Cassette single  

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

The album era was a period in English-language popular music from the mid 1960s to the late 1990s, in which the album was the dominant form of recorded music expression and consumption. It was primarily driven by three successive music recording formats: the 33​1⁄3 rpm LP record, the audiocassette, and the music Compact disc. Rock musicians were often at the forefront of the era, which is sometimes called the album-rock era in reference to their sphere of influence and activity.



Technological developments in the early twentieth century led to the development of the vinyl long-playing (LP) album as an important medium for recorded music. In 1948, Columbia Records began to bring out 33​1⁄3  rpm twelve-inch extended-play LPs that could play for as long as 52 minutes, or 26 minutes per side. Musical film soundtracks, jazz works, and thematic albums by singers such as Frank Sinatra quickly utilized the new longer format. However, in the 1950s and into the 1960s, 45 rpm seven-inch single sales were considered the primary market for the music industry, while albums were a secondary market. The careers of notable rock and roll performers such as Elvis Presley were driven primarily by single sales.

1960s–1970s: The rise and "golden era" of the album

According to music critic Ann Powers, the arrival of the Beatles in the United States in 1964 "set in motion what can be called the 'classic album era'". In his Concise Dictionary of Popular Culture, Marcel Danesi comments that "The album became a key aspect of the countercultural movement of the 1960s, with its musical, aesthetic, and political themes. From this, the 'concept album' emerged, with the era being called the 'album era' with such classic rock albums as the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967) and the White Album [The Beatles] (1968)." He lists the Beatles' Rubber Soul (1965) as one of the first of the era's "concept albums". Among other music critics, Chuck Eddy refers to the "high album era" as lasting from Sgt. Pepper roughly until Nirvana's Nevermind (1991), while Robert Christgau suggested in 1985 that this period ended with the emergence of disco and punk rock. Neil Strauss, writing in 1995, referred to the "album-rock era (the late 1960's through the present)" as encompassing LP records by both rock and non-rock artists. Dave Marsh has called Jimi Hendrix's 1967 "Purple Haze" the "debut single of the Album Rock Era".

Music historian Bill Martin cites the release of Rubber Soul in December 1965 as the "turning point" for pop music, in that for the first time "the album rather than the song became the basic unit of artistic production." Author David Howard agrees, saying that "pop's stakes had been raised into the stratosphere" by Rubber Soul and "Suddenly, it was more about making a great album without filler than a great single." In January 1966, Billboard magazine cited the initial US sales of Rubber Soul (1.2 million copies over nine days) as evidence of teenage record-buyers increasingly moving towards the LP format. While it was in keeping with the industry norm in the UK, the lack of a hit single on Rubber Soul added to the album's identity in the US as a self-contained artistic statement.

Following the Beatles' example, several rock albums intended as artistic statements were released in 1966, including the Rolling Stones' Aftermath, the Beach Boys' Pet Sounds, Bob Dylan's Blonde on Blonde, the Beatles' own Revolver and the Who's A Quick One. Music journalist Mat Snow cites these five releases, together with Otis Redding's 1965 LP Otis Blue, as evidence that "the album era was here, and though hit singles still mattered, they were no longer pop's most important money spinners and artistic statements." According to Jon Pareles, the music industry profited immensely and redefined its economic identity because of the era's rock musicians, who "started to see themselves as something more than suppliers of ephemeral hit singles". In the case of the British music industry, the commercial success of Rubber Soul and Aftermath foiled attempts to re-establish the LP market as the domain of wealthier, adult record-buyers. From early 1966, record companies there ceased their policy of promoting adult-oriented entertainers over rock acts, and embraced budget albums for their lower-selling artists to cater to the increased demand for LPs.

Rolling Stone assistant editor Andy Greene identifies Sgt. Pepper as marking "the beginning of the album era", as does Scott Plagenhoef of Pitchfork, with Greene adding that "It was the big bang of albums." Its release in May 1967 coincided with the emergence of dedicated rock criticism in the US and intellectuals seeking to position pop albums as valid cultural works. Music historian Simon Philo writes that, aside from the level of critical acclaim it received, "the record's [commercial] success ushered in the era of album-oriented rock, radically reshaping how pop music worked economically." Reinforcing its creative ambition, Sgt. Pepper was packaged in a gatefold sleeve with a lyric sheet, typifying a trend whereby musicians now commissioned associates from the art world to design their LP sleeves, and presented their albums to the record company for release. Greg Kot said Sgt. Pepper introduced "a blueprint for not only making album rock but consuming it, with listeners no longer twisting the night away to an assortment of three-minute singles, but losing themselves in a succession of 20-minute album sides, taking a journey led by the artist."

"Judgments were simpler in pop's early days partly because rock and roll was designed to be consumed in three-minute take-it-or-leave-it segments. The rise of the LP as a form – as an artistic entity, as they used to say – has complicated how we perceive and remember what was once the most evanescent of the arts. The album may prove a '70s totem – briefer configurations were making a comeback by decade's end. But for the '70s it will remain the basic musical unit."-- Christgau's Record Guide: Rock Albums of the Seventies (1981)

The mid 1960s to the late 1970s was the era of the LP and the "golden era" of the album. According to BBC Four's The Golden Age, "These were the years when the music industry exploded to become bigger than Hollywood." Marc Hogan of Pitchfork comments that female musicians and African-Americans were rarely included in what became a predominantly white-male "rock-stuffed canon" during the album era, with exceptions being records by Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, Prince, Kate Bush and Public Enemy. The 1970 Joni Mitchell LP Ladies of the Canyon is commonly regarded as one of the album era's most important records. The productions of Bob Ezrin – who worked on 1970s albums by Alice Cooper and Kiss' Destroyer (1976) – are also highlighted from this era. As music journalist James Campion writes, "The 1970s album era was perfectly suited to his cinematic approach. Its format, with its two sides, as if two acts in a play with an intermission, allows for a crucial arc in the storytelling."

Elaborating on the 1970s LP aesthetic, Campion identifies cultural and environmental factors that, in his mind, made the format ideal for young people during the decade. He describes the "solitary ambience" offered to listeners by the turntable and headphones, which "enveloped [them] in intricate stereo panning, atmospheric sounds, and multilayered vocal trickery". The popularity of recreational drugs and mood lamps at the time provided further settings for more focused listening experiences: "This kept the listener rapt to each song: how one flowed into the other, their connecting lyrical content, and the melding of instrumentation."

In comparison to future generations, Campion explains that people growing up in the 1970s found greater value in album listening, in part because of their limited access to any other home entertainment appliance: "Many of them were unable to control the family television or even the kitchen radio. This led to prioritizing of the bedroom or upstairs den: the imagination capsule, locked away inside the headphone dreamscape, studying every corner of the 12-inch artwork and delving deeper into lyrical subtext, whether in ways intended by the artist or not. As if sitting in their own theater of the mind – already hijacked by comic-book fantasy images of horror and science fiction, advertising propaganda, and the American promise of grandeur – they were willing participants in the playful meandering of their rock-and-roll heroes."

According to Hogan, with Sgt. Pepper having provided the impetus, the idea of a "concept album" became a marketing tool by the 1970s, as "no shortage of bands used the pretense of 'art' to sell tens of millions of records." Citing the megasuccess of Pink Floyd's 1973 LP The Dark Side of the Moon, Hogan says "record sales spiraled upward until 1977, when they began ticking downward."

1980s–1990s: Threats to the LP and transition to CD

Along with the LP record, the 8-track tape was another format popular in the United States in this period. After the fall of LP record sales at the end of the 1970s and the rise of the cassette and then the CD as the dominant music format marked the end of the LP-driven "golden age", the album consolidated its domination of the recorded music market. Seven-inch vinyl single sales were dropping and were almost totally displaced by cassette singles by the end of the 1980s. Yet these were never as popular as seven-inch singles and they and the subsequent CD singles never amounted to a significant threat to the dominance of the album. According to Robert Christgau in 1985, "the singles aesthetic began to reassert itself with disco and punk".

As the LP format began to be replaced in the 1980s, well-regarded albums of the past were reissued on CD by their original record labels, or the label to whom the album's ownership had been transferred in the event of the original's closure, for instance. However, many LPs were overlooked for digital rerelease "because of legal and contractual problems, as well as simple oversight", Strauss explains. Instead, such records were often rediscovered and collected through the crate digging practices of North American hip hop producers seeking rare sounds to sample for their own recordings. In her account of the 1980s hip hop crate-diggers, media and culture theorist Elodie A. Roy writes, "As they trailed second-hand shops and car boot sales – depositories of unwanted capitalist surplus – diggers were bound to encounter realms of mainstream, mass-produced LP records now fallen out of grace and fashion." This development also contributed to the phenomenon of the "popular collector", which material culture scholar Paul Martin describes as those generally interested in "obtainable, affordable and appealing" items – such as music releases – and attributes to mass production.

The success of MTV posed a threat to the album's primacy in the 1980s and early 1990s. According to Pareles, it was quickly recognized that, "after the album-rock era of the 1970s, MTV helped return the hit single to prominence as a pop marketing tool". Despite this, album production proliferated in the 1990s, with Christgau approximating 35,000 albums worldwide were released each year during the decade.


By the mid-1990s, single song delivery of music to the consumer was almost dead, at least in the United States. In 1998, Billboard magazine ended the requirement of a physical single for charting on its Hot 100 chart after several of the year's major hits were not released as singles. But, despite the dominance of the CD, technological changes quickly turned the tables. In 1999, the internet peer-to-peer file sharing service Napster allowed internet users to easily download single songs in MP3 format. By early 2001, Napster use peaked with 26.4 million users worldwide.

In 1999, Kot published a faux obituary for the 33​1⁄3  rpm LP form in the Chicago Tribune, arguing it had "been made obsolete by MP3 downloads, movie soundtracks and CD shufflers – not to mention video games, cable television, the Internet and the worldwide explosion of media that prey upon the attention spans of what used to be known as album buyers." While acknowledging some recording acts still attempt to abide by ideals from the album era, he said most "have abdicated their responsibility" as artists and storytellers in favor of indulgent recording practices and profiting off of the CD boom: "[W]ith CD prices continuing to rise (even though they are cheaper to make than vinyl), discs packed with 70 minutes of music – even if not all of it is first-rate – can give consumers the illusion of getting their money's worth."

Although Napster was shut down in 2001 for copyright violations, other music download services took its place. In 2001, Apple Inc.'s iTunes service was introduced and the iPod, a consumer-friendly MP3 player, was released later that year. This and other legal alternatives as well as illicit file sharing continued to depress sales of recorded music on physical formats. By 2006, downloaded digital single sales outnumbered CD sales for the first time and buyers of digital music purchased singles over albums by a margin of 19:1. Even music industry executives were forced to admit that the album was on its way out. "For some genres and some artists, having an album-centric plan will be a thing of the past," Capitol-EMI's COO Jeff Kempler said. Other warnings were more dire. Media researcher Aram Sinnreich bluntly predicted that "the album is going to die. Consumers are listening to play lists" on their MP3 players.

"Death of the album" is a phrase used to describe the perceived decline of album sales in the 21st century, sometimes attributed to internet sharing and downloading, and the changing expectations of music listeners. Album sales more than halved from 1999 to 2009, declining from a $14.6 to $6.3 billion industry. As opposed to releasing an album, some bands have begun releasing a series of singles or EPs as a way to combat the "average person's short attention span." With consumers abandoning albums, performers "started concentrating on dishing out singles as opposed to churning out albums". Critics of the trend argued that single songs "never truly showed an artist’s true prowess and every singer or songwriter proved to be a one-hit wonder". In a 2014 interview, Lee Phillips of the Californian entertainment law firm Manatt, Phelps & Phillips blamed record companies for failing to recognise the inevitability of streaming as the favoured means of music distribution and for not working with Napster on a solution. Howerever, he concluded: "The album era is over, but I think that's good for everybody. The artists don't have to write 12 or 13 great songs, they only have to write two or three." Writing in 2017, Peter Robinson of The Guardian commented that while the release format is "dead", artists such as U2, the 1975, Taylor Swift and Katy Perry still present their work within a self-defined "album era", representing each project's aesthetic lifetime, in the style of themed album campaigns by David Bowie, Madonna and Pet Shop Boys.

With the rise of digital media in the 2000s, the "popular collector" of physical albums had transitioned to the "digital" and "electronic" collector. Of such collectors, Roy says it can be argued they are "not equipped with sufficient archiving knowledge or tools to preserve his/her collection in the long run", citing the vulnerable shelf life of digital files. Concurrently, the demise of physical music stores allowed for websites to emerge as domains for album collecting, including the music review database AllMusic, the streaming service Spotify, and Discogs, which began as a music database before developing into an online marketplace for physical music releases.

In 2003, Wired magazine assigned Christgau to write an article discussing if the album was "a dying art form", to which he concluded: "For as long as artists tour, they'll peddle song collections with the rest of the merch, and those collections will be conceived as artfully as the artists possibly can." In 2019, as CD and digital download sales plummeted and theories still persisted about the "death" of the physical album format, Christgau found his original premise even more valid. "Because the computer giveth as the computer taketh away", he wrote in an essay accompanying the Pazz & Jop music poll that year, explaining that "quality home recording is now so cheap that making an album is hobby-level stuff not just for duffers but for the statistically inevitable complement of amateur artists whose music ain't no hobby, or shouldn't be. And compelled to tour though all now are, few professional bands are in it solely for the roar of the crowd. Writing songs is in their DNA, and if said songs are any good at all, recording them for posterity soon becomes irresistible."

See also

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