HOW TO KILL THE ALBUM: STOP MAKING SENSE
AUGUST 13, 2015 BY TIM INGHAM
We need to have a little word about your language.
The mainstream audience that the music biz so desires thinks that ‘curation’ has something to do with preserved ham.
A ‘playlist’ remains a relic they stuck onto a cassette in a bid to win the affection of their teenage sweetheart.
And as for ‘streaming equivalent sales’… well, let’s reserve some special ire for that particularly mindless semantic fiasco shortly.
First, an earnest appeal: I am seriously concerned that this industry is starting to throttle its potential with a vocal addiction to nonsense.
As a direct consequence, it’s showing scant respect to its best and most lucrative product.
This situation is being exacerbated by hereditary commercial structures continuing to be measured in ‘albums’ – especially artist contracts and the archaic bonus structure of the industry’s big earners.
Ironically, it’s an attitude that’s doing great harm to the one format that still pays most people’s wages.
According to IFPI stats run through the MBW calculator, on-demand streaming’s total contribution to the global record industry last year, across freemium and subscription, was $2.2bn.
That amounted to around a quarter of the money generated from album sales ($8.4bn). That’s real, actual, transactional album sales.
You wouldn’t know it to earwig most modern label conversations, but physical album sales alone actually accounted for 53% of 2014’s total sales/on-demand streaming cash haul.
It’s therefore something of a worry to consider the shabby treatment the LP is currently being subjected to around these parts – and the recklessness with which the language and mathematics of streaming are been imposed upon it.
The US market is the most heinous example, where repeated streams of a single trackare officially now counted as ‘album equivalent’ sales.
Oddly, Billboard actually seems quite proud to have bastardised the one music format that the public is spending most of its money on.
When it announced the alteration to its historic Billboard 200 chart in November, the publication wrote:
“Current artists likely to benefit from this change in methodology include Ariana Grande, Hozier and Maroon 5… as their streaming and digital song sales have been outperforming their album sales in recent weeks.”
So their song sales have been outperforming their album sales, but it’s best if we attribute them with more album sales than artists who actually achieved more album sales.
Gotcha. Crystal. Flawless logic.
As Martin Mills eloquently put it earlier this year: “Including tracks with albums mixes apples with pears, and fails to chart anything meaningful other than sheer brute size.”
Somehow, it has been deemed more progressive than simply allowing the album a graceful plateau into less relevant sales territory.
Right then, shall we illustrate the self-evident lunacy of ‘streaming equivalent albums’?
Please, take a moment to read those three words back.
They are a telling indication of just how messed up this business has become – and of its stark refusal to accept that an entirely new model can only be properly evaluated through entirely new methods.
Imagine if other businesses simply refused to treat groundbreaking technologies any differently than their previous incarnations.
I am writing this with my keyboard-equivalent quill, and I should imagine you’re reading it on your screen-equivalent parchment.
Last night, I drove in my car-equivalent train to buy some petrol-equivalent cattle before returning home to send some email-equivalent faxes.
Have you seen – email-equivalent faxes are going through the roof. Apparently Google employees are now sending nearly a million faxes a week!
Laugh it up.
This is literally the way you people are starting to talk.
The album remains the most refined, artful representation of the music business in existence.
Done properly – and amongst declining A&R spends, they amazingly still are being done properly – they can take years of A&R to perfect.
Yet like some barbaric Hollywood scientist, the music biz is voluntarily Frankensteining these fragile, crafted artefacts together with an unrelated, ultra-convenient beast.
You know who’s going to come off worse.
You’ve seen this movie before.
Stuffing a nebulous new format into a static sales chart template can only mutilate the album’s potential – or stop it breathing entirely.
Meanwhile, it excuses the industry from robustly examining and quantifying new multi-track listening patterns: playlists, especially, as well as episodic short-form releases.
So what’s the solution at this point?
First we must recognise that streaming will claim the majority of music consumption in the future.
Getting angry about that fact makes about as much sense as raging at sustainable farming methods.
It’s just going to happen.
But that doesn’t prevent us from asking a vital question: What do all of streaming’s measurements of success – its billions of plays, its viral playlists and its carefully-branded ‘memberships’ – actually mean in the context of traditional, unit sales-based album successes?
The truth is, we have no idea… and we probably never will.
True: if someone buys an album there’s no guarantee they will listen to all the tracks as the artist intended. They may just stick to their favourites.
But the commitment has already been made. As soon as the cash left their wallet for a set collection of an artist’s tracks, theirs was a completely un-streaming like experience.
So why not let nature take its course, and treat albums and streaming separately, across the board?
If streaming is booming, tell the world exactly how.
If the album is dying, let it die with dignity.
It’s time to dump the music biz’s self-imposed schizophrenia: describing the old school like the new school, while arbitrating the new school like the old.
These arguments can make some label execs slightly uncomfortable, and you can understand why.
Blocking streaming from a unit sales albums chart feels a little like an act of willful ignorance.
Don’t forget, the last time this industry turned a blind eye to a new life-force, he turned around and torched the place.
Napster’s arrival in 2002 was less ‘disruptive’ than it was apocalyptic: when inflation is factored in, the annual income of the recorded music business has almost been slashed by two-thirds since 1999.
It’s also partly the reason why all those peculiar words – engagement; curation; freemium; algorithm – have bubbled to the surface of its everyday label lexicon.
If we mimic the language of Silicon Valley, it prevents them being able to pull the wool over our eyes.
So emboldened has the music biz become by these self-help mantras, it’s starting to believe that this is the stuff that music fans – those people spending $8.4bn a year on albums – are actively craving.
Forgive a sprinkle of anecdotal evidence to dissuade that idea.
When my wife got in from work the other night, she asked why people might defect from Spotify to Apple Music.
I cockily explained that it was all about the benefits of ‘artist discovery’.
“Well that sounds like effort to me.”
Ladies and gentleman, your lapsed consumer.
You’re hardly dragging her back from the brink right now.
There is only one logical comparative cross-format metric in recorded music today, and that’s a financial one.
It’s heartening to learn that within certain majors, ‘Revenue Equivalent Albums’ are now becoming the de facto measurement of performance.
This is the first step towards a Box Office model that has served the movie industry’s transition into a post-Netflix world seamlessly.
Quite what a public-facing ‘REA’ chart would mean for the future of albums is up for debate.
Hopefully, such change would result in less of the baffling double-speak we saw when Billboard made its units-based streaming blunder last year.
It would also remind us what’s generating the most cash in this business, and will for a long time yet.
Because it ain’t streaming.
(Fun fact: the UK recently topped 500m audio streams in a week. It hit headlines, including MBW’s own. In the same seven days, songs on British broadcast radio were listened to more than 7 billion times.)
It’s trite but it’s true: the music business wasn’t built to deal in jargon, nor to self-servingly meddle with incompatible sales formulas.
It was built to create magic.
This should always remain the focus, not only because of the due deference required for artists to accomplish their vision – but because it’s where the true power lies.
As Rob Wells told MBW earlier this year: “If you own the rights, you own the keys.”
Monitoring the language and processes of music’s digital development is healthy – but becoming infatuated with it is not.
The industry must be very careful that it doesn’t encourage the disregard or dumbing down of the album, still very much its finest attribute.
A man who knows a thing or two about being smart while acting dumb, the co-creator of South Park, Matt Stone, recognises this implicitly.
“I don’t like our stuff being talked about as content,” he said earlier this year.
“Spoons are metal and guns are metal, but they’re not the same thing.
“We don’t make content.