If not albums, then what?

My previous post posited that ‘If the record industry wants “The Album” to survive … they’re going to have to start thinking a bit more creatively’. Yeah, it’s easy to say that, but how about putting forward some actual ideas?

First of all, I don’t think the album is going to go away any time soon. So long as there’s still sufficient profit to be made from people buying pressed CDs, the record companies will keep churning them out. Note the word “sufficient” – it’s not enough to simply make a profit on each CD, they also need to make enough to cover their costs, plus whatever margin they feel is acceptable. Smaller labels may well continue to make albums for longer, due to their lower overheads – but as smaller labels tend to be more dynamic than the prehistoric behemoths they compete against, they might equally drop the concept of albums a bit sooner, in order to spend their time and resources on something more radical.

So with that said, let’s look at what an album actually is. Ignoring compilations and best-of releases, an album is typically made up of a number of recordings that were made in a short space of time (often a couple of weeks in a studio somewhere), which haven’t been on a previous album (though may have been singles or b-sides, in the old parlance), and which have been assembled into some kind of order. The tracks are a mixture of good, not-so-good, and “growers” (initially not-so-good, but turning into good if you play them enough times). There may be other tracks from the recording that don’t make it onto the album for whatever reason.

In short, an album is a snapshot of a short period in an artist’s career.

Now that’s just one way to group a collection of songs – by recording date. But what happens if you broaden your collection to include the artist’s older recordings, or those that wouldn’t normally be deemed “good enough” to get onto an album. Now you’ve got a larger group of tracks – potentially much larger for a prolific writer, or one who’s been around for a while.

So let’s cut our “album” a different way: how about an album of love songs? Or hate songs for a more cynical artist? An album of guitar-led tracks? An album of synth-led tracks? Acoustic tracks? For a band with more than one singer who takes the lead, you could split albums based on the vocalist. Slow numbers, fast numbers, quiet numbers, loud numbers. All are equally valid (and equally arbitrary) ways to split an artist’s repertoire.

Then there are the albums which tell a story. Bear in mind we’re picking from the whole of an artist’s back-catalogue here, which could span many years. So we can start with the plaintive songs of a loveless youth, move through balladic love songs signalling a new romance, onto the passionate dedications… then the cynical backlash and bitterness of separation and divorce. Yes, the rise and fall of a relationship is an easy story to tell via such an album simply because these are the sort of events that artists tend to write songs about. But if there are sufficient songs to tell a story (or make a concept album) about any subject, that would do as well.

What I’m suggesting is replacing the idea of “albums” with a concept of “collections” – at least where downloadable tracks are concerned. The traditional group of ten or twelve tracks from a particular recording session is one type of collection. A themed group of tracks from across the artist’s entire back catalogue would be another collection. A collection of love songs. A collection that tells a story. A collection that follows a theme. Of course there would be the “best of” or “greatest hits” collections – but there could also be a “worst of” or “biggest flops” collection (I think John Otway might have already pioneered the latter!).

The point about a collection is that at its simplest, it’s nothing more than a list of tracks. Yes, it could be pressed onto a CD and sold as a traditional album, but in the world of the download that’s not the best way to do it. Keep it download-only, and there are minimal overheads with creating a collection. The artist or label might want to provide some special artwork, or bonus materials (video downloads, for example) if you buy a particular collection – but ultimately it’s still just a list of tracks in a particular order.

Once you decouple the idea of an album from its current narrow definition, and re-form it as just one way of specifying a group or collection of tracks, you can potentially start to do some very interesting things. That’s something I’ll describe in more detail next time…