearing its remains onto our music– a large aspect of our cultural lives and legacy? Does the ‘death’ of the longest format of music represent a breaking down of barriers, the handing of the reigns to the listener to modify their listening experience to their own comfort, the result of our collective wishes as a generation to find familiarity; or is it the death of music as we once knew it?