Something that I just got thinking about as I'm listening to Gwen Stefani's "Early Winter" is how I haven't bought a pop album in ages. Even in the digital format I haven't got an album outside of a movie soundtrack for myself since U2 released How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb. I have gotten a copy of one of Bocelli's albums and Paul Potts' debut CD for my wife, but nothing for me. It's been an interesting shift. Everything used to be based on the CD. You wanted a song, you can get it, but you have to pony up for a lot of other crap to get that one song. I've picked up the 4 songs that I care about from Gwen's Sweet Escape album and I don't have to pay for the stuff that just doesn't agree with me.
What will come of this? The death of the album probably won't happen, although I think the US market will become a lot more like Japan's. You see albums, but each album has 4-5 singles that come out before the album does. Then those singles get slapped on the album and it gets shipped out the door. Album sales aren't as important as the Maxi Single and everything is geared towards it.
What will come of this? After all, why buy an album at 10 bucks when I can get the 3 songs I like at 3 bucks. I think that at the end of the day the record companies could be done with as we know them. Songs will still be around as usual, but I think we'll see fewer songs, perhaps smaller albums (after all, they used to be ~10 songs - 5 per side of the record. The CD is what opened it up), and more using them to drive concert sales. With today's technology I don't know why people don't open things up and have burning stations at concerts. You have a soundboard recording of the concert recorded real-time and as people leave they can go to a burning station and pay 20 bucks to have a 2 disc copy of the concert they were just at. The record companies own at least a part of the IP of those songs. Wouldn't it be in their best interest to partner with the group on it? Columbia and Journey could hook up and Columbia would allow Journey to do this, but they would get $x per concert album sold as a part of their rights. It's win win. U2 has looked at this a bit with their Vertigo tour, but it didn't come to fruition. I can't see how that wouldn't work. I think we may also see more greatest hits style albums, where everything is a single and there isn't a bunch of filler to complete it. Maybe the return of the EP - a 4 song mini-album of singles - would also be in the cards.
I know there have been loads of articles speculating on what will end up happening, and we are still at the start of this cycle, but there will be a change. The only question is how much of one and how fast will it hit?