The album era was a period in English-language popular music from the mid-1960s to the mid-2000s in which the album was the dominant form of recorded music expression and consumption. It was primarily driven by three successive music recording formats: the 33⅓ rpm long-playing record (LP), the audiocassette, and the compact disc. Rock musicians from the US and the UK were often at the forefront of the era, which is sometimes called the album-rock era in reference to their sphere of influence and activity. The term "album era" is also used to refer to the marketing and aesthetic period surrounding a recording artist's album release.
LP albums developed in the early 20th century and were originally marketed for classical music and wealthier adult consumers. However, singles still dominated the music industry, eventually through the success of rock and roll performers in the 1950s, when the LP format was utilized more for soundtrack, jazz, and some pop recordings. It was not until the mid-1960s, when the Beatles began to release artistically ambitious and top-selling LPs, that more rock and pop acts followed suit and the industry embraced albums to immense success while burgeoning rock criticism validated their cultural value. By the next decade, the LP had emerged as a fundamental artistic unit and a widely popular item with young people, often marketed using the idea of a concept album, which was employed especially by progressive musicians in both rock and soul.
At the end of the 1970s, LP albums experienced a decline in sales while the singles format was reemphasized by the developments of punk rock, disco, and MTV's music video programming. The record industry combatted this trend by gradually displacing LPs with CDs, releasing fewer singles that were hits to force sales of their accompanying albums, and inflating the prices of CD albums over the next two decades, when their production proliferated. The success of major pop stars led to the development of an extended rollout model among record labels, marketing an album around a catchy lead single, an attention-grabbing music video, novel merchandise, media coverage, and a supporting concert tour. Women and black musicians continued to gain critical recognition among the album era's predominantly white-male and rock-oriented canon, with the burgeoning hip hop genre developing album-based standards in its own right. In the 1990s, the music industry saw an alternative rock and country music boom, leading to a revenue peak of $15 billion in 1999 based in CD sales. However, the development of file sharing networks such as Napster began to undermine the format's viability, as consumers were able to rip and share CD tracks digitally over the Internet.
In the early 21st century, music downloading and streaming services emerged as popular means of distribution, as album sales suffered a steep decline and recording acts generally focused on singles, effectively ending the album era. The critical paradigm also shifted away from rock and toward more innovative works being produced in pop and urban music, which dominated record sales in the 2000s. High-profile pop acts continued to market their albums seriously, with surprise releases emerging as a popular strategy. While physical music sales declined further worldwide, the CD remained popular in some countries such as Japan, due in part to the marketing and fandom surrounding top-selling Japanese idol performers, whose success represented a growing shift away from the global dominance of major English-language acts. By the end of the 2010s, concept albums had reemerged with culturally relevant and critically successful personal narratives. Meanwhile, pop and rap artists garnered the most album streams with minimal marketing that capitalized on the digital era's on-demand consumer culture, which evolved even more rapidly during the COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on the music industry.