Today, Apple announced the lineup of its eighth iTunes Festival, which will feature Deadmau5, Kasabian, Ed Sheeran, Pharrell Williams and Kylie Minogue.
The annual concert, which will be streamed to more than 100 countries, has become an important tool in Apple’s attempts to preserve the all-holy album which, ironically, the company helped kill when it launched the iTunes Store in 2003, forever severing individual songs from albums. Now Spotify is doing to iTunes what iTunes did to CDs as digital downloads plummet in favor of streaming services.
To help give the album a few last dying breaths, Apple has in the past organized album releases around the festival, with Lady Gaga debuting most the songs off her latest release ARTPOP in 2013 and Justin Timberlake releasing the 20/20 Experience immediately following his performance.
This all brings up a crucial question for people invested in the future of the album (read: people born in the 80s): In the digital age, why do albums still come out in the US on that least glamorous of days, Tuesday? And why do different countries put out new releases on different days of the week?
To answer that, we need to think about why Tuesday became the standard US release date in the first place. The origins of this tradition are unclear, but many think it’s because Billboard releases its weekly charts on Wednesdays. If everyone releases their album on Tuesday, that gives records a full week of distribution before crashing the charts.
The other theory makes little sense in the digital age: Stores stock up over the weekend, and because everybody’s too busy to care about new music on Monday, Tuesday became the natural day to do it. But when an album can be brought to platforms around the world with the push of a button, why not release them on, say, a Friday when people have a hour to devote to a new album? And not just in the US, but all over the world?
These are not arbitrary questions. For years, music has been as much about the experience surrounding its consumption as the product itself. Prior to the digital age, listening to an album, front-to-back, could create that special experience, whether it’s waiting in line at your local record store until midnight hits and the record starts playing, or, prior to the days of playlists and having every song under the sun at your fingertips, hanging out in a dormroom with friends listening.
These experiences, and social media in general, have not yet translated to the digital music space. When Spotify automatically posts every song you hear to Facebook, it’s not exactly a very sophisticated or rewarding use of social media. But when an album is released to everybody all at once, preferably not during work hours, that experience of consuming something from beginning to end can be shared with the entire world. We saw this with the release of Beyonce’s latest album, which was released unexpectedly on a Friday evening. Twitter and Facebook immediately exploded with track-by-track reactions to the record, creating a communal listening atmosphere on a scale never seen before.
The death of the album has almost become a foregone conclusion at this point. The newest generation of listeners want playlists, personally or algorithmically curated, and while there’s an art to this curation in itself, the big album-length artistic statement seems to be quickly fading away. But while many skeptics may say, “Good riddance, we don’t need our music divided into hour-long blocks of music,” anyone who’s ever lost themselves in “Blonde on Blonde” or “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea” or “Abbey Road” would disagree.
The album doesn’t have to die, necessarily. If millions gather all at the same time on Twitter to watch the World Cup finals or the Breaking Bad finale from start-to-finish, why can’t albums create similar experiences? And a unified release date and time for albums, regardless of country and preferably not while half the world is at work and the other half is sleeping, could help save the lost art of the album. It will be easier said than done — physical retail stores do still exist and, particularly smaller ones, will be the big losers of such an arrangement. But despite the pain felt by retailers, the move would be good for consumers, good for artists, and, for fans of albums, good for the art of music itself.
[Image via wikimedia]