The album era (also known as the album-rock era) was a period in English-language popular music from the mid 1960s to the mid 2000s in which the album was the dominant form of recorded music expression and consumption. It was primarily driven by three successive music recording formats, the 331⁄3 rpm LP record, the audiocassette and the music Compact disc. Rock musicians were often at the forefront of the era.
Technological developments in the early twentieth century led to the development of the vinyl long-playing (LP) album as an important medium for recorded music. In 1948, Columbia Records began to bring out 331⁄3 rpm twelve-inch extended-play LPs that could play for as long as 52 minutes, or 26 minutes per side. Musical film soundtracks, jazz works, and thematic albums by singers such as Frank Sinatra quickly utilized the new longer format. However, in the 1950s and into the 1960s, 45 rpm seven-inch single sales were considered the primary market for the recorded music industry, while albums were a secondary market. The careers of notable rock and roll performers such as Elvis Presley were driven primarily by single sales.
The dominance of the single as the primary medium of creative expression in music changed with the release of several albums in the 1960s, such as A Christmas Gift for You from Phil Spector (1963), the Beatles' Rubber Soul (1965), the Beach Boys' Pet Sounds (1966), the Mothers of Invention's Freak Out! (1966), and the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967). With reference to the Beatles' Rubber Soul, Revolver (1966) and Sgt. Pepper and the Beach Boys' Pet Sounds, writer Bill Martin comments: "In the wake of these albums, many rock musicians took up the 'complete album approach.'" Rolling Stone assistant editor Andy Greene identifies Sgt. Pepper as marking "the beginning of the album era", as does Scott Plagenhoef of Pitchfork, with Greene adding that "It was the big bang of albums." Music historian Simon Philo writes that, aside from the level of recognition the album received for its artistry, "the record's success ushered in the era of album-oriented rock, radically reshaping how pop music worked economically."
According to David Howard, writing in his book Sonic Alchemy, "pop's stakes had been raised into the stratosphere" by the Beatles' Rubber Soul, resulting in a shift in focus from singles to creating albums without the usual filler tracks. In January 1966, Billboard magazine cited the initial US sales of Rubber Soul (1.2 million copies over nine days) as evidence of teenage record-buyers increasingly moving towards the LP format. In the US, no singles were released from the album, which writer David Leaf says created the "perception that their new work should be viewed as a whole. ... it introduced the possibility to the recording industry that the 45 RPM disc ... preeminent for a decade ... might soon give way to a new king ... the album as a work of art." During Pet Sounds' composition and production, Beach Boys bandleader Brian Wilson found the American version of Rubber Soul to be "a collection of songs that…somehow went together like no album ever made before", which inspired Wilson to briefly shift his focus from singles to albums.
The mid 1960s to the late 1970s was the era of the LP and the "golden era" of the album. According to BBC Four's The Golden Age, "These were the years when the music industry exploded to become bigger than Hollywood." This period, especially the 1970s, is also called the Album Rock Era. Music critic Dave Marsh has called Jimi Hendrix's 1967 "Purple Haze" the "debut single of the Album Rock Era" while Stephen Thomas Erlewine called Lou Gramm's 1987 "Midnight Blue" the "last great single of the album-rock era".
Along with the LP record, the 8-track tape was another format popular in the United States in this period. After the fall of LP record sales at the end of the 1970s and rise of first the cassette and then the CD as the dominant format for recorded music saw the end of the LP-driven "golden age" of the album, the album consolidated its domination of the recorded music market. Seven-inch vinyl single sales were dropping and were almost totally displaced by cassette singles by the end of the 1980s. Yet these were never as popular as seven-inch singles and they and the subsequent CD singles never amounted to a significant threat to the dominance of the album. According to Robert Christgau in 1985, "the singles aesthetic began to reassert itself with disco and punk".
The primary threat to the album's primacy in the 1980s and early 1990s came from MTV. It was quickly recognized that, "after the album-rock era of the 1970s, MTV helped return the hit single to prominence as a pop marketing tool".
"Death of the album" is a phrase used to describe the perceived decline of album sales in the 21st century, sometimes attributed to internet sharing and downloading, and the changing expectations of music listeners. Album sales more than halved from 1999 to 2009, declining from a $14.6 to $6.3 billion industry. As opposed to releasing an album, some bands have begun releasing a series of singles or EPs as a way to combat the "average person's short attention span."
By the middle of the 1990s, single song delivery of music to the consumer was almost dead, at least in the United States. In 1998, Billboard magazine ended the requirement of a physical single for charting on its Hot 100 chart after several of the year's major hits were not released as singles. But, despite the dominance of the CD, technological changes quickly turned the tables. In 1999, the internet peer-to-peer file sharing service Napster allowed internet users to easily download single songs in MP3 format. By early 2001, Napster use peaked with 26.4 million users worldwide.
Although Napster was shut down in 2001 for copyright violations, other music download services took its place. In 2001, Apple Inc.'s iTunes service was introduced and the iPod, a consumer-friendly MP3 player, was released later that year. This and other legal alternatives as well as illicit file sharing continued to depress sales of recorded music on physical formats. By 2006, downloaded digital single sales outnumbered CD sales for the first time and buyers of digital music purchased singles over albums by a margin of 19:1. Even music industry executives were forced to admit that the album was on its way out. "For some genres and some artists, having an album-centric plan will be a thing of the past," Capitol-EMI's COO Jeff Kempler said. Other warnings were more dire. Media researcher Aram Sinnreich bluntly predicted that "the album is going to die. Consumers are listening to play lists" on their MP3 players.
With consumers abandoning albums, performers "started concentrating on dishing out singles as opposed to churning out albums". Critics of the trend argued that single songs "never truly showed an artist’s true prowess and every singer or songwriter proved to be a one-hit wonder".
In 2003, Wired magazine assigned Christgau to write an article discussing if the album was "a dying art form", to which he concluded: "For as long as artists tour, they'll peddle song collections with the rest of the merch, and those collections will be conceived as artfully as the artists possibly can." Years later, in 2019, as CD and digital download sales plummeted and theories still persisted about the "death" of the physical album format, Christgau found his original premise even more valid. "Because the computer giveth as the computer taketh away", he wrote in an essay accompanying the Pazz & Jop music poll that year, explaining that "quality home recording is now so cheap that making an album is hobby-level stuff not just for duffers but for the statistically inevitable complement of amateur artists whose music ain't no hobby, or shouldn't be. And compelled to tour though all now are, few professional bands are in it solely for the roar of the crowd. Writing songs is in their DNA, and if said songs are any good at all, recording them for posterity soon becomes irresistible."
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