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Is the album format irrelevant in the digital age?

Let's investigate. 

Image source: 
Unsplash/Mick Haupt

“We live in a singles world today,” declared Forbes last year in an article titled 'The Music Album Is Dead, But Not Everyone’s Accepted It Yet'. The death of the album format, or at least its descent into irrelevance, is an increasingly popular notion among music listeners and industry professionals. However, the issue is much more nuanced than one might think. 

Music streaming services like Spotify and Apple Music have inevitably changed the way we listen to music, and not entirely for the better. Although it's easier than ever to access and release music in the digital age, the quantity of content is expanding as our attention spans shrink. As a result, the way music is marketed to listeners is evolving and we are seeing artists and record labels increasingly favour singles over albums.

According to a shareholder report for the fourth quarter of 2018, the number of Spotify premium subscribers increased by 36 per cent compared to the previous year, while ad-supported users grew by 24 per cent. Additionally, the Wall Street Journal reported that Apple Music’s growth rate within the US is currently almost double that of Spotify, with Apple seeing a 5 per cent monthly growth compared to Spotify’s 2 per cent.

Streaming and music consumption have become so intrinsically linked that Billboard remodelled its formula for calculating the Billboard charts to account for ‘streaming equivalent albums’. The formula equates 1250 paid streams from Apple Music or Spotify Premium to one album sale. Similarly, 3750 streams from ad-sponsored platforms, such as Spotify’s free tier and YouTube, also translate to one album sale. This is the same formula used by the Recording Industry Association of America for determining Gold and Platinum album certification.

The specifics of this formula may seem inconsequential, but consider this: Music Business Worldwide founder and Rolling Stone columnist Tim Ingham crunched the numbers on Drake’s Scorpion, the biggest album in the US market for 2018, and found that 63 per cent of global streams on Spotify came from just three songs off the 25-track album. In fact, six songs accounted for 82 per cent of the album’s total streams. That means approximately a quarter of the songs on the album determined its overall success in terms of ‘streaming equivalent albums’.

This distinction matters because Scorpion amassed 551,000 streaming equivalent album sales in its first week compared to less than a third of that amount in ‘true’ album sales, i.e. full album purchases via iTunes or the likes. This means the biggest album in the US market for 2018 earnt such a title despite 19 of its songs averaging one per cent of the album's overall streams each. 

In the past, albums were typically preluded by one single release a few months before an album was due for launch, and another to coincide with the album. Now we are seeing artists releasing up to five singles in the lead up to a new album. As the hunger for more grows and patience withers, the album cycle has shortened dramatically.

It was once considered the norm for a band or artist to release an album and spend a few years touring it before even thinking about their next release. Now, record labels are much more inclined to drip feed listeners a constant stream of new content in a bid to hold their attention. This much is especially true for genres such as hip-hop, pop and EDM.

Statistics from the British Phonographic Industry found that full album downloads, excluding album equivalent streams, fell by 46 per cent between 2015 and 2017. Interestingly, that timeframe also saw vinyl sales rise by almost a million units annually in the UK.

In Australia, we are also seeing the effects of streaming on our recorded music climate. While ARIA is yet to publish statistics for Australian album sales in 2018, a 2017 report saw a 27.61 per cent drop in revenue from digital album sales, not including streaming equivalents, compared to the previous year. Additionally, there was a 64.36 per cent increase in ad-supported streaming models. The same year also saw revenue gained through streaming services account for 54 per cent of the overall market, the largest annual increase since 1996.

So what does this mean for the album format? If you're a devoted music lover or a fan of a specific artist or band, you’re likely to continue to listen to albums – but albums themselves are changing to suit the digital climate. Many artists are opting for a ‘more is more’ approach, releasing collections of more than 20 tracks in an effort to keep listeners returning, as most people don’t sit and listen to a 50-minute-long album in one hit. As seen with Scorpion, while only a handful of the album's 25 tracks attributed to its success, the record as a whole reaped the benefits. 

On the flipside, it’s perhaps equally as common for artists to hone in on the short attention spans of their listeners by releasing albums which fall around the 30-minute mark. Take Kanye West’s recent seven track long album ye, for example, which debuted at number one in Australia.  

While the album format as we once knew it may be dying, it’s hard to envision a future that doesn’t revolve around some form of an album. After all, it's an artistic expression which captures a particular moment in time or energy through a concise body of work. Despite the dire state of our listening habits, vinyl sales in the US increased by 12 per cent in 2018 compared to the previous year, and by 19 per cent in Australia — marking the seventh consecutive year we have seen an increase in record sales. Maybe there is still hope for the album.