While online music distribution avenues like Apple’s iTunes have had moderate success in keeping the music industry alive in the wake of the disintegration of CD sales, the new music consumer still prefers downloading the best or most popular tracks off the album, leaving the rest behind. Some music traditionalists and certainly record labels bemoan the death of the physical album as a complete, physical package, and not just for the fatter sales tapes, CDs, and LPs procured for the latter. Beyond the simple fact that stores and labels could charge more for albums, the sentiment persists that there was some artistry to the physical album itself; that there was a richness in the experience of exploring and simply apprehending the visual accompaniment to the music.
While extracting a CD from its shrink wrapping was an often maddening experience that nobody but those in plastics manufacturing will miss, there is something to said for the artwork of an album leaflet, for the coupling of a well-designed cover with the theme of the album, for the often zany liner notes and thank-yous included by the artist. These are all vestiges of a slower era of music appreciation; an era that preceded the contemporary method of consumption ushered in by Apple’s “Rip. Mix. Burn.” digital ethos. Album assemblage be damned, it was the listener who now called the shots, mixing and matching songs from different (and differing) albums and artists into playlists that immediately suited oneself. And when we’re pulling in single MP3s and transferring them directly to a portable device—or downloading them directly to the device itself, as is possible with the iPhone—who has time to look an album art? Reading album lyrics or admiring band photos on an iPod would likely wind up with you walking into a lamppost or into an uncovered manhole.
Apple is now trying to reverse this trend, hoping to revive the art of the album with a new initiative code-named ‘Cocktail’—a collaborative effort with major labels to get people looking at albums as they listen. Starting in September, in conjunction with a perennially-rumored tablet device, Apple will be packaging music together with audio content as a sort of interactive book, including liner notes and video content that allows for listening without having to use iTunes at all.
One anonymous executive spoke to the Financial Times:
“It’s all about re-creating the heyday of the album when you would sit around with your friends looking at the artwork, while you listened to the music,” “It’s not just a bunch of PDFs,” elaborated another. “There’s real engagement with the ancillary stuff.”