I apologize in advance if my argument here is less cogent than it could be: I’m under extreme time constraints to crank out this post. That said, this is something I just can’t leave alone.
“The album is dead!” people seem to be lamenting. What people? Well, Nate Anderson at Ars Technica for one, and he comes bearing graphs.
But how useful are these graphs? Not very. As one (or more, actually) of the comments on the article notes, comparing singles to albums (to streams, even!) in terms of units is useless, since an album is typically made up of approximately 10 tracks. Meaning, buying a single vs. buying an album is not the equivalent of buying a Mac instead of a PC, or buying an apple instead of an orange. It’s buying one song instead of buying ten songs. But you’re still buying songs.
So… the chart showing 1,138 million singles, vs. a paltry 76 million albums, sold in 2009 — a harrowing comparison — would more accurately be represented as 1,138 million songs purchased as singles, vs. (approximately) 760 million songs purchased as albums, in 2009. Singles are still more popular than albums are, but the number of songs acquired as singles vs. as parts of albums is less than double.
Or another way to look at it, if you don’t like thinking about songs, is dollars. Most popular singles are selling on iTunes these days for $1.29, vs. $9.99 for albums. So you’re looking at $1,468 million in single sales, vs. $759 million in album sales. Again, about twice as many dollars spent on singles as opposed to albums. Maybe not good news for albums (I don’t know; it would be helpful to see what the trends in singles-vs.-albums sales have been over time), but certainly not the catastrophic disaster the Ars charts suggest.
One aspect of the story that is perhaps worth evaluating is how much of the concept of the album as an art form is being lost here. But again, honestly, the 3-hit-singles-and-7-tracks-of-crap model for pop albums has been around since (based on anecdotal evidence from my mom) at least the 1960s. That doesn’t mean all music follows that model, though, and it doesn’t mean that the fans of longer-form compositions or concept albums aren’t still buying albums.