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The Album Is Dead (But It's Been Bleeding Out Since 1991)

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Steve Eichner via Getty Images
Steve Eichner via Getty Images

The music industry has been bleating that the end is nigh for years now, but it took on an even more apocalyptic edge with the current media freak-out that 2014 could be the first year ever that not a single artist album has sold over a million copies in the U.S.

That counts out Taylor Swift's upcoming "1989," of course, which we should all know better than to do by now. But the point remains that the only album to go platinum so far this year is the "Frozen" soundtrack, which actually came out in 2013. Also, the last week in August was the first time ever that total album sales dipped below four million combined.

To put this into perspective, by September 1994 there were 38 albums that passed a million in sales and as recently as March 21, 2000 *NSYNC sold 2.4-million copies of "No Strings Attached" in the first week. The next day their label couriered out another 2.3-million copies in reorders to record stores.

It was literally all downhill from there.

But the beginning of the end can actually be traced to September 1991 with the release of Red Hot Chili Peppers' blockbuster breakthrough "Blood Sugar Sex Magik" and Guns 'N' Roses' "Use Your Illusion I" and "Use Your Illusion II."

The RHCP album sold 13-million copies and helped thrust the underground alt-rock scene into the mainstream (alongside Nirvana's "Nevermind," of course, which was coincidentally released the same day). The G'N'R albums took the top two chart spots to sell a combined 1.4 million in their first week, topping out around 14-million copies.

But it wasn't just their success that they had in common -- it was their length. All three albums were around 74 minutes long, maxing out the compact disc's storage capacity. As did Natalie Cole's "Unforgettable...With Love," which moved seven-million copies en route to winning the best album Grammy.

Now in 1991, CDs were still an emerging technology and priced accordingly with a massive mark-up over cassettes or vinyl. The belief was that this was due to scale and would be reduced once the format got enough early adopters to pass the tipping point and lower manufacturing costs.

Except that never happened.

Now people have always made money from music, but the music industry itself is pretty new. It began with the sheet music business in the late 19th century but didn't go mainstream until the arrival of vinyl 45s in the 1950s followed by the rise of full-length artist albums around the mid-'60s.

Turned out there was more money to be made by bundling together songs into an album rather than selling them individually and so the industry coalesced around that format. And it worked, too, because these under 45-minute albums, a length restricted by how much each vinyl side could contain, held together as artistic statements.

(Yes, there were longer "double-albums" but these were rare and only done when the music was strong enough to justify the higher price, as with Bob Dylan's "Blonde on Blonde," The Beatles' "White Album," The Who's "Tommy" and The Clash's "London Calling.")

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Cassettes arrived in the 1980s, adding portability but stuck with vinyl length because both formats remained popular.

But then CDs came along.

While the market was initially willing to pay the higher price for this new-fangled, high-fidelity digital technology, music fans began to feel taken advantage of when it failed to fall, especially since they'd spent so much money re-purchasing their vinyl collection. CDs had also single-handedly killed the singles business, forcing fans to pay for songs they didn't want.

And the prices didn't go down precisely because of the success of longer albums like "Blood Sugar Sex Magic." In a November 1991 LA Times article about CDs ballooning to double-album lengths ("Look Again at That CD -- You May Be Seeing Double") they quoted Tesla manager Cliff Burnstein:

"You've got Parkinson's Law: The amount of music expands to fill the space available. And the price of a CD is about 50 per cent higher than other formats, so it seems right to have 50 per cent more music. If you go to 60 minutes, that justifies the CD price, as long as it's all quality."

Yeah, that never happened, either.

Most bands didn't have that much quality music. Artists have always recorded more songs than would make the final album, but the weaker ones used to be left on the cutting room floor. Now suddenly these sub-par songs were diluting albums just to keep prices high.

"Blood Sugar Sex Magic" isn't a terrible record, but it is undeniably overstuffed -- the sophomoric 'Sir Psycho Sexy' clocks in at over eight excruciating minutes -- and could have lost a good half hour without complaints. "Nevermind," not coincidentally, was a pitch-perfect 42 minutes and 38 seconds long.

Speaking of Nirvana, it might seem counter-intuitive to say the album format began to die in 1991 considering it's been called the best music year ever (though I'd argue 1994 is right up there) with classics like Pearl Jam's "Ten," U2's "Actung Baby," R.E.M's "Out of Time," My Bloody Valentine "Loveless," Public Enemy's "Apocalypse '91," A Tribe Called Quest, "The Low End Theory," "Metallica's "Metallica" and Tupac's "2Pacalypse Now."

Still, most releases weren't classic, especially as the decade wore on. Yet more and more hour-plus albums filled record store shelves even though buyers often only wanted a few songs for their collection. Sales numbers slowed, but profits stayed at record levels because CDs were so overpriced.

But it was a shortsighted business plan because it primed people for the arrival of Napster in mid-1999, which basically blew up a music industry that had lost its moral high ground. Metallica, the band that led the fight to shut down Napster, released the 79-minute "Load" and 76-minute "Reload" in the mid-'90s, neither of which even arguably deserved that running time.

The sudden rise of piracy was an effect with a cause -- as evidenced by the subsequent success of reasonably-priced singles on iTunes -- and that cause was music industry greed which reached its opportunistic apotheosis during the decade after the Red Hot Chili Peppers and others, however unintentionally, showed them how to keep CD prices artificially inflated.

Ironically, the "Blood Sugar" song "Give It Away" was all about Anthony Kiedis' philosophy of selflessness, of giving away your belongings for free, which actually turned out to be pretty prescient.

Here's the thing, though, buying albums may eventually be like buying sheet music, but we've been in a singles era for years now and have recently entered the streaming age. People are listening to as much music as ever, maybe more, because they can access millions of songs through their phones.

So ignore the doomsayers. The end isn't nigh. Or rather, it's only apocalyptic in that the definition means the end of one age and the beginning of a new one.