It's not enough to put out a CD anymore. The smaller of the music-bearing discs currently in circulation are being phased out in favor of their bookends: the instant, convenient digital download and the retro, trendy vinyl LP. Artists who actually want to sell their records now need to package up the music with something tangible and collectible. Downloads and vinyl are becoming purchased in concurrence more and more, as fans want to listen to a record on their iPods but still retain a physical token of having bought the record. And as album artwork and other novelties are better displayed at the resolution of a vinyl record sleeve, the CD is slowly dying.
The imminent death of the CD does give artists more freedom to experiment with media. A record need not be only a series of songs anymore. It can be a multimedia project bundled up with a variety of artwork. Often artists will offer special, limited-release collectible memorabilia to the first hundred or so fans to pre-order a record. Xiu Xiu did this with their latest release, shipping off unique, handmade shirts with their lettering done out in human blood (!). Most artists aren't so extreme, but fans of the underground experimental duo ate it right up.
Radiohead has also featured different album packages for their last two records. In Rainbows could be downloaded for free, or it could be purchased as a vinyl set complete with extended artwork. Eventually a CD also hit the shelves. For The King of Limbs, Radiohead offered a $9 mp3 download and a "newspaper album" consisting of vinyl records and a heap of special artwork. Also hip to the trend, electronica overlord Moby just yesterday self-released his latest album Destroyed as six different packages. Each includes a copy of the album in digital format, plus a book, a t-shirt, or a double vinyl print.
I for one welcome the trend of multilayered album releases. It shows how artists have figured out how best to interact with their fans on a financial level. Hardcore fans of a certain artists will be willing to pay for collectible objects like shirts or physical records with artwork included. Less intense fans may content themselves by purchasing only the songs. The tiered system cuts out the need to pay for things you don't want. Corporate record stores often spiked the prices of CDs, which typically offered little in the way of quality artwork. Casual fans of a band would have to pay for more than just the music when they often didn't care much for the accompanying booklet or CD case. The tiered system of selling music allows fans to sort themselves into a particular financial commitment to the artist in question. Extremely dedicated fans may funnel more cash in exchange for more merchandise without forcing less dedicated fans to do the same.
I'm also thrilled that everyone's predictions about the death of the album as a unit of music were dead wrong. The single isn't returning to dominate just because of iTunes. Fans of music--not just listeners who purchase the latest Lady Gaga songs from Apple--still like taking forty minute sessions to absorb their favorite sounds. The digital revolution has in many ways enhanced the album for people who believe in it. We can pay less than a CD for a full album of music, or we can pay about the same as a CD and receive a multimedia package to augment our listening experience. The internet isn't killing music; it's just opening it up to more diverse channels of distribution.
(Photo via Creative Review)