Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears; I come to bury the long-playing album, not to praise it.
Well, actually, Shakespeare paraphrase notwithstanding, I come to do both. It may be time to admit the painful truth: The album is dead.
There will be many who wish to disavow this painful truth, who will rather insist that the album, like Sir Launcelot's faithful servant, Concorde in "Monty Python and the Holy Grail," is "not quite dead." But Craven is convinced the LP is on life support and the prognosis ain't good. The album most of us grew up listening to is kaput. Fini. Dead as a doornail, whether it knows it yet or not.
Just look at the numbers. In 1996, there were more than 616 million albums sold. Now, the number is barely more than half that. Approximately 316 million albums were sold in 2012. Those are numbers representing album sales in all formats, including digital. And this has been a pretty steady drop. Buoyed by strong catalog sales and Adele's exceptionally popular "21," 2011 saw a slight uptick in album sales, boosting many a record executive's hopes - but those hopes were brutally dashed once again when 2012's numbers dropped a staggering 4 percent.
There are a lot of theories offered to explain why album sales have fallen so precipitously in the past two decades. Record executives cry "Pirates!" while critics point to the industry's elevation of Britney Spears, Rihanna and a bevy of indistinguishable "American Idol" alumni. Probably those reasons and more help account for the slow death of the album, but Craven thinks there is one factor above all others that explains its demise... and this explanation also suggests that we needn't be weeping for the music industry just yet.
Obviously, as album sales have plummeted, digital downloading of music has grown. In 2004, 141 million individual songs were purchased online and downloaded. Last year, that number had grown to more than 1.3 billion. In other words, while album sales have halved, digital downloading of music has shot up by nearly 10 times. And every track downloaded represents a great deal more profit for the label, since so many production costs are slashed or eliminated thanks to digital distribution. (For the big labels, profits are definitely down, but that is not necessarily due to a decrease in overall sales, but instead to the fact that so many smaller labels - or individual artists themselves - can compete with the big kids on a more even playing field in the flattened world of digital distribution.) The king is dead. Long live the king.
Still, in the carte blanche world of online distribution, wherein a listener can sample and download only those tracks which immediately grab his or her ear, the album is destined to dwindle further. Any boomer who ever owned a record collection can tell you that as great as some songs are, an album is a different pleasure entirely. How many of us old-timers have bought an album that didn't catch our ear the first time through, but which eventually became an all-time favorite? This is the sort of musical epiphany that subsequent generations may never know. And that is truly a pity. To paraphrase Shakespeare's funeral oratory for Caesar once more:
Bear with me; my heart is in the coffin there with the long-playing album, And I must pause till it come back to me.
Craven Lovelace produces Notes, a daily cultural history of popular music, for KAFM 88.1 Community Radio, kafmradio.org. You can visit cravenlovelace.com for more of his musings on the world of popular culture.