End of the CD would be the death of the album

When the Recording Industry Association of America began suing people for sharing stolen music on the Internet, it was more than just a warning to uninstall KaZaA. It was a sign that music would change forever.

The lawsuits filed are forcing music enthusiasts to find alternate – legal – methods of downloading songs. A study released Sept. 2 by Forrester Research expected 10 new online music services to show up in the following nine months. By 2008, the report predicts one-third of all music sales will be from downloads. Josh Bernoff, a Forrester Research analyst, told CNN he expects physical formats to go away completely.

Frankly, I am surprised it has not happened already. When CDs disappear and music is distributed solely online, record companies will no longer have to pay for distribution, CDs, liner notes, jewel cases or artwork. Distribution gets handled by private servers, like iTunes.com, and everything else gets lost in the upgrade.

It makes sense from a consumer standpoint as well. We have already grown accustomed to the MP3. MP3 players are small, portable, convenient and adorable. We can organize our expansive music library in seconds, shuffle through thousands of songs without swapping CDs and download them to our snazzy skip-free iPods. At less than a buck per song, they’re much cheaper than buying an entire CD for $20. Bring on the revolution, right?

No.

This is bad.

Artistically speaking, this is the worst thing to happen to music since Clear Channel got in the business. Music will become even more cliched and commercial than it is now. The Internet will become just like the radio and worst of all, the concept of a cohesive album will disappear.

A little background: Currently, when an artist releases a CD through a record label, the label releases a single to support the album. At best, the single is a marketable representation of the artist’s music. At worst, it is nothing more than a commercial. Usually, the single is the catchiest, most listener-friendly song on the album meant to convince radio audiences to buy the CD. Because the success of the CD (and the artist) relies so heavily on the single, record companies place a ridiculous amount of pressure on the songwriters to make a mediocre, mass-marketable song to stick on the album.

Now imagine albums are dead. Each song is up for download individually. It is a musical free-for-all. Which songs are most people likely to pay for? The mediocre, mass-marketable songs we used to call singles. Because these ‘singles’ will be purchased individually for less than a dollar, and no longer support an album costing up to $20, each artist will be pressured to pump out five to 10 times more cliched, commercial music to make the same amount of money.

If the onslaught of trite music was not enough, the Internet will become exactly like the radio. Most radio stations today are run by corporations, such as Clear Channel or Infinity, that have no affiliation with record companies. These corporations can set limitations on song length, edit a song’s lyrical content or even refuse to play a song if it is too edgy, offensive or does not fit within a specific genre. Like radio stations, music servers will also be run by corporations. Corporate money will be needed to fund expensive server hosting fees, and corporations specializing in convergence will jump at the chance to expand their empires. Corporations that host music servers will be able to place specifications on songs, or even refuse to host a song. Many underground artists who relied on the Internet to distribute their music will be crushed. Sound like the radio to anyone else?

Here’s the kicker: When CDs get scrapped, the concept of a cohesive album will die. Because songs will be released and downloaded individually, there will no longer be any structure or overriding theme to an artist’s work. No more concept albums. No more musical context. No more artistic merit. Just five-minute nuggets of mediocrity.

I am not saying the vast majority of albums out there are worth listening to. In fact, music is in such a state of disrepair that one wrong turn might destroy artistic music forever. But artistic albums are available. When done well, they are the modern-day equivalent of symphonies, with each track acting as a different movement. The collective tracks, on their own, might be catchy, boring, insightful or annoying, but when put in context of an album, they can become art. These albums can tell a story, fight social injustice, condemn ideologies or simply inspire emotion.

And that is worth saving.

Chad Hamblin’s column appears alternate Thursdays. He welcomes comments at [email protected]