The United Kingdom is marking its first ever National Album Day. Held on Saturday 13th October, it’s said to be a celebration of, “all aspects of the UK’s love of the album.” There will be a host of events – including some live MQA streams – showcasing the joys of this time-honoured way of listening to music. Indeed, it is now seventy years since the first ever album was sold, with an estimated five billion albums thought to have been sold in Britain since the format’s advent in 1948, according to the British Phonographic Industry. Since then, it has proved amazingly resilient in a world of fast-changing fashions, but there are now concerns that it’s under threat. Although music sales are strong – increasingly so via streaming – there’s a sense that some recording artists are losing interest in the album format, while others only pay lip service to it. Some critics say that musicians are now releasing sequences of songs rather than a cohesive musical whole. Has the spirit of greats like The Beatles’ Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band or Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon finally passed?
National Album Day is backed by the British Phonographic Industry, with the BBC giving it extensive coverage. At 3.33pm on the Saturday, everyone in the UK is being asked to stop what they’re doing, sit back, relax and play their album of choice in full from start to finish. There is much to be happy about, with the format still selling in sizeable numbers. For example, there were 135 million albums either purchased, downloaded or streamed in 2017 – a rise of 9.5 per cent year-on-year. 4.1 million of these were on vinyl, which is the highest level since the start of the nineteen nineties, incidentally. Whether you’re a vinyl junkie or not, this is good news for the music industry and in turn for music fans, because it makes recorded music more visible to younger audiences, or older ones who have got out of the habit of buying music at all.
Some have criticised the event, describing it as gimmicky. Yet still many young artists have a great regard for albums, with some talking about wanting to make their Never Mind the Bollocks or London Calling. They don’t, it seems, want to see the album format relegated to pop music’s past. Although revenues are holding up, actual album sales in units are half those of 2010, down last year to 45.8 million physical objects purchased and 13.8 million digital sales. The revenue increase came from streaming, which has contributed to the charts since 2015. Unlike the old days, when one person walking into a record shop and buying a vinyl copy of Hotel California would constitute a sale, there is now a complex formula that defines streamed album sales. It down-weighs the two most popular songs from any album to the average of the next ten, then divides the total plays from the twelve tracks by 1,000. Who knew?
It’s hard to get too judgemental about the future of albums. Media pundits have been declaring it dead for several years now, with some pretentiously talking about streaming singles as the new ‘lingua franca’ of modern music. Yet the idea of just buying singles is nothing new; seven inch, twelve inch and then CD singles were all hugely popular in their day, as many people’s physical disc collections – be they analogue or digital – attest. Albums are beloved by so-called super fans, for whom endless remastered box sets are being released, seemingly every week. Indeed, this is what some believe to be the problem, as the mainstream music industry continues to mine the seam of classic music reissues. It’s certainly true that £80 box sets of ten or so CDs that cost pennies to produce, tries the patience of some loyal collectors.
The upside to streaming is that it is now possible to get very high quality sound, providing you have a serious digital front end and network streamer of course. For example, MQA is collaborating with Pitchblack Playback and The Association of Independent Music to hold an all-day, fully immersive listening event to celebrate National Album Day 2018. Six albums, released on independent labels, will be played back in MQA to deliver what Pitchblack Playback calls “the original studio performance”; it’s certainly going to be a great sounding event. It is being held between 11.30am and 6pm in The Sensorium at Aures, London. It’s a free-to-attend occasion that should be a unique listening experience; full details can be found at: http://www.pitchblackplayback.com/national-album-day/, and tickets are on a first come, first served basis.
The albums being played include Mogwai’s Every Country’s Sun (Rock Action Records), Gil Scott-Heron’s I’m New Here (XL), The Fall’s I Am Kurious Oranj (Beggars Banquet), Public Service Broadcasting’s The Race For Space (Test Card Recordings) and Young Fathers’ Cocoa Sugar (Ninja Tune). J. Willgoose Esq from Public Service Broadcasting said: “It is great to be a part of National Album Day. As a band we put a lot of thought and effort into producing albums rather than isolated songs, and trying to use our music to tell stories. Giving fans the opportunity to experience our album The Race For Space in the dark, focusing on nothing but the music, is a great idea and we hope people get something out of it.” MQA’s Mike Jbara added: “It’s inspiring to be involved in a project that puts artists and music fans at the centre of the experience. We’re proud to partner with AIM and Pitchblack Playback to deliver the ultimate listening event for National Album Day.”
Whichever direction album sales may go, many of us will treasure the format forever, as it is such an elegant way of packaging a diverse but interconnected range of moods and emotions from a band in a series of different but sequentially ordered songs. Long may albums play!