It's been 98 years since the first record album was produced. Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker Suite, recorded in Britain onto four discs made of carbon black and shellac, was called an "album" because the records slipped into paper sleeves that were stitched into a leather book, like a photography album.
Years later, musicians of all stripes recorded their hits onto less-breakable vinyl records, and filled out the album with mediocre songs. Then came compact discs, housed in plastic cases.
But the anthology format was the same. And all along, it carried a built-in flaw: Consumers may love one or two of an artist's new songs -- or some songs on a collection of, say, rock hits of the 1960s. They may think Vince Gill's slow country love songs are dreamy but hate his up-tempo tunes. Too bad. To get romantic Vince, you must buy honky-tonk Vince, too.
But now music fans can pick and choose. Digital recording and the ability to select, buy, and download only the tunes you really like have devastated album sales. According to the New York Times, today's digital music customers download single tunes over albums by a 19-1 margin.
One result is that all but the biggest musical stars, if they're lucky, now get contracts to record only three or four singles and maybe a music video. No more showcase albums of a wider repertoire. One media consultant in Los Angeles told the Times, "I think the album is going to die. Consumers are listening to playlists" of individual songs that they, themselves, arrange in categories.
It's too soon to bury the record album, but if you were thinking of selling your CD collection, now might be a good time.