In the early days of Rock and Roll, as I understand it, artists typically released singles. The recording process was fairly simple back then, especially before overdubbing technology was available, so this meant that a single with two songs could be recorded, mixed and mastered fairly quickly. This meant that fans did not have to wait very long before a new pair of songs were released by their favorite artists. Albums were often collections of previously released singles, released almost as an afterthought.
Sometime during the 1960's, this changed, and artists and bands began making albums, from which singles were taken. As the recording and mixing process became more complicated, fans had to wait longer between albums. There were other factors contributing to this increased time, of course, but it was not unusual to wait 2 or more years between album releases.
The other unfortunate byproduct of albums was the existence of "filler material." You had your singles, which were often front-loaded on the record, but at times the quality of the other songs was subpar. When I was buying records in the 1970's and 1980's, you always took a chance when you bought a new album. If you were lucky, you had a friend at the record store who would let you hear some of the deep cuts before you spent your hard-earned money. Otherwise, you had to hope that the few songs you heard on the radio were indicative of the overall quality of the radio. Over the years, I bought many records on the strength of one song, only to find that the rest of the album paled in comparison. Remember, we had no internet, so if they didn't play the songs on the radio, or you didn't have a friend who already owned the record, you had no way of knowing what you were getting!
Of course, with iTunes and other forms of digital delivery, artists can no longer afford to release "filler material." Listeners can sample every song, and if they don't like everything, they will buy only the songs they like. There is no longer an incentive to buy the entire album. So now, artists are sometimes taking even longer between album releases, and I suspect this may be one of the reasons. Take Phoenix, for example. "Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix" came out in 2009, and their followup record, "Bankrupt," was issued very recently, in 2013.
For most businesses, waiting four years before releasing their next product would be the kiss of death. Can you imagine what would happen if Apple had waited 4 years between releasing the iPhone 4S and the iPhone 5? Modern consumers have short attention spans. Successful companies keep innovating and releasing new products or updated versions of existing products, in order to ensure that customers don't forget about them. Perhaps we, as musicians, should be doing the same.
Today, the tools to record, mix and master a song are available to practically anyone. You no longer need to go to an expensive studio, because you can make a record in your bedroom. You no longer have to send your masters out to a record plant and wait several months for the discs to be pressed. You can upload a song to an aggregator service, and have it on iTunes, GooglePlay, and a variety of other services in less than a week. In fact, using a direct-to-fan solution such as Bandcamp, you can be selling your new masterpiece within minutes.
This leads me back to my initial question: Do albums really work anymore? If a band or artist waits four years between album releases, will they still have an audience? They will undoubtedly go through artistic changes during that time, and how can you guarantee the audience will be happy with those changes?
What if, instead, a band or artist releases a new song every few months or even every few weeks? Your fans will not forget about you, and they will be able to track your evolution as an artist. Indeed, I have noticed this phenomenon on SoundCloud. I must admit, I didn't really understand SoundCloud until recently. I've had an account for many years, but I didn't really use it. Recently, however, I put a few tracks up, and I noticed that many of my friends use it to let their listeners know how they are evolving as artists. I have spent so much of my artistic life afraid to let anyone hear a song until it is perfect in every way. And yet, I see many artists who post works-in-progress to SoundCloud, and I see true engagement with their fans!
Until recently, I was working on an "album." Truth be told, I had been working on the album for many years. I see a lot of my fellow artists who are still releasing full-length albums as well. I have decided this does not make sense for me, however, and I encourage all indie artists and bands to re-evaluate how you are releasing your music. Is the old model still working for you, or is it time to shake things up?