On Saturday 13th October - at 3:33pm, to be exact - the first ever National Album Day will take place. Despite so many changes in how we consume music, how has the idea of the album managed to survive?
For the past two decades, music industry insiders have been gloomily predicting the downfall of the album.
The rise of the internet, Napster and P2P file-sharing, then iTunes and being able to buy tracks individually and the concurrent demise of CD-purchasing, then streaming and playlisting to suit an allegedly attention-span deprived new audience expecting instant gratification… all of these technological mini-revolutions indicated that the album could not last. Even before that, the late ‘70s and ‘80s came with dire warnings from major labels that ‘home taping is killing music’.
However, for reasons that those insiders haven’t quite been able to explain, the idea of the album has proved to be a remarkably versatile one. The whole process of writing, recording, touring and resting, even for the music world’s behemoths like Adele and Justin Bieber, is all predicated around being able to hang everything on the hook of the tried-and-tested studio album release.
This Saturday we want to see what you'll playing during the nation's biggest album playback - 3:33pm on Saturday 13th - don't miss out, get involved. ? pic.twitter.com/60sdvXDJXW— NationalAlbumDay (@AlbumDayUK) 9 October 2018
Granted, what we understand as an album, and how it has been promoted and marketed, has altered slightly throughout its history. Primarily the domain of jazz artists rather than rock’n’roll stars in the 1950s, the long-playing record was just another part of the range of small range of formats available to an artist, along with the single and the then-very popular EP (extended play).
At some point in the mid-1960s, however, with the rise of The Beach Boys, The Byrds and The Beatles, the LP suddenly came to be seen as the acid test for an artist’s brilliance. With conceptual marvels like Pet Sounds, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and the Stones’ Sticky Fingers, the full-length studio album became the marker by which a singer or band’s evolution could be tracked.
From that point on, the idea of the album as being a kind of canvas, upon which an artist could make a musical statement or manifesto, has endured to this day, despite the various subsequent innovations that have threatened to disrupt that dominance. Kind of like test matches still are in the world of cricket, despite the money-fuelled surge in Twenty20 games – for its practitioners, the five-day test match (or, in musicians’ cases, the album) is still regarded in the community as the unspoken goal to which to aspire.
Throughout the late Eighties and Nineties, partly to do with the rise of MTV and music videos, an album might have had three, four, or maybe even more singles released from it after its release, when radio airplay held the power of life and death over most records.
That might still be the same in 2018 for some of the biggest artists, but those singles now tend to trail its parent album’s release as teasers, not follow it to boost its longevity in the charts. Although in the digital age, music can now be distributed instantaneously and with little effort or expense for the roll-out – see Eminem’s surprise release Kamikaze for evidence of that - recording an album’s worth of material is still the most economical use of an artist’s time in a studio, or at least more so than recording a succession of stand-alone singles.
The appetite for the album is as strong as ever. We see it in the much-vaunted vinyl revival – we see it in wider culture too, with physical books now making a comeback despite the rise of the e-book and the Kindle. The appetite for the physical, the tactile piece of culture, over the ephemeral or virtual nature of much culture as we experience it in 2018, will never die out entirely.
To that end, and to mark 70 years of the LP, the inaugural National Album Day is to take place, launching at exactly 3:33pm – in order of the 33-and-a-third revolutions of a long-playing record – on Saturday 13th October.
In addition to various listening parties happening across the country, the organisers of National Album Day ask nothing more than you listen to an album of choice, from start to finish, at precisely that time this Saturday.
Happy listening everybody!
American Thighs was released on this day in 1994.
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