Once upon a time, concept albums were hip. It was a long time ago, back when the shower curtain wasn’t the only piece of vinyl in your house, and the only CDs were the ones issued by banks. If you were bored of singing the standard pop ditties about love, cars and having fun, then concept albums were the way to go. Artists like Pink Floyd, the Who and David Bowie wrote about serious issues like war, madness and consumerism and elevated themselves as artists.
When executed well, concept albums can do big business. Four out of the 25 best-selling albums worldwide are concept albums, and Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon was on the Billboard charts for an astonishing 741 weeks. Even less successful efforts like Styx’s Kilroy Was Here, a rock opera about repressive regimes ruled by robots who reviled rock ’n’ roll, went multi-platinum.
But in recent years, the idea of recording an entire album around one central theme has seemingly gone the way of the eight-track, disco and Vanilla Ice. Digital downloads gave consumers the option to purchase individual songs rather than entire albums, which undermined the overall narrative of a concept album.
Just as video killed the radio star, digital downloads seem poised to deliver the death blow to the concept album. According to the Recording Industry of America, sales of full-length albums on compact disc have declined every year since 2004, reaching a 10-year low in 2008. Meanwhile, digital downloads have increased dramatically during that time period: Apple’s iTunes now accounts for one-fourth of all music sales in the U.S., according to NPD MusicWatch. NPD’s research also showed that almost half of all teenagers in the U.S. did not buy a CD in 2007, a 10 percentage point increase from the previous year.
The environment for album-oriented artists has never been worse, it seems. But that hasn’t stopped some artists from flying in the face of logic. Green Day has released two acclaimed concept albums during the past five years, while Meat Loaf recently completed a concept album about a soldier dying on the battlefield.
Stephen Thomas Erlewine, a music critic for the All Music Guide, isn’t surprised that some artists have dared to embrace the concept album. “Some artistic ideas are better served through longer form,” said Erlewine, who has been writing at the All Music Guide since 1991. “Some of the political points” on Green Day’s American Idiot album “are better served with supporting songs that lead to the grand finale. It might be more satisfying to a certain kind of performer to do some kind of sustained work. That’s not true for everybody.”
Concept albums can also lead to bigger opportunities. Erlewine cited American Idiot, which was recently adapted into a Broadway musical, as well as Pink Floyd’s The Wall, which is making the transition to the stage.
Erlewine said concept albums were a great way for smaller bands to stand out from the pack. Take the Canadian band Silverstein. When it released Shipwreck in the Sand in 2009, it was looking to tell a story about sailing to the New World.
“We thought it’d be challenging and cool to try something different and write a full album from start to finish with a story as well as a few recurring themes,” said lead singer Shane Told in an e-mail interview. “With our concept record, we tried to make each song tell its own story and stand up on its own, so that if someone heard the record out of context it would still work. I think that’s another great challenge in making a concept record, but an important one.”
Told has been dismayed by the growing influence of iTunes and hailed a recent British court decision barring EMI Records from selling sell individual song downloads without Pink Floyd’s consent. “I am from a place where I would save my allowance for a few weeks and buy a full album and listen to it over and over and over until I could afford to buy another one. It was never to me about one song. I had favorite albums,” said Told, who cited the Who’s Quadrophenia and the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds as two of his favorite concept albums.
David Browne, a contributing editor at Rolling Stone, disagreed with the idea that iTunes is the worst thing to happen to the music industry since Michael Bolton. “One of the things that helped kill the album format is the CD, which is ironic since it was the salvation of the industry a few years ago. A lot of bands took advantage of the length of CDs, and suddenly, you have these really long albums that are full of filler or songs that shouldn’t have been on the album,” said Browne, who pointed out that a lot of bands would even put their best songs at the beginning.
Markus Dravs is well aware of the challenge of recording a quality album from top to bottom. “The term ‘concept album’ should be applied to any album,” said Dravs, a record producer who has worked with the likes of the Arcade Fire, Coldplay, Björk and Depeche Mode. “I think it helps the depth of an album when the songs share a direction or setting written within self-imposed artistic rules. It’s not necessary to stick to these rules 100 percent with all the songs, but it’s a great point to start working from. In other words, the concept is what keeps an album from being just a selection of songs.”
Tucker Martine, who produced the 2009 concept album Hazards of Love by the Decemberists, pointed out some of the challenges of recording a concept album. “It’s an awful lot of work — a very challenging experience — and you need to feel like you are making something worthwhile,” said Martine. Hazards sold more than 19,000 copies in its first week and was recently adapted into the animated film Here Come the Waves. “One of the biggest challenges is keeping the continuity so that each track feels like a sub-part of one large track. It’s easy to lose the plot when you are focusing on the micro. You have to step back often and look at it from afar.”
But that shouldn’t scare artists or make them aspire to being a one-hit wonder instead. “In most cases where I have witnessed or taken part in anything with palpable commercial ambitions, it falls flat because you get off of your game as an artist, and at the end of the day, I think people can hear that. It’s important to assume that the audience is very intelligent and can go new places with you,” said Martine. “If you make an amazing concept record, and nobody has ever heard of you before, people will take notice if you tour and work hard.”
Dravs, however, cautioned against artists’ being self-indulgent and crossing the line into self-parody. Browne agreed, pointing out that the concept album had become a joke as a result of some spectacular failures in the ’80s, like Kilroy Was Here. “I was never a huge fan of the concept album,” said Browne. “Quadrophenia has a lot of amazing songs on it, but the story line kind of bored me. The problem with concept albums is that it can become homework for the listener. The mark of a great concept album is where there’s some sort of a unifying theme, but it’s not like watching a Broadway show. Ultimately, you still have to have good songs.”
And what happens if you don’t have good songs? “You get Cyberpunk,” said Erlewine. “That album killed Billy Idol’s career for a good 10 years.”