The single is the new album

The Flaming Lips made a very interesting announcement, one of those announcements that made me WHACK my head and say “shitzya, why didn’t i think of that?”

“The album is dead. The Mp3 killed it. ” we all know that. And underpinning this simple statement are the fundamental shifts in creation distribution and consumption of content.

You may remember my previous wordy and complicated part-one of a (someday) three post exposition on “The Future of Culture”, and the small convoluted chat about memes. I think the flaming lips announcement is another opportunity to try and talk about “universal darwinism” and how competition leads to evolution, not only in living organism’s, but in “living” culture

Our culture is made up, at least in part, of “manufactured content”. And manufactured content has its own environment in which to survive. That environment is, simply, the profit motive of capitalism. Simply put, the best way to make money in any given environment will survive. That which does not make profit, is dead. xkcd has a tongue-in-cheek take on this which i like – check it out 🙂

The “album”, and all the “strategies” around it, existed because it was simply the most profitable way to manufacture content given the environment. Distribution technology didnt make transporting merely one song profitable – the money you could reasonably expect to earn was far outweighed by physical distribution costs. So you had to package a bunch of songs together – hence, the album.

You also had a reasonable strategy for album release taking into account things such as competitive content, content percolation times and audience attention spans. A generation ago, there was less content, which diffused slowly to an audience whose “time-spent” on any content was considerably higher. The “one album every 18 months” was, simply put, the best way to milk/maximise profits.

Of course the “digital revolution” and “media explosion” changed the environment completely. More music was able to release, which spread through the an increasingly distracted audience faster and faster. Suddenly, the previous strategy wasn’t as effective.

The first calamity would, of course, be the physical product.  Simply put, the profit motive would force music to go “online”. But even online, given competition and audience attention spans, even the album strategy is a no go. Simply put, a distracted audience doesnt want 12 songs every 18 months, it wants something short, and it wants it NOW.

Given that environment – dont you think the flaming lips announcement makes sense? wouldnt this be the way distribution of “manufactured content” would evolve to maximise profits?



About Tarun

Joker, smoker, midnight toker. Teacher, writer, general gadabout
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One Response to The single is the new album

  1. harsht says:

    Hey Tarun
    Nice post
    1. Albums are an ‘institutional convention’ that the record industry continues to maintain. However finally due to changes in environment as centrality of dominant players erodes – ( Say Big Record Labels ) they adopt newer conventions – and the Album to Single Hit is precisely an example of that.
    Many of these are issues that TV is battling with – Linear Flow based medium that delivered a schedule – to a medium that delivers discrete pieces of content- Finally Hulu ( or something else) will become more ‘central’ to TV distribution and the TV Channel may go to the fringes.

    2. At a higher level – Marvin, When Old Technologies Were New ,1988 –
    “the introduction of new media is a special historical occasion when patterns anchored in older media that have provided the stable currency of social exchange
    are reexamined, challenged, and defended” (1988:4). Because as she goes on to explain .. “Media are not fixed natural objects, they have no natural edges. They are constructed complexes of habits, beliefs and procedures and embedded in cultural codes of communication ” (1988:8)

    Get the book, you will love it

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