My recent open letter to Rosanne Cash has made me think more about the current musical landscape, so here are two brief observations, and an afterthought.
The Death of the Album
The Guardian reports [Via Death and Taxes and Forbes] that 2014 may be the first year that no artist the US sells over 1 million copies of an album [with the exception of the Frozen Soundtrack] It goes along with the general sentiment in the industry that a combination of things, starting with Napster and free file-sharing, iTunes concentration on selling ‘tracks’ and the current rise of streaming, has called time on ‘the album’, or at least ‘the album’ as we know it. In the words of George Ergatoudis, head of music at BBC Radio 1 and Radio 1Xtra.“With very few exceptions, albums are edging closer to extinction.”
The sales figures from the US would seem to reflect this. I expect Taylor Swift’s – 19 due out in a week’s time to quickly exceed 1 million in sales in the US, but it may well be the only album outside of the Frozen Soundtrack to shift that amount in 2014.
Is this really the end? I don’t think so, at least not just yet. I think some artists – including young ones – still value the album and that idea of producing a collection of songs, arranging them in an a specific order, creating a vision. Most of these are easy to spot as the credits for the albums will list one producer. This person will be responsible for helping to create an overarching sound to the record. The majority of albums I buy still conform to this ‘old fashioned’ approach.
Many ‘pop’ albums don’t. There are, for example, over 20 producers involved in just 12 tracks on the latest Arianna Grande album. [ Why so many? Well, when asked about her choice of album cover photo she said: “each song is so strongly themed that I just wanted to have a very simple overall cover. So that within each song we could create more visual themes.” Did those multiple hands produce multiple visual themes or just help to create a collection of songs that may work individually – depending on your taste, but that don’t hang together as an album? ]
There is a view that the modern day (young) listener only lives in the world of playlists, not albums. Whilst clearly some truth in this statement it is a bit simplistic. Playlists are just digital mix-tapes. I was making those when I was ten and in various guises ever since. You don’t have to abandon a love of an artist’s vision for their songs for the ability to also ‘mix your own’.
There is, of course. always that ‘but I only really like 3 tracks on this album’ argument for just owning or playlisting those tracks. I’m there. I’m with you. BUT … time is a funny thing. With just those three tracks you’ve potentially closed off those other tracks off that album for good, tracks that over time you may have come to love, whilst at the same time falling out of love with those three original tracks that sounded so ‘now’ or had a certain immediacy.
Albums are going to ‘sell’ less. Clearly. But die? Not for a while yet.
Maximise you support for artists you love
In this modern music eco-system – how can you best help the artists you love?
Well, let’s start by putting on our rose-tinted spectacles, and image that the cut your favourite artists gets from sales (Vinyl, CD, Download) radio airplay (Uk) and streaming is ‘fair’ (you could write 1000’s of words on this one).
- Buy a physical copy – Vinyl/CD. This is for your enjoyment. This is for those times when you are going to sit down, kick back and immerse yourself in the music of your favourite artist(s). You’re not going to burn it to your computer, or use a free code to download the MP3 to your computer. It is going to exist purely to be played on a turntable or CD player (in-car also allowed). This is for times when you really want to listen to the record. It’s not just acting as background music.
- Listen to the album via a streaming service. When you’re on the go – stream, when you’re in the house and want some background music – stream. It doesn’t matter how many time you play that album you’ve bought once you bought it. The artist is never getting any more money from you from those plays. However, if you make all your subsequent listens – apart from special ones in point 1 – streaming ones, you are going to help provide ongoing additional income, and not just over weeks, but potentially years.
- See them live – as often as time and money will allow. It’s a well worn out line, but you really cannot beat the experience of live music. Support it.
- Buy some Merchandise. If you like the artist, buy a badge/pin, a T-shirt, a Hoodie, a Bag, a Hat – whatever. Most artists get a decent slice of this cash (even some of those on 360 deals)
And finally, I loved this take on modern music from the New York Times, and felt myself nodding at the comment:
“Years later, when my friends and I discussed the powerful and surely arbitrary forces that had kept us single, we toyed with the idea that “into music” was a deal-breaker quality in a mate.”
Oh, yes. Dating someone who didn’t like music was a big no-no for me too.