The Rise of the Stream and the Death of the Album

03/13/2013 4:00 AM |

Five years ago, when music blogs last seemed at least somewhat important, the latest albums were all heavily discussed. Chatter swirled around online leaks of anticipated new records months ahead of schedule. You’d chase links to posted songs, attempt to download them before they were pulled. (Morally dubious, yes, but driven by enthusiasm.) Out of necessity, labels and publicists have gotten much better at plugging the cracks in distribution. Non-downloadable streams of leaked records started showing up almost instantly after illegal versions appeared, directing fans to a less illicit source. Damage control turned into standard marketing strategy. As the concept of a “high-profile leak” lost power, the idea of sanctioned advanced streams at trusted publications gained strength. But as better control is imposed, it’s become harder to tell if anyone actually cares about full records at all.

Brokering a high-profile stream for an album is now one of the most important jobs a music publicist has, the practical end-point of the roll-out cycle that starts with a release announcement plus a streaming, embeddable teaser “single.” Old-guard alternative music hubs like NPR and Spin now regularly provide exclusive first listens. David Bowie’s surprise return, The Next Day, premiered at the iTunes store, making a hoped-for move to actually purchasing the music super easy.

The flashiest version of this new norm is Pitch-fork Advance. Launched in January, the site’s new sub-section was billed as “an immersive music-streaming platform designed to emulate the classic album experience.” In most cases this just means that the music is accompanied by vertically scrolling bits of looped video, glitchy representations of physical album art, occasional lyrics, and other associated content. Some acts try a little harder than others. A stream for the new record by veteran British psych-rockers Clinic swirls with a sequence of super-trippy fullscreen gifs, while Skrillex’s soundtrack for the James Franco exploitation flick Spring Breakers stays stuck on a leering movie poster.

Scope and ambition will likely accelerate, but at this point “immersive” seems like wishful thinking. The loops exhaust themselves after a few minutes for all but the very stoned-est of eyeballs. Our hazy image of serious side-burned dudes sitting still for hours on the floor with nothing but headphones and the Physical Graffiti sleeve lingers, but the idea that people ever spaced out to album art only now seems bizarre, no matter how boring the 70s were. Is some nostalgic idea of monk-like concentration on albums and their art a worthy thing to try to keep alive? Opening a new browser tab is even easier than reaching for a book to flip through. I suspect that the average time spent before the Pitchfork Advance window is quite short. I’m certain that the ubiquity of streams hasn’t led to more discussion about the records streaming.

A central irony of the Internet is that it’s so limitless in its scope and possibility that it demands prescheduled mass events to give it any sort of coherent, digestible focus. Presidential debates, awards shows, and sporting events suit the medium—anything that can snap everyone’s attention towards the same shiny, unavoidable thing. Works of art almost never clear that bar. TV shows, with their set schedules and next-day recaps, work well (difficulty in figuring out how to talk about Netflix’s paradigm-shifting House of Cards suggests trouble going forward, though). Movie openings, if big enough, can seem ubiquitous even as they leave most people out. But there’s almost never a natural time for everyone to sit down and listen to the same album together.

Music listening is more ephemeral and private, something we do while doing something else, or to heigten social gatherings. More than narrative or visual art, we have to marinate in it to figure out how we like it, how it works in our lives. Songs—short, immediate, shareable—fit better on first-wave blogs, and even more naturally on Tumblr. It takes a very news-y surprise, like the two-decades-in-the-making return of My Bloody Valentine, for social media to light up with simultaneous album talk. Even then, there was a certain sense of nostalgic duty involved. “They spent 22 years on this. I better sit down and listen.”

There are still leaks but they are fewer, and little real conversation flows from them. Bankrupt!, the anticipated new record by French rock band Phoenix, has been online for a few weeks, but it’s tough to find anyone talking about it. Its brokered stream will be a one-day headline at best. And sure, long-form reviews still show up on release, but their actual content has little currency. Can you remember a record review that generated more than a day or two of discussion? When was the last time that one was truly controversial? The monkey-pee Jet thing that included exactly no text? At least it anticipated the way we’re now talking about music: quicker, shorter, more irreverent, more visual. We’re constantly reminded of the simple truth that no one needs a thousand words describing something they can hear themselves at the push of a button.

The best solution we’ve settled on collectively is a two-week holiday in December when everything that came out in a year is handled en masse. BuzzFeed, who understand how to talk about things on the Internet better than anyone, have moved away from even that, opting last year to run an essay or two about consensus favorites and “44 Wonderful Things About Music in 2012” in place of a traditional “Best Of” records list. They’re right that a mix of videos, sound clips, entertainment gossip, and critical blurbs is the better reflection of our music fandom in 2013. Ever more we’re organizing our thoughts into multimedia posts, full of links that could be clicked but probably won’t be beyond the first couple. Even when we can listen to a full record, legally, ahead of its availability for sale, and with pretty moving pictures attempting to keep us there, it’s still too big to share easily. So, to the degree that anyone still cares about long-playing albums, we’re keeping it to ourselves.

5 Comment

  • This is one of the best articles I’ve read on the topic. Many people ask the question “Is the album dead?” But this is one of the few that dares to answer “Yes,” and also dares to put “the album” in the context of history and say, “It might not have been much of a thing in the first place.”

    With much less success, but more jokes, I attempted to answer the same question in this post from a few years ago:…

  • Are you sure that people aren’t streaming whole albums? Because while the internet has facilitated a change in the way we listen to and discover music, it would be interesting to see when people pay for a streaming service if they stream more albums than songs. Don’t be fooled by the business model either. The payment schemes on most digital content is almost as derisory as that applied to physical CD’s, so I can’t see this model lasting, especially if it becomes the norm.

    Even back in the days of non-web based music consumption, we still had mix tapes and compilations, and the humble skip button which was there for a reason. The format of the communication has changed but there’s a difference between music fans. Casual fans would often purchase only singles and they stream and download tracks, “real” fans got the albums. People are still doing this, but in different ways.

    On the flipside to your example here, Ash who decided to ditch albums entirely and release the A-Z series (26 individual songs) have found their popularity has plummeted in the UK. From headlining large venues up and down the country they are now on the fringes of where their popularity once lay. You could argue the lack of focus musically has transferred to the campaign, and the fans seem disinterested in that idea of a bunch of random tracks. However when they came out a year or so ago to play an album in full, they returned to bigger venues. To my mind at least this is a small amount of evidence to suggest that the album is alive and kicking among those who value it. The friction between discovery of songs and albums is no longer there due to streaming.

    The album for better or worse is still the frame that all these ideas hang around. Releasing individual tracks online can kill a bands prominence, and the fact that we listen to them individually seems no different to the guys in their rooms in the 60’s playing vinyls.

  • I appreciate the thoughtful response, but wonder if it’s missing my point slightly? I’m wondering more about how albums seem to have less impact in the wider culture, even as we have all these opportunities to listen to them for free? And as I say here, I think it’s because the Internet, for all sorts of reasons, is pretty bad at talking about them unless we’re using them to talk about a bigger narrative or cultural trend?

  • Wasn’t the point of this article that the album is dead? It’s literally in the title. Steve says it’s not and proceeds to explain why. So, how is it missing your point?

  • I agree with Steve’s point that the album format is still a relevant, and most useful, standard for the music industry. But I also see Jeff’s point that an album *release* is no biggie, even among music fans. There’s no threat it will sellout at the record store, you can hear it/buy it whenever, so time or inaccessibility is not a critical factor building anticipation.