I just finished reading the Wired issue on Snack Culture, which contained the umpteenth reference to the impending death of the album that I've seen in 2007. You've probably noticed it too as the Wall Street Journal broke news of a 20% decline in album sales in the first quarter of this year and everyone else added their two cents (hello). I'm here to say the album will never die and here are two reasons why.
1. Making a Hit Song is Hard / This is a Business
Like most things in life, the top 10% of artists account for 90% of album sales. Of those top albums, only 1-4 songs on each drive all of the sales; the rest is oftentimes filler. Wired notes that the move from an unskippable, analog record to a chunked, digital file makes avoiding these leftovers much easier.
Despite a seemingly logical progression, making music is art and most musicians (JT excluded) will not get it right on the first shot. In other words, they're going to record 20-30 songs to get a handful of good ones and several more worth your time. If one of good songs gets a bunch of radio play, why would the label sit on product that people want to hear? The album will live on as a result, even if more artists start out with a single, with full albums being sold at a discount over purchasing each song individually.
A footnote, but definitely worth noting, is that a good chunk of an album's budget is devoted to marketing. When you release five singles on a new artist in hopes of landing a hit you're going to spend quite a bit more money than you would when releasing ana album.
2. Indie Bands Don't Need Singles / Finding New Artists is Easy
The Arcade Fire and Clap Your Hands Say Yeah sold a boatload of records and neither had a hit single. There are another half-dozen bands in their position and hundreds (thousands?) more making a healthy living with a modicum of mainstream radio exposure. No one knew these two bands were going to be huge before their debut albums released and releasing one or two singles makes almost no sense without a decent marketing budget. More importantly, a high percentage of these bands didn't get into music to get rich and are just happy to make a decent living doing what they love (I assume this is why Clap Your Hands decided to release their newest album themselves).
For those small artists looking to strike it big, releasing more songs can only help their cause. With search tools improving and a dozen new MP3 blogs starting every day, casting a wider net could make the difference. These two factors also begin to make the long tail much more valuable. People looking for something outside the mainstream are increasingly likely to find something that suits them, which will increase indie album sales (I'd guess there are figures to back me up somewhere, but if they exist I certainly don't have access to them).
We all know the music business is changing and album sales will continue to decline as people stop buying every track on Reuben Studdard's album, but the hit-makers are tiny fraction of the music business. When this all shakes out I'll be surprised if at least one major label doesn't go belly-up, but I have total faith in the industry. In fact, I'm guessing this sea change will help more musicians make a living as an artist and that's a very good thing.
For further reading, Steven Johnson agreed the album will live on, but he had a different reason. "Freed from the time restrictions of traditional media, we're developing a more nuanced awareness of the right length for different kinds of cultural experiences."