While I’m happy for The Arcade Fire, who had the first decent album named Album of the Year at the Grammys since Outkast’s Speakerboxxx/The Love Below in 2004, it is yet another striking sign of trouble for the music industry as a whole. Don’t get me wrong… I love The Arcade Fire, and unlike say Kings of Leon, I don’t think they’ve changed their music a great deal to attain greater popularity. But The Suburbs hasn’t even gone gold (500,000 copies sold, including digital). It’s a far cry from the ’80s, when albums like Thriller, Graceland and The Joshua Tree won, or even the ’90s, which saw such winners as Jagged Little Pill, The Bodyguard Soundtrack and The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill. While not all of these albums are great (or even good), they all were cultural touchstones… everybody from your mom to your kid knew a song from each and every one of the Album of the Year winners.
An even more striking sign of the death of the album as a popular art form is the ridiculously small number of sales it takes to become reach the Billboard #1 spot. Two weeks ago, Amos Lee (who?) joined the club that used to belong to either monster artists (The Rolling Stones, Michael Jackson, etc.) or significant flashes-in-the-pan (MC Hammer, Billy Ray Cyrus, etc.) And what was the sales threshold Mr. Lee had to cross? A record-setting low of 40,000… and that includes digital downloads of the album. Just in case you thought it was just a fluke, this week Nicki Minaj (who?) hit #1 with 45,000 in sales for the week, and a few weeks ago Cake (they’re still around?) took the top spot with 44,000 in sales.
During the same weeks, Pink’s “Fuckin’ Perfect” (241,000 sold), Dr. Dre’s “I Need A Doctor” (226,000 sold) and Britney Spears’ “Hold It Against Me” (411,000 sold) held the number-one spot on the Digital Songs chart, which given that nobody buys singles anymore is the equivalent of that chart in earlier decades. Now, if you were to bet who your children would know from the music of 2011, would you bet on Amos Lee, Nicki Minaj and Cake, or Pink, Dr. Dre and Britney Spears? Of course you would.
This isn’t to say the Digital Songs list is better, just that it is a better indicator of who the stars are in music today. When rock started, singles ruled… albums as a coherent form didn’t even exist until the mid-sixties when the Beach Boys and the Beatles started exploring the form. Up through the turn-of-the-century, the bigger bands ruled the album charts… the singles chart was much more prone to reward one-hit-wonders. Now, music has gone back to songs as the primary form. Which isn’t inherently bad (although as a child of the ’90s, I’ll always have a soft spot for albums). But let’s stop publicizing each week’s Number One Album like it still means something.