The Art of Nothing: How Digital Audio Can Save the Album Format After All

The Art of Nothing: How Digital Audio Can Save the Album Format After All

As the sales of physical music continue to decline, digital music sales are booming.

According to figures from Nielsen SoundScan, paid downloads increased 101 percent between 2005 and 2006; between 2006 and 2007, sales growth "slowed" to a mere 53 percent. While the economics brought about by selling individual tracks rather than complete album packages have hurt the major labels specifically, the change in format has given musicians freedom to explore new artistic and commercial possibilities, yet many of those possibilities still go totally ignored.

Most of this stems from people's ingrained ideas about what an "album" really is and how a chain of computer files can't ever act as a substitute for a CD or record. The reality is that while audio files aren't perfect substitutes for any number of reasons, the right packaging and presentation of a digital release can turn any music file into the kind of comprehensive, multi-faceted artistic product fans are used to – and maybe more.


The first step in fully "albumifying" your digital release is to think ahead to how it will be most commonly distributed and sold, and how listeners are ultimately going to be encountering your music. Every musician imagines a legion of listeners embracing the whole of their output, but individual tracks far outpace, outlast and outsell albums in the digital space. Whether this is a product of shorter attention spans or just decreasing interest in larger artistic statements is debatable, but singles remain the dominant format. Theoretically this should have nothing to do with what happens to standalone tracks, but the ability to embed image files directly into most file formats presents at least a few interesting choices. Most commonly, artists simply use the same image for both a physical album cover and an audio file. However, those audio files' independence from each other could mean each is granted its own specific artwork.

For example, imagine an album whose included booklet features a different photograph on each of its pages. In a digital format, rather than having the entire booklet exist as a summary of the album's tracks, each track could contain a different piece of art as related to the whole album. A perfect example of this becoming useful might be in the case of a concept album, story album or rock opera where each song represents a piece of a larger statement. If each song's embedded artwork contained a different image, the album's story could unfold visually to coincide with the progression in the tracks. Think of seeing faded family photographs or cartoonish drawings of the school scenes to go along with the deterioration of the main character in Pink Floyd's The Wall, or watching the metaband disintegrate throughout the course of The Smashing Pumpkins' Machina/The Machines of God. In fact, the Pumpkins actually alluded to such a maneuver with the plate art by Vasily Kafanov included in Machina, but digital-ready albums were not really on anyone's mind at the time of its release.

The Two-in-One Model

The other most common approach is to simply include a fully digital version of what would be the album's booklet with the bundle of album files. This usually entails compiling all the master image files that would have become the printed booklet into one file, most often using Adobe's Portable Document Format (stored with the .pdf extension). While the format doesn't specifically contain the full level of detail that the .TIFF, .PNG or .RAW image files used for a proper booklet would, the format does allow full vector graphics and compresses tidily enough to take up only a minimal amount of hard drive space. The drawback to this approach is the lack of portability, as in there are no portable music players capable of opening files stored as anything except audio, video, images or text. Embedded media, on the other hand, can be displayed automatically either on home computers or mobile devices.

Size Matters?

To that end, what must be taken into consideration with embedded media is the size of the source image, both in terms of dimensions and in terms of file size. It's generally preferable to use as big a picture as possible, but when portable music players only have 5-inch screens there's a lot of opportunity for subtleties and details to get lost in the move to the really, really small screen. Visual artists rue the continual shrinking of display sizes, but the sad truth is that most of their hard work goes unnoticed when presented in small, single doses. If you're handling the artwork yourself (or are in regular contact with your designer throughout the process), it will be beneficial to do advance previews of your art to see how the work-in-progress will look after its eventual reduction to thumbnail size.


Beyond aesthetic details, another key consideration will be in how to bundle your songs. If the idea of the full album is appealing, the standard creation of a single compressed folder should be enough. But another way to release an album could be to set it out in pieces, like a less hilariously unfunny version of R. Kelly's Trapped in the Closet series or Porcupine Tree's quasi-companions Fear of a Blank Planet and Nil Recurring. One twelve-song album in a year could instead be four three-song EP's released every few months, or a larger album could be structured into smaller subsets. Queensrÿche's 1990 album Empire, for example, contained a three-song suite in the first half of the album that could have theoretically been spun off into its own release if the band wasn't intent on creating a full album at the time. Then again, an idea like a fragmented rock album didn't really exist in 1990, either.

Of course, there's a whole world of ideas beyond mini-albums and artwork series to explore with digital media, and this is where most of the debate stems from on an artistic level. Without the package around it, is an album even an album anymore? And if the combination of music and images was born of economic necessity rather than creative vision, was anything ever really an album to begin with? The answers, if there even are any, may become weaker with time while the strange new directions of musical releases, however, could render the debate almost futile. Limitlessness never sounded so accessible.

Image from swanksalot on Flickr. Also, see our article on the Radiohead distribution model.


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