Of course, according to the Buggles, it was video, but former hair-rocker Jon Bon Jovi offered a different idea recently.
In an interview, Mr. Bon Jovi says that Steve Jobs single-handedly killed the music industry, referring to the rise of iTunes under the banner of Mr. Jobs' company, Apple. Gone, he says, is the "magic" of buying an album based on what the cover looked like and imagining what the music might be inside. With iTunes (and several other digital music services), the listener can sample several songs or even all the songs on an album before deciding whether or not to buy it. They may even be able to play the whole album in a lower-resolution format before buying it in a high-bitrate version.
I've said elsewhere that the demise of recorded music in physical format leaves me feeling disconnected from the music's creator or creators. Of course the artists didn't touch the CD I bought, but it represents a discrete physical or embodied product of their work with which I can connect via the rest of my senses, not just my ears. I stand by that, but I think that's different than what Mr. Bon Jovi was saying.
Although I sympathize with the feeling of loss Mr. Bon Jovi expresses, I think he's wrong about two things: 1) What exactly has been lost and 2) Who exactly is responsible for the losing.
1) Obviously, Mr. Bon Jovi was probably a more obsessive music buyer than I was, given his desire to perform music for the public -- at the life-stage he describes, probably a powerful if largely unformed dream. So when he brought his allowance money to the record store he probably had a different viewpoint about what he bought than I did (he's a couple of years older than me, so we probably would have been shopping in the same overall musical culture). But the reasons I remember for laying out ten bucks for an album were that it was by a band that I knew or I had heard a great song from it on the radio or a friend had told me about it or I had read about it in a music magazine. I can't remember ever spending money on an album just because of the cover (OK, maybe this one. But that's about it); I just didn't have that amount of money to spend (this was in the olden days, youngsters, when ten-dollar bills might indeed buy a whole record album, but were generally obtained through a couple of weeks of household chores).
I frankly didn't start getting experimental with my music buying until much later, when used CDs offered the chance for a scratch-free yet inexpensive listening experience. When the cover of a $10-album looked intriguing, I might have tried to find a review of the record someplace to see if I wanted to buy it. But when the cover or title or song selection on a 97-cent used CD looks intriguing, I'll risk the buck.
Although I don't know for sure, I think Mr. Bon Jovi is lamenting some of the mystery and romance, for lack of a better word, that may have been a part of music-buying in the past. Because the truth is, whether you bought an album based on the cover picture or a couple of songs you heard on the radio, much of the actual album was unknown until you brought it home and fired up the turntable. More than a few albums had one high-quality tune and eight or nine tracks of filler (today, that "eight or nine" can be replaced with "thirteen or fourteen" -- CDs may hold more music than vinyl albums do, but filler is filler). So either way, you had a sense of exploration as you listened to each new song unfold. With one or two exceptions, these songs were unknown to you before you started playing the album, and hearing them was a journey into unknown lands.
Sometimes that journey was rewarded, as a musician might experiment with a different style or include a great pop gem that just somehow wouldn't work as a single. And sometimes, as mentioned above, it wasn't.
It's certainly true that the ability to sample some of each song before buying replaces the exploration of the unknown with a sense of a mapped-out trip through well-known territory. But I don't see such a downside to that, to be honest, because so much of the music available for purchase is dreck. I don't know that we put up with more or less dreck now than we did during the era Mr. Bon Jovi nostalgizes. Plenty more choices, plenty more dreck, but the percentage may be about the same. There are now as there were then bands that have one good song in them and that's it. Maybe they have two, if they're lucky. Would I rather know that and spend a buck on their one good song than spend ten bucks or more on their album and find it out? I believe so.
2) Although I might partially agree with him on what I see as his first point, here I don't think Mr. Bon Jovi is right at all. Steve Jobs and iTunes may have piggy-backed on people's tendency to like and buy single songs more than albums, but they didn't create it. For most of the history of recorded music, the single song has been the mainstay of the medium. Even the word "album" comes from the early practice of combining several 78 revolutions per minute (RPM) records into several sleeves in a book, like a picture album. Technological advances in recording, such as the capability to "microgroove" a surface, led to the 45 RPM and 33⅓ RPM formats. The former offered a smaller, more durable product and the latter the option of having several songs in a much less bulky edition.
For much of the early rock and roll era, the single was the dominant musical format and albums were often collections of singles with little or no new music. Nearly all of the songs on Elvis Presley's debut album were released as singles for example. Albums built around themes or concepts, with the entire album being seen as an artistic unit rather than a collection of songs, would begin to take hold in the late 1950s and this idea moved more fully into the rock and roll, soul and other popular music formats over the course of the 1960s and 1970s.
During much of this time, many of the most influential FM stations playing rock music were more or less freeform -- either disc jockeys or station music directors made most of the decisions about what music they played, and they frequently did not stop after playing an album's hit single. Programmers began to tighten this practice through the 1970s, leading to what became called Album-Oriented Rock (AOR) formats. Playlists were limited to singles and some other cuts from an album, although nighttime DJs seemed to have more freedom. Still, a regular listener to an AOR station might hear between 60 and 80 percent of a new album in the month or so following its release, judging by what I remember hearing on KMOD (The Rainbow Station) in the late 1970s and early 1980s. And long after that, the playlist would include several songs from an album besides whatever hit singles it had released.
Singles continued to be a mainstay of the music business, even as vinyl sales dropped and the 45 RPM format was phased out. CD singles could still be sold more inexpensively than albums, and the popularity of the music video kept a heavy emphasis on the hit single release.
By the late 1980s, the rise of nostalgia-based classic rock stations had more or less crowded out the AOR format. Most radio stations today are based one form or another of heavily rotating hit singles -- whether current hits or hits from earlier in the rock era depends on the format. "Classic rock" stations are usually just as limited as are current Top 40 stations -- that's why you'll hear "Doo Doo Doo Doo Doo (Heartbreaker)" on the radio but not "Silver Train," even though both are from the same Rolling Stones album, Goats Head Soup. Same thing with hearing "You Give Love a Bad Name" but not "Social Disease," both from Mr. Bon Jovi's own Slippery When Wet. Or "Stop Draggin' My Heart Around" but not "Insider," though both are collaborations between Stevie Nicks and Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. "Stop Draggin'" was a hit from Nicks' Bella Donna, but "Insider" wasn't released as a single from Petty's Hard Promises.
If digital music formats spur the purchase of individual songs over entire albums, pop music will be more or less returning to its roots and the dominance of the long-playing album will have been temporary. Again, there is an upside to this -- some performers have only one good song, as mentioned before, or maybe one good song per album. In an environment where it's so easy to find ways to acquire music for free, the music business would do well to remove incentives to go searching for free, albeit illegal, product. Enabling someone who wants to buy just one song from an artist -- and has no interest in whatever else that artist may ever release (see for example this author's purchase of "Mambo No. 5" by Lou Bega or "Bust a Move" by Young MC) -- to do so is far more likely to help than hurt.
I've got no special knowledge or crystal ball to see what's coming in recorded music, although I think that predictions of an all-digital industry are still far-fetched. I think we'll see a lot more single releases, and a lot more of them in primarily digital format. Considering the ephemeral quality of much of this music -- I'm talking to you, Lady Gaga -- its release in a format that can vanish with a single electronic hiccup seems fitting. But I also think we'll see artists with larger visions that can't be fully realized with just a single song who continue to produce albums. I think it's very likely we'll have more choices, not the fewer choices the supposed death of the music business might seem to suggest.
Given that more and more radio stations opt against experimenting or taking any kind of chance with songs and playlists that haven't been focus-tested to death, it's good to hope we'll have a choice somewhere.