If you needed any more evidence that the record album is in deep, deep trouble, know this: Last week's best selling album was Sara Bareilles' Kaleidoscope Heart. It sold 90,000 copies. When *NSYNC released No Strings Attached ten years ago, it sold 2.4 million copies in its first week. That's *NSYNC selling more than 26 times what Sara Bareilles did.
Other albums released this year have sold more than Bareilles' -- Lady Antebellum sold 2.4 million copies of Need You Now -- but it took a full six months of sales (from January 26th to July 9th) to match *NSYNC's first week.
Even if sales trends are swinging away from albums to digital singles, there is still an audience for albums, whether they're made by huge pop acts, new indie bands or hip-hop legends.
That's what the organizers of Rock the Bells were betting, anyway, when they made the lineup for their touring hip-hop festival. Last month crowds turned out in northern and southern California, New York and Washington, D.C., to see artists perform classic hip-hop albums in their entirety.
Snoop Dogg took the stage in a jumpsuit made out of a giant bandana and laconically spit all of Doggystyle, including a bonus track that was only on a limited number of tapes. A Tribe Called Quest did Midnight Marauders from track 1 to track 14, just like you used to hear it on your tape deck. The Wu-Tang Clan and KRS-One put down whole albums, too, and the crowd ate it up.
Count Stacy Glover in on that party. It reminded her of the parties she and her friends had back in the day, when they would put on one album and dance to the whole thing.
"We had the double album," she enthuses. "We blared it and just danced and celebrated. We had no furniture. It was perfect! We did the Soul Train line."
The reason Glover and her friends loved to listen to the whole record, says DJ Jay Smooth, is because every single song on the album was made by the same charismatic team of people -- a DJ, an artist and a producer, at minimum.
"This is the mythological team, like sort of a team of superheroes that had their own really strongly defined persona and brands," he says. "When you had an album length representation of that persona and that mythological character, it gave you a whole world."
Those days are over. Now, it's not uncommon for each song on an album to be produced by completely different teams. "So albums don't really represent one artistic statement," Smooth explains. "It's just the artist buying twelve lottery tickets hoping to get that platinum hit single. They don't have that much in common sonically."
But hip-hop artists still make their names by releasing a collection of tracks that tell a single, unified story. It just isn't called an "album," and they don't make money.
The mixtape has been around in one form or another since the beginning of hip-hop -- and it hasn't always been free -- but in this era of crash-and-burn album sales, it's been taking on new significance.
Famously, rapper Lil Wayne and producer DJ Drama collaborated on the mixtape series, Gangsta Grillz. The first mixtape was 29 tracks-long, each track leading to the next, unified by one vision. Kind of like an old-school album, except it was offered for free download and passed around by hip-hop fans online.
The record labels tolerate these releases because a) they don't really have a choice and b) it raises the profile of their artists. When Lil Wayne puts out a mixtape hosted by a high-profile artist like DJ Drama and it gets passed around on the internet, it's free publicity.
"If you have that DJ Drama pedigree, that's like being in Oprah's book club for hip-hop," says Jay Smooth. "I think the theory is, at least, that your next album should have more credibility because of that."
Aspiring artists still dream of making that classic album, a collection of tracks that announces who you are to the world.
"I'll probably make an album with an artist; that's what I'm kicking toward right now," says Marte Garner. He's a seventeen-year-old who works under the name DJ 40. He feels that even though a mixtape can get his name out into the world, he'll really be able to tell his own story on a real, old-fashioned album.
"For me, I like to tell what my album will be about, so you know what you can look forward to," he says. "If I do that, more people will actually buy the album."
Or so he hopes. The larger trends in the music industry aren't supporting his vision. Still, Garner came to the Rock the Bells festival to get inspired by someone as old school as Snoop, playing to a sold out crowd that knows every word of the album that put him up on stage.