In the 60s and 70s, the “concept” album came to represent the height of recorded popular music artistry. An entire album of one artist’s songs interrelated by a theme -- an entire novel pressed into vinyl rather than a collection of distinct short stories. Classic concept albums are well known by music lovers across generations, including The Beatles’ Sgt. Peppers’ Lonely Hearts Club Band, The Who’s Tommy, and Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon. Artists strived to create singular packages of music for their fans, complete with dynamic cover art to lure the eye and a collection of songs that, from first to last, would try to communicate with the listener a theme important to the artist.
Something happened along the way. Music technology changed, which in turn changed how people collected and listened to music, which in turn changed the music industry from an album sales driven marketplace to a singles driven marketplace. In the short-term, this changing dynamic all but killed off the concept album. The market, however, is experiencing a renaissance period for the concept album.
The same technology that adversely affected album sales also led to the free sharing and relatively cheap streaming of music. Artists no longer make the vast portion of their money through the sale of single tunes via 99 cent downloads. They make it through touring and live performance ticket sales. To attract live concert audiences, capable, quality artists are turning back to the concept album. By getting large collections of songs out to the public, artists are able to more readily attract concert goers than the numerous one-hit wonder that litter the landscape (after all, very few people will pay $100 to go see a concert featuring Who Let The Dogs Out played over and over again),
By setting their artists sights higher and creating music with more ambition, artists are also able to differentiate themselves in terms of artistic quality in the competition for the “live audience” dollar. More importantly, the rebirth of the concept album is driven by artistic fire. As Brian Wilson tried to outdo Lennon-McCartney in the 60s, Beyoncé tries to outdo Lady Gaga today.
In order to get people out and dedicated to seeing an artist in concert, there must be a connection fueled by the bond and fueled by a desire to hear numerous songs they know and love. Selling music does not cover the bills any more. Whereas Led Zeppelin has made more than half a billion dollars through the sale of Stairway to Heaven alone, and a tenth of that touring, in 2018, legendary band U2 made revenues of only $1 million from record sales, but made $52 million from touring. The model has flipped upside down. Artists must get audiences to the live shows to survive and thrive.
According to Billboard, leading artists, as a group, make approximately 75% of their money from concerts. Beyoncé earns 88% of her revenues from touring. Bruce Springsteen earns 97% of his revenues from touring.
Last year, according to Billboard, album units overall fell 13.6 percent from the prior year, with 100.3 million total sales. However, this decline was led by digital forms of music, with CD sales declining 11.6 percent, and downloadable digital album sales falling 18.9%.
The CD decline is explained by consumers moving away from CD players to MP3 and streaming players, including their smartphones. The decline in downloadable digital albums is explained by consumers exercising the choice to buy one or two songs off any album rather than being forced to buy the whole album to get those songs. Downloaded single track sales also dropped, to 404.3 million units from 531.6 million units. At the same time listeners streamed 208.9 billion songs, an increase of 58.7 percent.
At the same time, vinyl sales continued to move up and to the right, growing 11.4 percent. This should be looked at more closely -- the cost of vinyl production being higher than mere distribution of digital songs, the cost is typically undertaken only where the artists has multiple saleable songs. Buyers in the market are demonstrating a willingness to purchase a collection of songs – if they are good. This is the sweet spot of the concept album.
With the emergence of online music stores such as iTunes in the 21st century, the concept album format at first seemed to become antiquated. To some, the possibility to buy separate songs with a single mouse click might have destroyed the need to release full albums that deserve to be listened to as a whole. However, the opposite thing appears to have occurred over time. A revival of the concept album turned out to be the ideal reaction against the “one track” culture of online music stores. Two good examples of bands in the present day that employ the legacy of the great concept albums are Arcade Fire and Radiohead.
Concept albums are typically driven by an artist being so inspired by a single theme, that they experience a fertile period of writing. So inspired by the theme, they end up with a collection of quality songs informed by deep emotions and reflections relating to the source of inspiration. The result are quality songs pouring forth from the quality artist.
The relationship between the artists inspired to create a concept album, and the audience willing to spend the money for a full album and spend the time experiencing the full album is a special one – perhaps the strongest bond in recorded music.
My parents often tell me stories about their beloved trips to their local record stores; going there on days a new album was being put out by their favorite artists. They will tell you about the excitement of seeing the vinyl LP cover for the first time and picking up that 12.35 inch by 12.35 inch package, paying for it and rushing home to open it up, slide out the vinyl and put it on their turntable for the first listen. They will romantically recall listening to both sides of the album while they followed along with lyrics printed on the album’s inner sleeve cover. The pinnacle of this experience was when the songs on the album interrelated with one another based on a common theme or story. Each song wasn’t short story, it was a chapter in a novel. A cohesive experience meant to be listened to and enjoyed as a whole. This was the concept album.
Was every song a winner that withstood repeated listening? Not always. Did the “concept” of the album always hold water, such that it was clear to the listener that these songs truly did relate to a single concept and work together musically? Not always. But sometimes the answer to these questions was yes, and, in those circumstances, you’d own a piece of art that would stay with you (if not always physically) your whole life.
Music is revered as one of the earliest, most enduring forms of storytelling. For the lot of us, music has helped create and shape personal, powerful, and even life changing experiences, which make the content all the more enjoyable for us to listen to. Since the art form has existed, an innumerable amount artists have been able to capture and document significant, intimate, and even historical events through the likes their works.
In the aspects of storytelling and documentation, one of the cornerstones of artists and their work has been the use of concept albums. The concept album will always live because there will always be a demand for music to be as fulfilling as a novel or a film. Individual songs typically lack the time and complexity to do this in most cases. A vision often requires multiple songs, each contributing their fair share to the whole message and objective of the artist.