Are albums necessary in today's' world?
Before we get to the discussion of whether an album is necessary in today's world of on demand streaming everything, lets understand what an album is. An album today is a collection of songs thematically grouped that consists of roughly more than five songs and generally twelve to fourteen in total. Below this number, we generally call this release of music an EP (Extended Play). In the distant world of physical media there were 78 rpm singles with a "Hit" on one side and a "B Side" (lesser track) on the reverse. Historically the number of songs on an album was dictated by the limitations of pressing the music onto vinyl. The introduction of CD's and Cassettes did nothing to change this metaphor. Album sales as a metric no longer matter, consumption is what rules today but you can go to Bob Lefsetz's newsletter for this endless discussion.
Like the newspaper, the album has morphed from a physical being to a mostly digital phenomenon. The days of scooping up an overweight Sunday NY Times off your doorstep, throwing your favorite album on the turntable and spending the next couple hours with both are largely long gone.
So why do we care about the "album" anymore? Back in the bad old days we gritted our teeth and coughed up $15 for an album knowing in advance that we only cared about one or two tracks out of the fifteen being shoved down our throats.
Today we live in a world of "signals." Google, Facebook and countless others are watching your every move for "signals" of intent. Intent to purchase, intent to travel, intent to sign up for a dating site and of course intent to harm are all what our physical and digital activity is constantly being measured and quantified by third parties for.
Albums today are "signals" and as such are as relevant as ever. if not more so To the listening public they are a signal that the artist they like listening to has the maturity or depth to release a collection of songs in a thematic wrapper. Not all these songs will be great, but then again you won't be compelled to purchase the "album" to get access to your favorites. For fans they are an opportunity to go deeper into that artist's music with the addition of songs.
Most important of all about an "album" release is that is a promotional "signal" for the music labels. The major labels are large global businesses and they are essentially banks in the business of allocating their resources to artists that they have signed to their rosters. The release of an album by an artist is a "signal" for a marketing strategy to be built and executed by the label that will hopefully result in a return on their capital invested in the artist. As large businesses they simply cannot invest time and promotional resources (unless you are Taylor Swift, Beyoncé or Ariana Grande) to the release of every song. They need groupings of songs to be able to promote efficiently across large rosters of artists around the world.
As a case study, one of our favorite young artists Maggie Rogers is out with her first major label release today, "Heard It In A Past Life." She has been in our heads for nearly three years now. We all cried along with Pharrell in the supremely uncomfortable video of she and he in her NYU Masterclass video playing "Alaska" in March 2016. Seven of the twelve songs on the album are new to us today and are worthy of exploring but the hits on this album are and will still be the five previously released tracks.
But let's' back up and examine the arc of how we got here today. Because she burst on the scene as a viral phenomenon she has had the financial backing to steadily release music videos and new music since the fall of 2016. However, the marketing for this album release started in earnest with its announcement in October 2018 and then in November 2018 with her performance as the musical guest on SNL. Love or hate her performances that night she was center stage on one of the hottest shows in town. From that point until today there has been a steady flow of interviews, profiles and early access to reviews to the album across the globe. The final huge gem in the marketing plan was her appearance on the Ellen show this week performing "Light On." So today we have virtually every major media outlet including the New York Times and Rolling Stone issuing glowing profiles and reviews of Maggie and her new album. USA Today even did a lame SEO focused listicle.
If you don't run into Maggie Rogers in media this week you must only be focused on politics.
This is why albums matter.
Long Live The Album.