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The death of the album?

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This Christmas, Americans are going to be getting a lot fewer CD players in their stockings. Instead, they'll be unwrapping iPods and other devices able to store thousands of digital songs (if analyst predictions are correct). It's yet another indication that music buying is continuing its shift online. And one of the casualties may be the album, the art form perfected by musicians such as The Beatles and Pink Floyd.

The future of the album - both in its physical form and as a grouping of related songs - is being pondered by everyone from bands who refuse to provide their music to online services to technology analysts, who predict that the CD will become passé within the next five years.

It's a pressing concern, given the decline of record sales since 2000 and the popularity of downloading singles by a public tired of paying $15 for an album with one hit and lots of padding.

Few in the industry are ready to predict the end of the album - even those at the online services, who say the two can coexist. But many agree that the digital revolution will prompt new ways of listening to music. "The opportunity for new formats to emerge is really a terrific thing for musicians and fans," says Dave Kusek, an associate vice president at Berklee College of Music in Boston. "I think the CD will go," he adds. "But a 60-to-70 minute collection of songs doesn't necessarily have to go."

Legal downloading of music is still fairly new - with services like Apple's iTunes and Napster 2.0 launched just this year. But by 2008, 33 percent of music sales will come from downloads, making CDs a has-been medium, predicts an August report by Forrester Research, a technology-tracking group in Cambridge, Mass. CD sales are already down 15 percent from 2000, according to the researchers.

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