In 1960, the album as we know it had not been invented. Of course there were 33 ⅓ RPM LPs, but these were just compilations of singles made so that you didn’t have to turn over or switch a 45 after every song. Radio was still king, as before Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society programs poverty was rampant and a single radio would give you access to infinitely more music than an equivalent amount of money spent on records, thus the domination of individual songs. But by the close of the decade, the album as we know it had been fully developed. Between Bob Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited (1965), The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds (1966), and of course The Beatles’ Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967), artists and audiences alike had realized the potential of a sequence of songs to make up a sum greater than their parts. By the early 1970s, album radio had gained cult popularity as stations would play entire LPs uninterrupted. Albums dominated the music culture for the rest of the 20th century.
But albums are becoming something of an anachronism in the modern era. As the new generation is raised on Spotify and YouTube, the single is overcoming the album in popularity among younger generations. Albums are still released, reviewed, and charted, but they’re on their way out. Many of the people I know in their 20s can’t tell me what their favorite album is when asked, simply saying they don’t listen to albums. Indeed, many don’t even know what artists they listen to, simply putting on an algorithm generated playlist and sitting back and enjoying.
There are objective metrics demonstrating the decline of the album as well. Chartmasters.org compiled lists of the best selling albums of the 2000s and 2010s, and we can see a dramatic decline. While Adele is clearly a force to be reckoned with selling over 41 million units of 21 alone (or an equivalent amount of money, more on Chartmaster’s metrics here, and I’ll discuss them in a moment), we see a dramatic decline after that leader of the 2010s. While Katy Perry’s Teenage Dream came in third in the 2010s ranking, if it had come out in the 00s and sold the same amount, it wouldn’t have even broken the top 10. We can also see how the best selling albums of the ‘10s all came out before 2016, and that year only had one entry. The Verge has reported that Spotify users have doubled since that year, and subscribers have more than tripled. It should come as no surprise then that album sales are dwindling in the era when algorithm generated playlists are becoming as accessible as radio was in the 1950s.
However, Chartmaster’s statistics should be taken with a grain of salt against the 2010s, as they use a concept called “Equivalent Album Sales” which counts every 10 singles or every 1500 streams. This works for their objective, to gauge popularity, but messes with my usage of the statistics to inflate the state of the album as an art form (however, I could not find any more comprehensive list of album sales from these decades, so it’ll have to do.) So, if a single gets an exceptional amount of play, every 1500 times people listen to it, Chartmaster counts it as an album sale. For instance, “Someone Like You” by Adele has over 757 million listens. If we assume that only 400 million were streamed while listening to the whole album (a generous estimate), we can immediately knock off over 23,000 units for 21, and that’s just one song.
Small artists feel this effect the hardest. It’s easier for a star who already has an adoring fan base to get people to listen to an entire album than someone just beginning. Jamie Salvatore of Jamie and the Guarded Heart told me last June about his struggle to get traction for an album. In an era when people will usually only listen to a single, it’s hard to motivate artists to invest the capital and time into a long playing work. Musicians still wind up doing it — either because it’s easier to promote 10 songs at once than to promote 10 songs individually, or because they have a deep love for that anachronistic form — but I suspect the 2020s will be the decade when we start to see albums disappear and singles return to domination. It’s a loss that may be beneficial to some artists who are already only putting out albums as compilations of singles, but I don’t want to see any medium die out like this, as there is still so much unexplored within the concept of an album.
Elizabeth von Teig is a musician and author living in Brighton, Massachusetts. Her expertise is classic rock, folk punk, and the blues.