Is Downloading Killing Albums One Song at a Time?

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Video didn't kill the radio star, but downloading could very well spell the end of the album.

With the monster success of Apple's iTunes, in which 5 million songs were legally downloaded in eight weeks, the big question in the music industry is, will full 10- to 15- song albums become extinct?

The answer, according to some experts' best guess, is yes and no.

“Albums for people like Britney Spears are over, but for other people it means more opportunities,” said Ian Rogers former president of new media for the Beastie Boys' company Grand Royal.

Last week, the Recording Industry Association of America (search) dealt downloaders a blow by pledging to sue hundreds of computer users who illegally share music files. Despite such a daunting step, most experts agree that file sharing (search) is here to stay.

"I assume that in the short term, it might have some kind of impact," Elan Oren, chief executive at, told the Associated Press. "[But] the usage of file-sharing is so intense. This is not going to make a drastic effect, not in the long run."

After years of unsuccessful ventures trying to get fans to pay for downloads, Apple struck gold.

"Everyone's been trying to figure this out for five years," said Rogers, who also co-founded Muse.Net , a service that makes it possible to listen to personal digital music collections from any computer.

Now, getting people to pay for music online "doesn’t seem so far off," he added. "But five months ago it did."

Mark Coleman, a former music reviewer for Rolling Stone said the downloading revolution has only hastened a trend that was already happening.

"I don’t think the Internet has caused the death of the album,” said Coleman, author of the upcoming book Playback: From the Victrola to MP3: 100 Years of Music, Machines and Money. “It facilitates what’s been going on for a while. People want a greater selection."

He cited high prices and low quality as the main culprit in the demise of the album.

"Albums are too long. There are too many mediocre songs and they’re too expensive,” he said. “When I was reviewing records in the early ‘90s, we noticed the best songs were at the beginning of a CD and then it would drop off."

Rogers agreed that one-hit-wonders (search) may stop producing 10-song albums.

How many times have you bought a pop music record to find there are maybe two, maybe three songs you really like?” he said. "People don’t want to pay $18 for one song."

But the good news is, music fans aren’t going anywhere, said Coleman. If anything, they are more insatiable than ever, which means consumers will want hit singles -- and whole albums from their favorite bands.

"That’s why downloading’s become so popular. You can hear every little thing by The Eagles or U2," he said. “The whole thing is about selection."

In fact, more than 46 percent of the songs downloaded on iTunes have been purchased as albums, according to a press release from Apple.

And iTunes is just the first step for making downloading a viable, legit business. Only a small percentage of Americans use Macs compared to PCs – and an even smaller number have the operating system necessary to run iTunes.

Experts say music companies have to face the fact that their business is changed forever, but are right to feel anxious.

“The reason record companies are so resistant is that the record industry doesn’t have anything special anymore,” said Rogers. “They used to be creative powerhouses. Now they are marketing and distribution powerhouses.”

At least some musicians welcome the new era when fans can access their music without having to be under the thumb of major labels.

"It helps musicians immensely," said Mike Errico, a musician who's made albums both with mainstream and indie labels. "The huge carrot that’s put over the heads of artists is distribution and availability of their work. There's very little else a record label actually guarantees."

And Errico isn't worried that some of his songs, even if they aren't major hits, will get lost in the mix as people gravitate towards downloading individual songs.

"Regardless of how music is sold, there are ‘album artists’ and there are artists who are ‘single artists.’ For 'album artists' it’s another way to get their music out," he said. "There are other ways to get those songs heard, like live playing."

Each person interviewed said the future of downloading is still unpredictable, but each agreed the industry is on the cusp of a new era that will benefit at least one group -- music fans.

"In the end, it's making people consume more music,” said Coleman. "It's just a different means of consuming it."