The specific quote was:
"This is a last gasp for the album format," says Aram Sinnreich, a media professor at New York University, who says most albums have only one or two good songs surrounded by little more than "filler material."
The worst quote of the article came from Aram Sinnreich of Radar Research. "This is a last gasp for the album format," he said, adding that most albums are merely a few good songs plus "filler material." Sinnreich may be right about filler content, but I believe he's horribly wrong in his prognostication. In a year of strong sales by Lil Wayne, Coldplay and Hannah Montana -- and a huge increase in LP sales -- one shouldn't dismiss outright the album format. If nothing else, one can look at the numbers provided by Soundscan: At the mid-point of 2008, the rate of growth for digital albums exceeded that of track downloads 34.4% to 27.7%. That's right. Digital albums were faring better digital tracks through the end of June. That's hardly the growth rate of a format suffering through its last gasps.
It's not my usual M.O. to respond to people who get cranky about stuff I say in the media, but I happen to really like Coolfer, and I wanted to let Glenn know the context in which the I gave Nick Wingfield the quote. So I fired off the following comment to his post:
As to the LP sales, I would argue that they could almost be reclassified as merchandise, rather than recorded music -- a significant number of purchasers are buying them to /have/, not to listen to (the audiophile market notwithstanding).
And, yes, digital album sales are relatively strong, but neither the single nor the album product format adequately addresses the way today's music fans are actually listening.
The new dominant consumption format is the playlist. Only business models that address this behavior -- such as online radio, subscriptions, and ISP taxes -- will take full advantage of consumers' rapidly expanding tastes. The album -- ten songs by a single artist in a fixed order -- just doesn't cut it in this context. And the inevitable death of the CD as a distribution format (it will live on as a storage format) will cement the death of the album, which is essentially an arbitrary product based on the limited capacity of 20th century recording and distribution technology.
My quotes were taken in the context of this larger argument, and of course, were presented as stand-alones in the final article.
Glenn emailed me back, arguing:
With all due respect, I honestly believe you are wrong and you will be wrong in five years, and probably ten years. (I trust your comments were not made about the music industry in 25 or 50 years.) But it's a good opposing point of view. To me, it's like saying the CD is dead...even though hundreds of millions of CDs are sold each year. Why dismiss billions of dollars in consumer spending? Because sales aren't what they used to be?
Playlists are a way in which music is organized and heard, correct? (And occasionally purchased at digital music stores.) That's different than the way music is packaged by labels/artists and purchased by customers. To say playlists are "consumed" does not draw a distinction between purchasing and listening. Even if ISP-based, all-you-can-eat subscription services become the norm, artists will still release albums and people will still acquire albums. Maybe albums will be less popular in the near future, but I disagree with any comment that says they are having their last gasps.
To which I responded:
> Why dismiss billions of dollars in consumer
>> >> spending? Because sales aren't what they used to be?
Yes, that's part of it, but the diminishing sales are only symptomatic
of the larger structural problem(s). The sales aren't what they used to
be because (a) labels are shipping fewer units of fewer albums by fewer
artists, (b) brick-and-mortar retailers are devoting fewer square feet
to CDs, in favor of higher margin entertainment goods like movies, games
and portable electronics, and most importantly (c) because consumers no
longer see value in the album as a format. How could they, when the iPod
they just got in their stocking holds 20,000 songs?
> > Playlists are a way in which music is organized and heard, correct? (And
>> >> occasionally purchased at digital music stores.) That's different than
>> >> the way music is packaged by labels/artists and purchased by customers.
>> >> To say playlists are "consumed" does not draw a distinction between
>> >> purchasing and listening.
This is true, but the health of an industry can be measured in terms of
how closely product models match consumption habits. The delta tends to
be greater in industries that are consolidated and capital-intensive
(like the music industry used to be) and lesser in those that are more
diversified and have a lower bar to entry (the direction the industry is
moving in, major label mergers notwithstanding).
> > Even if ISP-based, all-you-can-eat
>> >> subscription services become the norm, artists will still release albums
>> >> and people will still acquire albums.
This is probably true in the near term, because both artists and
consumers are comfortable with the format, and because marketers know
how to promote them. But they'll be albums in name only; already, we're
seeing singles released as ringtones and video game soundtracks before
they ever get (officially) burned to a CD. Eventually, the album becomes
a pure ersatz marketing event, and the innovative artists and marketers
will be those that successfully shatter the illusion and find a
different way to bundle music for consumers. Pioneering independent
musicians are already doing this by releasing new songs, drafts, and
even individual tracks on their web sites and blogs, as they produce the
Like most interesting arguments, this one could go on for years (and if we don't continue it, someone else will). Glenn was gracious enough to post my responses on Coolfer, along with some additional analysis, and I'm doing the same here. I welcome your comments as well.