The album: still spinning?

Oct 12, 2018

On Saturday, October 13th, the music community will come together to celebrate the UK's first National Album Day. Supported by BBC Music, artists, fans, and enthusiasts alike are encouraged to share their favourite albums as a way of commemorating 70 years of the format. But are we paying homage to something still firmly in the nation's hearts, or trying to reignite a love for a dying art form?  

Since Columbia Masterworks released the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto in E Minor way back in 1948, albums have cemented themselves in the UK's musical landscape. They are more than simply a collection of songs on a disc, they are an artist's magnum opus, a carefully-cultivated project intended to not only entertain, but to inspire, provoke thought, convey a message, or reflect a moment in time. Or at least they used to be. 

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The growing prominence of streaming platforms, with big-hitters like Spotify and Apple Music leading the charge, has changed the way people listen to their favourite music or artists. With streaming up by 48% in the last year, it's clear that more people are choosing to listen to music online rather than buying physical copies – and it's something Phil Barton, owner of London record shop, Sister Ray, believes is altering artist's attitudes to producing music. "If you deconstructed certain albums now, I'm pretty sure you'd just get a collection of songs that happen to be on an album". A damning analysis, but does it simply reflect society's obsession with immediacy, facilitated by the social media generation? If you're listening to a new album, will you persevere through the songs you don't like, or will you delve into one of Spotify's promoted playlists, put together to perfectly suit your preferences? With millions of songs, from thousands of artists, in hundreds of genres, it's easier than ever to gorge on a musical buffet instead of settling down for the three-course meal.

But the album isn't dead. In fact, the British Phonographic Industry shows that 135 million were purchased or downloaded in 2017 – a 9.5% rise. And while physical sales are dwindling, there's an argument that streaming platforms like Spotify and Apple Music make it easier for us to discover new music without needing to pay for each individual CD. After all, people haven't fallen out of love with albums, we just have more distractions. The album remains the purest expression of an artist's musical talent, and most people have one very close to their hearts – whether that's because it opened your eyes to the power of music, makes your think about a person or a place, talks to you on a personal level, or reminds you of a time in your life. And isn't this the musician's intention? Paloma Faith, Brit Award winner and National Album Day ambassador, says "The way we engage with music may be changing, but for me, the album remains the ultimate expression of the artist's craft", and it's hard to disagree. In today's world, there's always a rush to reach the destination – sometimes it's nice to put your headphones in and enjoy the journey. 

It's unlikely CDs will ever make a comeback, but it doesn't mean the album format will fade away. There may be exceptions – vinyl collections are enjoying a revival, and there's a point to be made about supporting upcoming artists through buying physical copies. But Spotify and it's peers has gifted music enthusiasts with a sea of possibilities. Fans will always enjoy getting lost in nostalgia, or immersing themselves in something new, and most artists will always take pride in their work. Despite the flow of the stream, the album is staying afloat.