Is the Album Dead? Radiohead Abandons It for Single-Track MP3s

Radiohead's an interesting band--musically the guys seem to follow their own path to innovative sounds. And now they're also following their own path to publishing music, and ditching the album format in favor of single-track downloads.

Radiohead

Speaking with The Believer magazine, Radiohead's frontman Thom Yorke explained the band's thinking: "None of us want to go into that creative hoo-ha of a long-play record again." The band's last album, In Rainbows, was released in 2007 but the effort of making a successor apparently seems too much for the band, "It'll kill us." Yorke notes.

Hence the plan to ditch the idea of an album altogether, and an intention to release singles one at a time for paid download--like the most recent, Harry Patch, whose profits go to charity. It's a follow-on move to the way In Rainbows was released--for download via the band's site with a "pay what you like" sales pitch that worked very well for the band. It's also obviously a less straining way of creating music, and it frees the band up to follow its creative urges without trying to craft tracks with the consistent sound and feeling that album tracks usually have.

It's definitely a confirmation of the iTunes model of downloading single tracks, which the listener likes, too. That's where things get interesting with this news story. Because Apple is strongly rumored to have a whole new endeavor underway to revive the album as a digital content-added entity. It's codenamed Cocktail, and will see the traditional album re-crafted into a digital beast with movies and artwork, something akin to a DVD's bonus features. A separate but extremely similar effort, codenamed CMX, is also under construction by a group of record labels. And U2, arguably one of the biggest bands ever, made a very determined effort to show the album concept isn't dead with a strongly-branded physical box set release of their album No Line on the Horizon. In another move to rethink the album, Mariah Carey's upcoming Memoirs Of An Imperfect Angel will be released with a CD booklet that functions as a magazine--with advertising.

So is the album, with its heritage stretching back through 78 RPM vinyl records packaged together into a collection, finally on its last legs or not? The answer is probably not--Radiohead's actions reflect an off-the-wall attitude that'll probably work well for that band alone. But the album as a concept is certainly going to evolve. Digital downloads and album-like wrappers like Cocktail mean that it'll turn into a different thing altogether--but with the same mission: To communicate the themed creative efforts of musicians in the same way that a curated collection of a painter's works does.

[via Wall Street Journal]

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4 Comments

  • Martin Moreyra

    Short article but probably because we're always hungry on reading, talking and discussing topics like this.

    It's great times we're living with all technology new products. I find that there are musicians & bands noticing this fact, and moving forward taking advantage of these opportunities, but as in many other online industries/segments these artists are the less.

    On the Artists side, IMHO it's pretty obvious that you have an incredible chance to do things different, getting the business on your side on a 100% base, interacting with fans by your own and planning & investing on marketing activities lot more attractive that used to be (and how about a lot cheap as well?).

    On the companies side, it looks pretty obvious that some have already missed their business (multiple audio & video stores, i.e.: Tower Records, Virgin), others had to change their business and this is what they're trying to do starting by reducing own costs -staffing mainly (record labels), but what it's seen more often is the fact that they're trying to monetize as much as possible on what's getting money for them (small money compared to traditional income from records & CDs), but not launching new products & services with innovation (nothing to learn from Apple, Google, Facebook?... the new 800 pounds gorillas). Just think on something different and in particular useful/interesting from an end-user POV. Anything on your mind?

    You've got your band? You have already decided will abandon the record label direction? Share your opinion if you want. Tell what you're already doing or plan to do.

  • Stephen Morgan

    Kit, Thank you for bringing Radiohead to the forefront in your article. However, I have one correction to make and one disagreement with you:

    Radiohead didn't say they won't ever be making a traditional long-form LP album again. They stated that this time around (and probably for some time coming) they will be opting to release singles and EP's.

    Also, you say that this scheme will probably only work for Radiohead specifically due to the nature of Radiohead's genre and modus operandi...
    I firmly disagree, as operating in this way is not only for artistic purposes (and those of creative sanity) right now, but will lay the groundwork for the music business in the years to come. With the emergence and dominance of pay sites like iTunes, listeners now have the option and preference to avoid paying for so much drivel that often weighs down full-length LP albums, AKA "filler" material, instead only paying for and enjoying those specific songs which are sought out on their own. From a business standpoint, this also makes sense when considering studio time and recording costs. Fewer songs (again, which often is 50% filler material that won't get picked up when listeners are able to be ultra-discriminatory in their purchase of music) means less time in the studio, and less time paying a producer/s and engineer/s, which equals less production costs. Promotion will also be less expensive with benefitting from shorter life-cycles as a single does not need the to run the same span as promoting a full album. Plus, record labels will be able to recoup their costs when pushing "sure-fire" material every time there is a release. More bang for the buck you might say. It's a smart business decision to operate under these pretenses, as well as being a good choice for listeners, as more quality music will be put forth, or more to the point, LESS poor-quality music will be released.
    This is not to say that full-length LP's won't be released from time to time, but in the future, a full-length release will take the helm of being done, by choice, for "artistic purposes", rather than now as Radiohead's choice to avoid LP's seems to be. I would say this revolution will progress to fruition over the next six to eight years.

    Don't get me wrong, either. I PREFER LP's, however, I am also a musician and totally understand the pressure that comes with making an LP, as well as the financial responsibilities of doing so.

  • Stephen Morgan

    Kit, Thank you for bringing Radiohead to the forefront in your article. However, I have one correction to make and one disagreement with you:

    Radiohead didn't say they won't ever be making a traditional long-form LP album again. They stated that this time around (and probably for some time coming) they will be opting to release singles and EP's.

    Also, you say that this scheme will probably only work for Radiohead specifically due to the nature of Radiohead's genre and modus operandi...
    I firmly disagree, as operating in this way is not only for artistic purposes (and those of creative sanity) right now, but will lay the groundwork for the music business in the years to come. With the emergence and dominance of pay sites like iTunes, listeners now have the option and preference to avoid paying for so much drivel that often weighs down full-length LP albums, AKA "filler" material, instead only paying for and enjoying those specific songs which are sought out on their own. From a business standpoint, this also makes sense when considering studio time and recording costs. Fewer songs (again, which often is 50% filler material that won't get picked up when listeners are able to be ultra-discriminatory in their purchase of music) means less time in the studio, and less time paying a producer/s and engineer/s, which equals less production costs. Promotion will also be less expensive with benefitting from shorter life-cycles as a single does not need the to run the same span as promoting a full album. Plus, record labels will be able to recoup their costs when pushing "sure-fire" material every time there is a release. More bang for the buck you might say. It's a smart business decision to operate under these pretenses, as well as being a good choice for listeners, as more quality music will be put forth, or more to the point, LESS poor-quality music will be released.
    This is not to say that full-length LP's won't be released from time to time, but in the future, a full-length release will take the helm of being done, by choice, for "artistic purposes", rather than now as Radiohead's choice to avoid LP's seems to be. I would say this revolution will progress to fruition over the next six to eight years.

    Don't get me wrong, either. I PREFER LP's, however, I am also a musician and totally understand the pressure that comes with making an LP, as well as the financial responsibilities of doing so.

  • Stephen Morgan

    Kit, Thank you for bringing Radiohead to the forefront in your article. However, I have one correction to make and one disagreement with you:

    Radiohead didn't say they won't ever be making a traditional long-form LP album again. They stated that this time around (and probably for some time coming) they will be opting to release singles and EP's.

    Also, you say that this scheme will probably only work for Radiohead specifically due to the nature of Radiohead's genre and modus operandi...
    I firmly disagree, as operating in this way is not only for artistic purposes (and those of creative sanity) right now, but will lay the groundwork for the music business in the years to come. With the emergence and dominance of pay sites like iTunes, listeners now have the option and preference to avoid paying for so much drivel that often weighs down full-length LP albums, AKA "filler" material, instead only paying for and enjoying those specific songs which are sought out on their own. From a business standpoint, this also makes sense when considering studio time and recording costs. Fewer songs (again, which often is 50% filler material that won't get picked up when listeners are able to be ultra-discriminatory in their purchase of music) means less time in the studio, and less time paying a producer/s and engineer/s, which equals less production costs. Promotion will also be less expensive with benefitting from shorter life-cycles as a single does not need the to run the same span as promoting a full album. Plus, record labels will be able to recoup their costs when pushing "sure-fire" material every time there is a release. More bang for the buck you might say. It's a smart business decision to operate under these pretenses, as well as being a good choice for listeners, as more quality music will be put forth, or more to the point, LESS poor-quality music will be released.
    This is not to say that full-length LP's won't be released from time to time, but in the future, a full-length release will take the helm of being done, by choice, for "artistic purposes", rather than now as Radiohead's choice to avoid LP's seems to be. I would say this revolution will progress to fruition over the next six to eight years.

    Don't get me wrong, either. I PREFER LP's, however, I am also a musician and totally understand the pressure that comes with making an LP, as well as the financial responsibilities of doing so.