As a housewarming gift in December my son and daughter-in-law gave me a turntable. I’m talking the old-fashioned device used to spin vinyl. I quickly ran to my storage room and dug out a couple of dust-covered boxes holding more than a hundred albums. Soon my house was bathed in a sound I hadn’t heard in decades: the crackling, popping beauty of a needle on old forgotten records.
Not long ago we were all told to toss those albums because vinyl was dead, gone the way of 8-tracks, cassettes, and even CDs. And then, for who knows what reason, they began a quiet comeback. Not a massive comeback, mind you, but a trendy one.
Today they’re available in stores if you feel like plunking down serious coin.
But albums are dying, whether vinyl or digital, just in a different way. The concept of the album itself is in big trouble.
Sales numbers don’t lie. In all of 2017 there were only two albums that sold more than a million copies: Taylor Swift’s Reputation and Ed Sheeran’s Divide. And only Taylor’s sold two million.
To put that in perspective, ten years ago there were 29 albums that chalked up one million sales. Twenty-nine, compared to last year’s two. That’s a 93% drop in a decade.
To put an exclamation point on how things have changed, Taylor is one of the hottest acts by far and she sold two million copies. In 1999 Creed tallied almost 11 million for one album. Creed, for chrissakes.
We’ve become a nation of track downloads and Spotify. We like a song and see no reason to fork out the money for all the filler tracks. We love music as much as ever, if not more; we just can’t be bothered to listen to an entire album.
It’s no longer about hit albums. It’s about hit singles. Bite-sized morsels instead of full meals.
Sure, Adele sold 9 million copies of 25, and her previous album, 21, made the list of Top 50 Bestselling Albums of All Time. But then comes the reality check. Her entry is the only one of the Top 50 in the last 19 years. It’s Adele or no one, really.
Artists today often admit their only real source of big money is the tour. Where a concert ticket in the mid-90s cost about $25, today the average is more than three times that amount. We’ve stopped buying albums but continue to see shows. And at those shows what do we clamor for? The hit singles.
Perhaps you have your own theory regarding the decline in album sales, but I believe there are two primary reasons.
One, the ease of creating our own personal playlists is powerful. Using a cafeteria-styled system, we can cherry-pick the songs we love and group them together. It’s like the old greatest hits concept, only with a variety of artists rather than one.
And two, we just don’t have the patience anymore. Listening to the entire Dark Side of The Moon album was an experience for Baby Boomers. In the 80s you were a weirdo if you hadn’t bought MJ’s Thriller and devoured the whole thing, over and over again. Even up to the mid-90s we were interested in everything Rob Thomas had to say with Matchbox Twenty.
And that’s really where it ends. On that list of Top 50 albums, other than the Adele entry you won’t find anything after 1999. Nothing. We stopped spending the time to absorb it all and satisfied ourselves with little bits and pieces. Hey, it only costs a buck to get your favorite song instead of $10-$12 for that song and a host of filler tunes.
People love convenience and they love saving money. The concept of the album, although a beautiful thing, doesn’t satisfy either of those cravings. I may claim to mourn its demise - but an hour before writing this piece I instructed Alexa to play one particular song.