The album era was a period in popular music from the mid 1960s to the early 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 long-playing record (LP), the audiocassette, and the music compact disc. Rock musicians were often at the forefront of the era, which is sometimes called the album-rock era in reference to their sphere of influence and activity.
LP albums developed in the early 20th century and were originally marketed for classical music and wealthier adult consumers, while singles dominated the music industry, eventually through the success of rock and roll performers in the 1950s. It was not until the mid 1960s, when the Beatles began to release artistically ambitious and top-selling LPs, that more rock acts followed suit and the industry embraced pop albums to immense success while burgeoning rock critics validated their cultural value. By the 1970s, the LP had emerged as a fundamental artistic unit and a widely popular item with young people, often marketed using the idea of a concept album.
At the end of the 1970s, LP albums experienced a decline in sales while the singles format was reemphasized by the developments of punk rock, disco, and MTV's music video programming. The record industry combated this trend by gradually displacing LPs with CDs, releasing fewer singles that were hits to force sales of their accompanying albums, and inflating the prices of CD albums in the 1990s, when their production proliferated. However, by the end of the decade, file sharing networks such as Napster undermined the format's viability, as consumers were able to rip and share CD tracks digitally over the Internet.
In the early 21st century, music downloading and streaming services emerged as popular means of distribution, as album sales more than halved and recording acts generally focused on singles, effectively ending the album era. However, at the end of the 2010s, concept albums reemerged with culturally-relevant and critically successful personal narratives, while high-profile pop acts continued to market their album releases seriously.
Technological developments in the early 20th century led to sweeping changes in the way recorded music was made and sold. Prior to the LP, the standard medium for recorded music had been the 78 rpm gramophone record, made from shellac and featuring a three-to-five minute capacity per side. The capacity limitations placed constraints on the composing processes of recording artists, while the fragility of shellac prompted the packaging of these records in empty booklets resembling photo albums, with typically brown-colored wrapping paper as covers. The introduction of polyvinyl chloride in record production led to vinyl records, which played with less noise and more durability.
In the 1940s, the market for commercial- and home-use recordings was dominated by the competing RCA Victor and Columbia Records, whose chief engineer Peter Carl Goldmark pioneered the development of the 12-inch long play (LP) vinyl record. This format could hold recordings as long as 52 minutes, or 26 minutes per side, at a speed of 33 1⁄3 rpm, and was playable with a small-tipped "microgroove" stylus designed for home playback systems. Officially introduced in 1948 by Columbia, LPs became known as "record albums", termed in reference to the photo album-like 78 packaging. Another innovation from Columbia was the addition of graphic and typographic design to album jacket covers, introduced by Alex Steinweiss, the label's art director. Encouraged by its positive effect on LP sales, the music industry adopted illustrated album covers as a standard by the 1950s.
Originally, the album was primarily marketed for classical music listeners. 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 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.
1960s: Beginnings of the era
According to music critic Ann Powers, the arrival of the Beatles in the United States in 1964 "set in motion what can be called the 'classic album era'". In his Concise Dictionary of Popular Culture, Marcel Danesi comments that "the album became a key aspect of the countercultural movement of the 1960s, with its musical, aesthetic, and political themes. From this, the 'concept album' emerged, with the era being called the 'album era'". He lists the Beatles' Rubber Soul (1965) as one of the first of the era's "concept albums". Music historian Bill Martin cites the release of Rubber Soul in December 1965 as the "turning point" for pop music, in that for the first time "the album rather than the song became the basic unit of artistic production." Author David Howard agrees, saying that "pop's stakes had been raised into the stratosphere" by Rubber Soul and "Suddenly, it was more about making a great album without filler than a great single." In January 1966, Billboard magazine referred to the opening sales of Rubber Soul in the US (1.2 million copies over nine days) as proof of teenage record-buyers gravitating towards the LP format. While it was in keeping with the industry norm in the UK, the lack of a hit single on Rubber Soul added to the album's identity in the US as a self-contained artistic statement.
Following the Beatles' example, several rock albums intended as artistic statements were released in 1966, including the Rolling Stones' Aftermath, the Beach Boys' Pet Sounds, Bob Dylan's Blonde on Blonde, the Beatles' own Revolver and the Who's A Quick One. Music journalist Mat Snow cites these five releases, together with Otis Redding's 1965 LP Otis Blue, as evidence that "the album era was here, and though hit singles still mattered, they were no longer pop's most important money spinners and artistic statements." According to Jon Pareles, the music industry profited immensely and redefined its economic identity because of the era's rock musicians, who "started to see themselves as something more than suppliers of ephemeral hit singles". In the case of the British music industry, the commercial success of Rubber Soul and Aftermath foiled attempts to re-establish the LP market as the domain of wealthier, adult record-buyers. From early 1966, record companies there ceased their policy of promoting adult-oriented entertainers over rock acts, and embraced budget albums for their lower-selling artists to cater to the increased demand for LPs.
The Beatles' 1967 album Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band is identified by Rolling Stone assistant editor Andy Greene as marking "the beginning of the album era", a reference echoed by Scott Plagenhoef of Pitchfork; Greene adds that "it was the big bang of albums". Chuck Eddy refers to the "high album era" as beginning with Sgt. Pepper. Its release in May 1967 coincided with the emergence of dedicated rock criticism in the US and intellectuals seeking to position pop albums as valid cultural works. Music historian Simon Philo writes that, aside from the level of critical acclaim it received, "the record's [commercial] success ushered in the era of album-oriented rock, radically reshaping how pop music worked economically." Reinforcing its creative ambition, Sgt. Pepper was packaged in a gatefold sleeve with a lyric sheet, typifying a trend whereby musicians now commissioned associates from the art world to design their LP sleeves, and presented their albums to the record company for release. Greg Kot said Sgt. Pepper introduced a template for both producing album-oriented rock and consuming it, "with listeners no longer twisting the night away to an assortment of three-minute singles, but losing themselves in a succession of 20-minute album sides, taking a journey led by the artist."
In addition to Sgt. Pepper, Danesi cites the Beatles' 1968 White Album as part of the era's emergence. Dave Marsh has called Jimi Hendrix's "Purple Haze" (1967) the "debut single of the Album Rock Era". Neil Strauss refers to the "album-rock era" as beginning in the late 1960s and ultimately encompassing LP records by both rock and non-rock artists.
1970s: Golden age of the LP
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 When Albums Ruled the World (2013), "These were the years when the music industry exploded to become bigger than Hollywood." "The album era had ushered in the notion of the rock singer as an artist who is worth paying attention to for more than the length of a hit", Pareles later observed. "Performers could become vivid presences to their fans even when they weren't ubiquitous on the Top 40, and loyalties were formed that continue[d] to the [1990s] for some performers of the 1960s and 1970s, from the Kinks to Michael Jackson to Sting." Marc Hogan of Pitchfork comments that female musicians and African Americans were rarely included in what became a predominantly white-male "rock-stuffed canon" during the album era, with exceptions being records by Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye, among others.
The 1970 Joni Mitchell LP Ladies of the Canyon is commonly regarded as one of the album era's most important records. The productions of Bob Ezrin – who worked on 1970s albums by Alice Cooper and Kiss' Destroyer (1976) – are also highlighted from this era. As music journalist James Campion writes, "The 1970s album era was perfectly suited to his cinematic approach. Its format, with its two sides, as if two acts in a play with an intermission, allows for a crucial arc in the storytelling." Along with the LP record, the 8-track tape was another format popular in the US in this period.
Elaborating on the 1970s LP aesthetic, Campion identifies cultural and environmental factors that, in his mind, made the format ideal for young people during the decade. He describes the "solitary ambience" offered to listeners by the turntable and headphones, which "enveloped [them] in intricate stereo panning, atmospheric sounds, and multilayered vocal trickery". The popularity of recreational drugs and mood lamps at the time provided further settings for more focused listening experiences: "This kept the listener rapt to each song: how one flowed into the other, their connecting lyrical content, and the melding of instrumentation."
In comparison to future generations, Campion explains that people growing up in the 1970s found greater value in album listening, in part because of their limited access to any other home entertainment appliance: "Many of them were unable to control the family television or even the kitchen radio. This led to prioritizing of the bedroom or upstairs den: the imagination capsule, locked away inside the headphone dreamscape, studying every corner of the 12-inch artwork and delving deeper into lyrical subtext, whether in ways intended by the artist or not. As if sitting in their own theater of the mind – already hijacked by comic-book fantasy images of horror and science fiction, advertising propaganda, and the American promise of grandeur – they were willing participants in the playful meandering of their rock-and-roll heroes." Adding to this observation, Pareles says, "Pop stars develop staying power when listeners' affection and fascination is transferred from a hit song, or a string of hits, to the singer. Successive songs become a kind of narrative, held together by the image of and fantasies about the performer."
According to Hogan, with Sgt. Pepper having provided the impetus, the idea of a "concept album" became a marketing tool by the 1970s, as "no shortage of bands used the pretense of 'art' to sell tens of millions of records." Citing hugely successful albums like Pink Floyd's 1973 LP The Dark Side of the Moon, Hogan says "record sales spiraled upward until 1977, when they began ticking downward." This decline is attributed by Pareles to the developments of punk rock and disco in the late 1970s: "Punk returned the focus to the short and noisy song. Disco concentrated on the physical moment when a song makes a body move." Robert Christgau similarly said, "the singles aesthetic began to reassert itself with disco and punk", suggesting this ended the "High Album Era". In a different analysis, historian Matthew Restall observed in this period popular acts struggling to sustain the high level of success afforded to their previous albums. Citing the disappointing receptions of Elton John's Blue Moves (1976) and Fleetwood Mac's Tusk (1979), Restall said, "[These] are dramatic examples of how the recording artists of the great album era ... suffered the receiving end of a horizon of expectations."
1980s–1990s: Competing formats, transition to CD
The fall of LP record sales at the end of the 1970s marked the end of the LP-driven "golden age". The success of MTV's music video programming also reemphasized the single format in the 1980s and early 1990s. According to Pareles, it soon became apparent that, "after the album-rock era of the 1970s, MTV helped return the hit single to prominence as a pop marketing tool" and influenced record buyers' consuming habits toward more "disposable hits". Dependent on outlets like MTV that exclusively played hit songs, record companies placed more pressure on recording acts to achieve instant commercial success and marketability. "The 1980s and 1990 brought record sales to new peaks while the performers themselves tended to flash and burn out", Pareles wrote. Hogan cites Prince, Kate Bush, and Public Enemy – all of whom emerged during this period – as further exceptions in the predominantly white-male "rock-stuffed canon" of the album era.
The album format eventually consolidated its domination of the recorded music market, first with the brief emergence of the cassette. According to PC Mag columnist John C. Dvorak, "the album era had resulted in too many albums with only one good song on each of them, so cassettes let users do their own mixes", a trend expedited by the introduction of the Sony Walkman in 1979. The introduction of the CD, along with the portable Discman player in 1984, effectively displaced the cassette and began the displacement of LPs in the 1980s as the standard album format for the music industry.
In the transition to CDs, well-regarded albums of the past were reissued on the format by their original record labels, or the label to whom the album's ownership had been transferred in the event of the original's closure, for instance. However, many LPs were overlooked for digital rerelease "because of legal and contractual problems, as well as simple oversight", Strauss explains. Instead, such records were often rediscovered and collected through the crate digging practices of North American hip hop producers seeking rare sounds to sample for their own recordings. In her account of the 1980s hip hop crate-diggers, media and culture theorist Elodie A. Roy writes, "As they trailed second-hand shops and car boot sales – depositories of unwanted capitalist surplus – diggers were bound to encounter realms of mainstream, mass-produced LP records now fallen out of grace and fashion." This development also contributed to the phenomenon of the "popular collector", which material culture scholar Paul Martin describes as those generally interested in "obtainable, affordable and appealing" items – such as music releases – and attributes to mass production.
According to Pareles, after "the individual song returned as the pop unit" through the 1980s, record companies at the end of the decade began to abstain from releasing hit singles as a means of pressuring consumers to purchase the album on which the single featured. By the end of the 1980s, seven-inch vinyl single sales were dropping and almost entirely displaced by cassette singles, neither of which ultimately sold as well as albums. By the mid-1990s, single song delivery of music to the consumer was almost dead, at least in the US. 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.
Album production proliferated in the 1990s, with Christgau approximating 35,000 albums worldwide were released each year during the decade. The release of Nirvana's Nevermind (1991) is cited by Eddy as roughly the end of the "high album era", although Strauss writes in 1995 that the "album-rock era" is still in effect. Kot, however, observed a decline in integrity among the industry and artists. He suggested that consumers had been exploited through the decade by increasing prices of CD albums, which are less expensive to produce than vinyl records, and longer run-times with considerably lower-quality music. While acknowledging some recording acts still attempt to abide by ideals from the album era, he said most have renounced their responsibilities as artists and storytellers and embraced indulgent recording practices in order to profit from the CD boom.
2000s: Decline in the digital age
In 1999, Kot published a faux obituary for the 331⁄3 rpm LP form in the Chicago Tribune. In it, he argued that the LP had "been made obsolete by MP3 downloads, movie soundtracks and CD shufflers – not to mention video games, cable television, the Internet and the worldwide explosion of media that prey upon the attention spans of what used to be known as album buyers." That same year, the Internet peer-to-peer file sharing service Napster allowed Internet users to easily download single songs in MP3 format, which had been ripped from the digital files located on CDs. By early 2001, Napster use peaked with 26.4 million users worldwide. Although Napster was shut down in 2001 for copyright violations, several 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, CD sales were outnumbered for the first time by digital single downloads, with digital music consumers buying singles over albums by a margin of 19:1. By 2009, album sales had more than halved since 1999, declining from a $14.6 to $6.3 billion industry.
With the rise of digital media in the 2000s, the "popular collector" of physical albums had transitioned to the "digital" and "electronic" collector. Of such collectors, Roy says it can be argued they are "not equipped with sufficient archiving knowledge or tools to preserve his/her collection in the long run", citing the vulnerable shelf life of digital files. Concurrently, the demise of physical music stores allowed for websites to emerge as domains for album collecting, including the music review database AllMusic, the streaming service Spotify, and Discogs, which began as a music database before developing into an online marketplace for physical music releases.
The phrase "death of the album" was used in the media during the decline, usually attributing it to Internet sharing and downloading, and the changing expectations of music listeners. Capitol-EMI's COO Jeff Kempler said in 2007 that less artists will pursue album-oriented campaigns, while media researcher Aram Sinnreich bluntly predicted the album's death with consumers listening to playlists on their MP3 players instead. In a 2014 interview, Lee Phillips of the Californian entertainment law firm Manatt, Phelps & Phillips believed the album era had ended and blamed record companies for failing to recognize the inevitability of streaming as the favored means of music distribution and for not working with Napster on a solution.
2010s–present: Post-album era
Music writers in the 2010s, such as Jon Caramanica and Kevin Whitehead, have described this period in the album's history as the "post-album era". By the latter part of the decade, record labels had generally invested in streaming platforms such as Spotify and Pandora Radio, with strategies focused on curated playlists and individual tracks rather than albums. According to Deseret News writer Court Mann in 2019, "services like Spotify and Apple Music have moved our [music] libraries off personal hard drives, iPods and CDs, and into the cloud. Our music is decreasingly self-contained and private." With consumers abandoning albums, more performers focused on releasing singles, a trend which critics felt undermined their artistic potential and produced many one-hit wonders.
Other critics still believe in the album as a viable concept in the 21st century. In 2003, Wired magazine had 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." 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 the current affordability of adequate recording equipment makes album production accessible to musicians of various levels of competence. Regarding professional acts, he said, "Writing songs is in their DNA, and if said songs are any good at all, recording them for posterity soon becomes irresistible."
In a year-ending essay on the album in 2019, Ann Powers writes for Slate that the year found the medium in a state of "metamorphosis" rather than dead. In her observation, many recording artists had revitalized the concept album around autobiographical narratives and personal themes, such as intimacy, intersectionality, African-American life, boundaries among women, and grief associated with death. She cites such albums as Brittany Howard's Jaime, Raphael Saadiq's Jimmy Lee, Rapsody's Eve, Jenny Lewis' On the Line, and Nick Cave's Ghosteen. Writing in 2020, arts and culture journalist Michelle Zipkin believes albums are still "an integral, relevant, and celebrated component of musical creation and artistry". She cites the review aggregator Metacritic's tabulation of the most acclaimed albums from the 2010s, which showcased musicianship from a diverse range of artists and often serious themes, such as grief, race relations, and identity politics, while adding that, "Albums today offer a fresh way of approaching a changing industry".
Between March 6 and 12, 2020, physical album sales fell 6% due in part to the COVID-19 pandemic. Later that month, Amazon temporarily suspended incoming shipments of music CDs and vinyl records from U.S. suppliers in an effort to prioritize items deemed more essential. According to Peter Robinson of The Guardian, while the release format is "dead" commercially, high-profile artists in the 21st century such as U2, the 1975, Taylor Swift, and Katy Perry still presented their work within a self-defined "album era", representing each project's aesthetic lifetime in the style of themed album campaigns by performers of the past, such as David Bowie, Madonna, and Pet Shop Boys. Quartz declared Swift is the only artist "who still sells CDs" and that she has not embraced streaming services because they do not compensate recording artists fairly. Los Angeles Times critic Mikael Wood elaborated on this point, saying, "Yet as she kept her music off Spotify – conditioning her loyal audience to think of buying her songs and albums as an act of devotion – younger artists like [Ariana] Grande emerged to establish themselves as streaming favorites." However, Swift used all major streaming services to release her 2019 album Lover, which Quartz said "might be the last CD we buy" and is "perhaps a final death note for the CD".
- Album-equivalent unit
- List of best-selling albums
- List of best-selling albums by country
- Record sales
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