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Is Chris Brown Right, Is the Album Dead?

Posted by Nathan S. on 10/07/13 | Filed under Opinion, Chris Brown, Sales

In addition to a whole lot of other Chris Browny stuff, in a recent interview Brown declared that his upcoming "X" album will likely be the because the album as a format is nearly dead. Instead, he'll focus on just releasing a steady stream of singles.

Well then, you raise an interesting point Mr. Breezy. Is the album dying, chocked off by the rise of the single? In a word, no, but it's worth a discusssion.

"You can blame it on downloads, but the numbers are what they are. After this, maybe I'll release a single every few months, or release a song; you're still going to hear my music and videos." - Chris Brown

First off, Brown seems to be mostly considering the album dead primarily in terms of sales; after all, he has won a Grammy for Best R&B Album. Now, of course album sales are down substantially from a decade ago. In 2003 a big single could guarantee even Black Rob a platinum album, now only the biggest of the biggest artists can touch anything shinier than gold, if they're lucky.

But there are two ways to look at falling albums sales over the last decade, although overall sales (digital and physical) seem to have stabilized. One, people aren't as interested in listening to and buying albums as they once were. Or two, with no other alternative people were previously forced to buy albums they otherwise wouldn't have, artificially inflating sales, and now we're seeing a more accurate reflection of consumer demand.

Personally, I subscribe more closely to the second theory. Major labels are right when they say their profits have been slashed, but that's also in comparison to the obscene profit margins they were previously making. Let's say I rob you for your lunch money every day, and then you take some karate classes and now I can't rob you anymore. I can point to my declining lunch money revenue as proof that people aren't buying lunch anymore, or I was just lucky to get your lunch money while I could, and now those golden days are over.

(That analogy's a bit of a stretch, labels obviously weren't literally robbing people, although paying for a 14 song album when only three songs were any good, isn't not not unlike robbery, if I can use a guardruple negative.)

By the same token, Brown can point to the 135K first week sales of his "Fame" album as proof that album sales are down, and he'd be right. It's the lowest selling album of his career, his 2007 effort "Exclusive" sold more than double that. But it also might be proof that his albums, as cohesive collections that need to be purchased as an album, just aren't as good anymore. The most popular young artist in hip-hop, Drake, sold nearly 700k first week. The most popular young artist in pop, Taylor Swift, sold 1.2 million first week. Major artists can still move serious units, there are just less of those major artists now.

Regardless, the last thing I want to do is have this detour into a debate about Chris Brown's albums (although for some it might already be too late). More importantly, regardless of who the artist is, when you live by the single, you die by the single. Carly Rae Jepsen had one of the biggest singles of the century, "Call Me Maybe", and because her album was essentially just a collection of other singles that didn't demand to be listened to in relation to each other, her album tanked. As Kevin Costner so famously said, and I'm paraphrasing here, "If you actually build an album, they will buy it. But if your album is only singles, don't be surprised when people just buy the singles."

And that's really all the proof you need that the album is not dead, and I don't think is even truly close to dying. Singles come and go, but it's still the album that serves as the cultural and artistic landmarks. "Poetic Justice" may have been a hit, but it was "GKMC" that turned Kendrick Lamar into a legend in the making. We can argue about where J. Cole should fall in the "best young rapper alive" list, but the commercial and artistic success of "Born Sinner" means he has to at least be considered.

Artists may make more money off touring and merch sales than album sales now, but it's still albums that launch those tours. True, we're no longer as beholden to the album as we once were (dissapointed that "Cartoons & Cereal" didn't make it onto "GMKC"? Go onto your iTunes, add "Cartoons & Cereal" to "GKMC". There, it just made the album) the album is still the foundation of music, both artistically and commercially. 

Singles may be more powerful than ever, but they're still just peasants milling around while the album remains king. Love live the king.

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