In November, 2014, Billboard Magazine changed the criteria for their Top 200 Albums Chart to account for downloads and streaming of singles. Essentially, any time 10 individual tracks are streamed or downloaded from a given album, Billboard counts that as the sale of the album as a whole. Since the change in policy, there have been three instances where the best-selling full album in the country was denied the #1 position on the chart due to individual songs that had extraordinary success on iTunes and Spotify. Taylor Swift’s 1989 had more individual tracks downloaded and streamed than copies of Now! That’s what I Call Music vol. 53 in February, 2015. In March, enough songs were downloaded and streamed (20,000 album’s worth) from the soundtrack to the TV show Empire to keep Madonna’s Rebel Heart from reaching #1. Most dramatically in April, the soundtrack to Furious 7, on the back of a Wiz Khalifa single, outsold All Time Low’s Future Hearts by 30,000 album equivalents.
Naturally, this new approach has caused a shift in how record sales are tracked and how the prestige of a #1 album is achieved. It also demonstrates the way the music industry has moved their focus from the album to the single. How has your own music purchasing behavior changed in the last decade? I’ve asked my Music Appreciation classes (always a good source for information on how “the kids” are doing things), “When was the last time your purchased an entire album?” Many say, “Never.” I find this somewhat dismaying. It would appear that we have sat quietly by and watched the death of a once beloved art form.
Now, granted, compilations like Now! That’s What I Call Music and soundtracks to television programs and movies are not really albums in their purest sense - a cohesive work of art. But, the success of albums like this, whether sold in complete form or piecemeal, are quite indicative of the change in music-buying behavior that we have observed in the last decade.
WATCHING THE ALBUM DISAPPEAR
A February, 2010 article from CNN Money reported that between 1999-2009 annual album sales plummeted from $14.6 billion to $6.3 billion. The article blames the decrease on three main culprits: 1. an over-inflation of sales during the 1990s as consumers replaced their analog recordings with CDs, 2. the recession of the 2000s, and 3. the appearance of music sharing software like Napster and Kazaa. So, just as people finished replacing their vinyl and LPs, a recession prevented them from buying more CDs, but their desire for new music was satisfied by new software. A triple-whammy for the music industry.
An interesting way of looking at this decline is be examining the sales numbers for the top-selling album of any given year. Soundscan began tracking and releasing this information in 1992. Since then, the top album of any given year has sold numbers ranging from nearly 10 million (*NSYNC in 2000) to 2.4 million copies (Justin Timberlake in 2013, poor guy…). Between that time and today, the top selling album of 7 different years topped 7,000,00 copies:
1995: Cracked Rear View – Hootie and the Blowfish
1996: Jagged Little Pill - Alanis Morrisette
1998: Titanic Soundtrack
1999: Millennium – Backstreet Boys
2000: No Strings Attached - *NSYNC
2002: The Eminem Show – Eminem
2004: Confessions – Usher
Since 2004, the highest selling album, 21 by Adele, only hit 5,000,000 copies. Vastly outselling every other album of the ten years between Usher and today. Slowly but surely, even the most successful albums are generating fewer and fewer sales.
WHY IS THIS HAPPENING?
Sure, CNN’s theory that these numbers stem from an earlier over-inflation, a recession, and new software certainly point to part of the problem, but I’m not sure that it explains everything. It seems to me that there are a number of factors that have contributed to the demise of the album.
We have seen what happened to file sharing companies like Napster and Kazaa. While the notion of sharing music is a nice one in principle, it ultimately was doomed to fail. Making music is expensive, and if no one is willing to pay for it, the quality of the product is bound to suffer. Plus, you get angry people like Lars Ulrich trying to sue everyone on the planet… not cool.
Enter the age of the iTunes and internet radio. Downloading, of course, makes it easier and cheaper to purchase a single song. And streaming makes it possible to hear endless music for only a small flat fee (or no fee at all, if you’re willing to put up with commercials). It is this kind of consumer practice that led to the change in Billboard’s album charts, and it certainly points to a shift in fans’ interaction with music. In January, 2015, The Atlantic reported that both sales of CDs and digital tracks had dropped, while on subscriptions to streaming services and (ironically, but not surprisingly) the sale of vinyl had risen in 2014. So, if we disregard the hipster movement for a moment (who still comprise less than 2% of today’s music sales), we find that people again are still less likely to pay for a specific work that they enjoy, but would rather pay for unlimited access to a service that allows them to listen to whatever whenever they want.
This is not the first time in music’s history that this phenomenon has shaped the industry. During the Depression, musical styles that catered to those most hard hit, i.e. country-western music and so-called race music (primarily the blues), were kept alive through radio broadcasts. When economic times are hard, music is seen as a luxury. The pleasure of owning a recording is less important than simply being able to hear a song, and a single device (or subscription) that allows you to hear an endless stream of music is certainly a more economical investment than a playback device that constantly requires new recordings to hear a variety of music. I would certainly never mean to imply that our modern economic environment compares to that of the Depression, but it is intriguing to me that services that move consumers away from the lasting, tangible musical object have again given way to the ephemeral experience of songs, whether on an AM/FM or an internet radio.
Also, it seems that a lot of artists rely on the success of one or two songs for a given project, and if they do release an album, most of the tracks are “filler,” so why should a consumer spend their money on an entire album when the artist only puts effort into a small percentage of its contents? Conversely, why should a band or artist take the time and cost of creating an album when typical music fans will only purchase a song or two? We have found ourselves in an artistic catch-22. Only when artists commit to making more substantial albums and fans return to purchasing works as a whole will this situation reverse itself. Will that day ever come? I honestly don’t know.
Another factor, I think, is the “Shuffle mentality.” It seems to me that the last 15 years or so have witnessed a fetishizing of “the random.” Radio stations with names like “The Blend” and “The Spectrum” promote themselves as broadcasting a wide variety of music with little or no unifying features. Mp3 players and programs like iTunes afford listeners the experience of drifting through their music collections, never knowing what will come next. I admit, I enjoy this practice myself. The strange juxtapositions to arise in a collection such as mine often point out unusual musical qualities I might not otherwise notice. But, this notion of a continuously shuffled music experience definitely removes us from the art of the album. While albums were once crafted to create a certain flow from one song to the next, today they are rarely heard in the order for which they were intended. Rather than a 45-60 minute cohesive work of art, many of today’s albums are compilations of 3 minute micro-works. I fear that to break apart and rearrange the contents of an album denies it of its continuity and in general cheapens the product as a whole.
This is not to say that no one makes quality albums anymore. Artists that have a certain cache with the hipster crowd not only release albums, but they do so on vinyl LPs. And acts that have a somewhat more elevated sensibility and sense of “artsiness” about their work create thematic works similar to the concept albums common in the 1970s. But are these genuine musical expressions or just sales gimmicks? I suppose that depends on the work in question. Most likely a little from Column A, and a little from Column B.
HOW CAN WE REVALUE THE ALBUM?
Last Spring, my husband and I began a project designed to enhance our music collection, encourage more intense music listening, and help us discover new musical styles. Every week we buy a new (to us) album. Sometimes we download high-resolution albums from websites like HD Tracks or Linn Records, other times we purchase CDs (occasionally new ones, but more often used ones from the local used book store). Either way, we have a few rules: the purchase must be full-resolution (i.e. no mp3s), and it must be an actual album or EP – no compilations, greatest hits packages, or anything like that. We each keep a list of albums we want, and if we find them at the used bookstore, we get them. If we really want something specific, we will download it. So far, we’ve bought about 70 new albums, in all different kinds of styles: Black Sabbath to Billie Holiday, Mozart to Joni Mitchell. We’ve added new music, classics from the 1960s and 70s, country, jazz, choral music, and chamber music to our collection, and it keeps growing.
Our favorite part of the process is deciding what to buy. If we have differing ideas, we open up a good, old-fashioned debate. The winner must convince the other that their choice offers quality music, a unique and rewarding listening experience, cultural significance, and high-quality audio. It seems that the harder one of us fights for a given album, the more the other tends to be surprised by the music they hear.
Friday nights are listening nights. We curl up on the couch with a cocktail and listen to at least one album from start to finish. During that time, we focus on nothing but the music. If we pick up our phones, it is only to look up information about the artist and album that is playing. No checking Facebook or playing games – just listening. Sometimes we stop the music and talk about what we hear – to point out interesting aspects of the recording or novel musical techniques, other times we just listen straight through. While at first it was hard to resist the urge to “do something” while the music played, we’ve come to really value the opportunity to just give ourselves time to immerse ourselves in new musical experiences.
What have we learned? Some of the more recent albums we’ve purchased, like those from Artic Monkeys and Royal Blood, tend to have one or two primary sounds that carry throughout the entire album. They get a bit repetitive after a while. The sound was catchy enough to draw our interest from the one or two singles we’d heard on the radio, driving us to invest in the album, but overall, they just got a bit boring by the end. By contrast, generally speaking, rock (in all its guises) from the 1960s and 70s is considerably more adventurous in scope. Some of the things we’ve picked up have astonished us with their beauty, while some have been a struggle just to sit through. There have been a few albums that we bought, not because there are a lot of songs we loved, but simply because they had a certain cultural significance: Blue by Joni Mitchell and Songs in the Key of Life by Stevie Wonder fell into this category. If we recognized any song titles from the listing, it was only one or two, but we’d heard so much about the works, we figured they were worth a try. Both were amazing!
While we hold no illusions that our project is going to restore society’s recognition of the value of albums and return them to their once proud position of musical achievement, we have reached the conclusion that digital music consumption has robbed us of something really great. And while some artists seem determined to help restore the glory of the album, convenience and economic considerations appear to have won out over artistic creation.
What do you think? When was the last time you purchased an entire album? Was it on CD? Downloaded? Something else? Conversely, when did you last download a single song? Did you check out the rest of the album, or just go right to the song you knew you wanted?
I thought it might be interesting to run a little comparison. I wanted to look at how the approach to the creation of an album has changed over time, so I thought we might look at a current rock album in contrast to one of an earlier age.
Lunatic by Kongos was released in 2012, though it did not become successful in the US until 2014. The band is comprised of four brothers from Johannesburg, South Africa. They identify their style as a fusion of hard rock, alternative rock, and kwaito (a South African style of hip hop dance music). What makes their sound unique is the inclusion of the accordion and their hard-hitting drums. According to their website, they cite Indian, Middle Eastern, and African music, Miles Davis, The Beatles, Nusrat Fateh Ali Kahn, Salif Keita, Arvo Pärt, Coldplay, Pink Floyd, Joni Mitchell, Jackson Browne, Bob Marley, and Stevie Wonder as influences. Such an enormously varied list does make one wonder what musical qualities of this kaleidoscope of artists have been most impactful on the Kongos’ sound.
I’d like to wait to hear what others think about this album before I make any comments about it myself. What do you think? Do you like the tunes? Does it create a cohesive unit? Does it draw you back, wanting to ear more?
The trickiest part of this has been to identify an album with enough similarities to make for a logical comparison. I think what works best from my perspective is Led Zeppelin III. Both albums share a hard, rocking sound and some out of this world drumming. Both also share a hint of exoticism. That said, I think there are some profound differences between these two projects.
So, here’s the $25,000 question, which do you prefer? What makes them different? Of course, one of these is a classic, and one is more like the source of a one-hit-wonder, but if we set that aside for a moment, and just focus on what we hear, how do these albums compare?
Molly M. Breckling holds a Ph.D. in Historical Musicology from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Her areas of research interest are the songs of Gustav Mahler, popular music, and music history pedagogy. Her goal is to help others listen to music more actively and to develop a greater appreciation for the music that surrounds us every day.