When The Beat Drops: A Round-Table on the State of “The Album”
When it comes to the music industry, the wrong sales records are being set. Soundscan tabulates album receipts in steady decline since their peak in 2000 — a year when close to 800 million albums were sold. In 2009, the figure dropped to just under 400 million. This year, the week of August 8-14 witnessed a new low in the US with only 4.95 million albums sold and, according to Billboard Magazine, as of August 22 album sales were down 12 per cent compared to total sales at the same point in 2009. It’s enough to leave music executives pulling their assistant’s hair out.
I recently spoke to both record labels and artists about the issue, as well as promoters, music journalists, and others. The answers have been thrown together in the round table format. You will have to supply your own bagels, cream cheese, and orange juice. –Matt Shea
On the continued viability of ‘the album’ as a method of distributing music…
Chuck D: Well, the availability of so many audio files: it kinda downplays the thirst or the appetite for somebody to say, ‘Hey, you know what? I gotta hear this person, I gotta hear this album,’ because of course now a person can walk around with literally 12,000 songs in their pocket.
Albums were pretty much their own media centres, you know? It was like a total statement and you stepped into the world of a particular artist and that’s what the album format was for. You had to step into their world when you listened to their album. But the world has changed now. If you step into an artist’s world now it’s like, you know, you go to their Facebook page or you’re catching their tweets – you’re seeing their videos on YouTube. So the multimedia aspect of an album has changed. You’re getting their alerts on your mobile device; you’re catching their reality show.
Whereas before, the album was the enclave for an artist – it was the sole enclave for an artist. You had to use your imagination and get into their world. I mean, I felt the same. I felt that we [Public Enemy] wasn’t guaranteed any sort of mainstream anything, so we had to design our own world, so that when we designed our albums we designed them like media centres and that’s how we formed it.
Douglas Martin (producer, 5 O’Clock Shadowboxers): ‘The album’ is very much akin to ‘the novel’, as it represents a complete thought. I think something is lost when people download an entire record and click-and-drag the four or five songs they don’t like into the trash bin. It’s like tearing pages out of a book and only reading the good parts.
Zilla Rocca (MC and producer, 5 O’Clock Shadowboxers): I’m watching how people react to albums, as fans and businesswise, and I’m thinking two things: you either don’t need to release an album at all as long as you have the right publicist, look, booking agent, fad you uphold, etc, or you have to release an album that completely goes against the contemporary grain and separates you from the sheep. With example a), I’m thinking about Nicki Minaj, Jay Electronica, Mickey Factz, Cool Kids – people who have never released a full length and have made money, been on TV, been in magazines, and toured. But they have savvy teams behind them. With example b), I’m thinking of guys like Roc Marciano or Shabazz Palaces who stand out and get acclaim because of great full-length projects that don’t play by the rules for one second.