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The Demise of the CD Album

by May 17, 2007

In the 50s it was the rage, the 45 single.  The pop-music industry was born out of the frenzy produced by one-hit wonders and the teenagers that fueled the demand. The singles-market reigned supreme at the cost of quality. Disposable artists were as good as the next big hit and the budding music industry didn't care or want to know about artist development or quality; it was truly an assembly line operation.  LPs were by and large ignored by the mass-market, selling in miniscule numbers compared to its sibling the 45.

Fast-forward a decade, the 1960s brought political and social changes that had a profound impact on popular music and a new mindset was quickly taking shape as technology slowly crept forward.  New styles of music and new bands that produced copious volumes of work were now looking for relevance and permanence.  The one-hit wonders of the 1950s were either brushed away in the upheaval or were transformed into mega-stars.  These new musical forces went beyond your traditional pop single; now rock operas, opuses and interrelated songs were coming to the forefront and such volume and complexity could only be brought to market via the LP format. For the first time the all mighty inferior sounding single was taking a back seat to the LP.  Numbers of singles kept slipping throughout the late sixties in the seventies, the decade that music critics site as the decade of the LP.

The eighties brought a new revolution in technology that's still reverberating today – the birth of the CD.  Lamented by some, worshipped by technophiles everywhere, the CD spelled the end of the 45 and cassette single making the CD album the de-facto medium for music in the late 20th century.  The revolution didn't stop at the software end of things either; again the musical landscape was in flux.  Behold i-Pods, MP3, i-Tunes, wav, Napster.......the digital revolution was in full swing.  Amidst the waves of change, consumer's taste had also taken a turn, the trend for one-hit wonders and disposable music seemed to be making an awkward return.  The flavor-of-the-week mentality and it's conspirator of choice, the single, had been resurrected in digital form.

The young consumer of this brave new world isn't interested in listening to complex works of music.  No, the new, the happening, that's what's in, “if it’s relevant I want it” has become the litmus test for music.  Through the magic of this exploding technology, you can now have that relevant single for about 99-cents (instead of spending 15 dollars for an album CD) all without leaving the comfort of your seat. Ironically, the digital single has done to the CD what the LP did to the vinyl single.

This violent change has led industry watchers to opine that the record industry as a whole is interested in quick hits rather than lasting music or artist development.  The singles market is a double edged affair.  The obvious trend in lower quality recordings and second rate material releases has become rampant. The rush for profit has had an adverse affect in the industry and with consumers.

By and large, consumers still buy CD albums, but in fewer numbers.  According to Nielsen Sound Scan, sales of CD albums have declined 20-percent from last year (112 million to 89 million) while digital singles are up to 288 million from 242 million last year.  These numbers only reflect legal downloads.

This singles-market trend has produced lay-offs, budget-cuts and consolidations in an industry already reeling from dismal sales.  Hopefully this will be a wake up call to the recording industry. The market is in dire need of quality and the digital throw away single and its poor sound quality is not the answer to long growth, consumer confidence and future profits.