The industry is changing. Aside from the rise of streaming, which has completely altered the way people consume music and the way artists make money, the business as a whole seems more uncertain than ever about what might come next. Will festivals continue to grow in popularity? Will radius clauses force up and coming acts to choose between high-profile gigs and a series of smaller, more intimate performances? Will venues demand more substantial cuts of merch sales? Will fans still want physical media, and if so, in what format?
These questions and many more are pondered in offices and at conferences every year. They each create an excellent foundation for conversation, but the outcome is usually the same: We won’t know until it happens. Maybe the festival bubble will burst, but then again, perhaps it won’t. Maybe smaller artists will breakout from a single high-profile appearance, but they may fair better with smaller gigs that provide fans more access to the talent. It’s all up in the air all the time, and more importantly, not every answer works for everyone.
One thing that is certain: We will continue to debate the livelihood of albums until the end of time.
Every year for the past decade there comes a time, usually in the fall or winter, when significant publications debate whether or not the albums are practical. The most recent outlet to hop on this bandwagon is Rolling Stone, who just this week published an article claiming records are ‘in deep trouble.’
For those who prefer a TL;DR explanation, the latest round of ‘RIP Albums’ posts stem from a report released by the RIAA a couple months back regarding sales in 2018. According to the numbers, total album sales for the first half of 2018 were down 25% compared to the first half of 2017. If that figure continues for the second half of the year, which many believe it will, then total album sales will plummet 50% compared to the previous year. That is a major drop, and it’s being said that track-led consumption through streaming services. In other words, people love singles, and the popularity of playlists in the streaming arena has made the success of a single track, not to mention its ability to be placed, over the quality of albums.
But there’s more to the drop in sales than the popularity of singles. Cultural trends play a part in consumer behavior as well, and right now there are no two genres of music more popular than hip-hop and EDM. An artist in these areas can make a career out of one song. Sheck Wes, for example, landed a record deal with Kanye West’s GOOD Music off the strength of his viral hit “Mo Bamba.” Similarly, Cardi B found international success with “Bodak Yellow.” She was hailed as a new artist because of the release, despite the fact she had previously released multiple mixtapes.
Both Sheck Wes and Cardi B released albums in 2018, but when discussing their successes and failures, it’s the singles that lead any conversation.
And speaking of conversation, you can probably add social media to the list of things contributing to the belief albums are dead. It is far easier to not only digest single tracks but also to discuss them. It takes less than five minutes to stream most singles, and just a matter of seconds to tweet out one’s thoughts on the material. Albums, on the other hand, require far more time and attention. You could easily spend an hour listening to a record, and expressing your thoughts on the material in full will likely require more than 280 characters (the maximum length of a tweet). Culture has trained people to believe that if they’re not contributing to the endless chatroom that is social media, then they are somehow missing out, which in turn encourages people to stay on top of everything that can be consumed at a moments notice. Singles are more accessible, which means more people can make time to consume them. More people = more conversation.
Rock and country music work differently. Artists hoping to make it in those areas of music need to not only have good singles but also must tour heavily, which means performing numerous songs any given night. One great track may help start a conversation, or even land a meeting with label execs, but those who become household names must also possess a catalog of potential hits. Fans of these genres still buy albums, but because country and rock are less popular than they were ten or even twenty years ago the most successful LPs cannot hold a candle to the streaming numbers artists achieve in other genres of music.
Albums are not dead, and they never will be, but as consumer behavior continues to evolve there may be less of them garnering attention. This same trend can be found in all areas of entertainment. Paintings, for example, were once the height of entertainment. Most people can name iconic talents such as Van Gogh or Picasso, but how many modern painters do you know? There are galleries of all sizes in cities all over the world showcasing current talent all the time, so surely someone is paying attention.