Feature

Online albums: Apple’s ambitious plan to ‘re-create’ the LP

Apple has been working with major record labels to prep for its launch of interactive multimedia albums.

Is Apple trying to bring back the LP? said the Financial Times. Industry insiders­ expect that as soon as September, the innovative technology company will begin to sell elaborate multimedia “albums”—downloadable packages complete with interactive booklets, commentary, lyric sheets, and video—that could only be played on a computer or digital music player. According to those familiar with the project­—code-named “Cocktail”—Apple has been working with four major record labels to prep for the launch. The hope is to “re-create the heyday of the album,” when obsessing over cover art and hunting for obscure meanings in the lyrics was a major part of a music lover’s experience.

That would be a rich irony, said John Boudreau in the San Jose Mercury News. After all, it was Apple’s invention of the iPod and the widespread popularity of its iTunes Music Store that essentially killed the album, by letting music dilettantes indulge their “appetite for a la carte music consumption” rather than purchase an artist’s full slate of songs. Now, “instead of exploring the artistic vision for an entire album, music lovers download their favorite songs and leave the rest.” CD sales have plummeted, and listeners are buying fewer songs overall. In fact, the market for both online music and music players has slowed in recent years.

Apple isn’t the only one working on “rejuvenating the album,” said Greg Sandoval in CNET.com. The record companies themselves have long been pursuing such a goal, and apparently plan to make their own interactive albums available through other major vendors. “Apple will have Cocktail, but Amazon and all the other competing services will get access to the labels’ versions, which will offer more content than Apple’s.” All these big industry players have hit on the same idea for one simple reason: Throughout the past half-century, the album has been the “standard means of music distribution” as well as the “benchmark sales unit” that made the music business the force it is today. To keep the industry from shrinking, the album needs to be preserved.

But are fancy features and liner notes really what made albums so attractive? said Damian Joseph in BusinessWeek. If the music companies really want to re-create the essence of the album, they need to start offering “full-quality downloads.” MP3s are “compressed, lifeless shells of what once was music” and can never match the sound on vinyl or even CD. While extras are nice, what music aficionados want is a “quality listening experience.” And it’s the sound—not the packaging—that made albums what they were.

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