Over the last 20 years, the distribution of music has gone through some drastic changes. From CD to digital download (both legally and otherwise) to the present where streaming is the firmly-established medium, while the format has changed, the main goal for most artists is still to release albums.
While streaming is the probably best possible thing that could have happened to the music industry, that doesn’t mean it won’t have some negative consequences. Thanks to streaming, artists don’t need to create albums any more and there is a case to say that they are in danger of becoming obsolete in the future. Here’s how that could happen.
20 years summarised
I’m just about at an age where I can remember a time before digital music downloads either didn’t exist, or weren’t widely accepted yet. The days before the iTunes Store saw CD as the ubiquitous medium of (legal) music acquisition. Physical albums were selling, record labels were happy, artist success could be measured in album sales and as a process, it worked. At around £10 per album though, could music publishers honesty expect people to not try and get music cheaper? Now, £10 per month on Spotify gets you all the music you could ever want.
Because of the cost of recording and producing music, artists needed to sell albums at this price in order to pay for studio time. Now, the costs of recording an album, even with a professional producer, are so much less – accessible even to artists not signed to record labels. It’s possible to make a nice sounding track on a laptop in a bedroom. Thanks to the internet, artists have more power than ever over distributing their music so it’s perfectly conceivable to go into a recording session only expecting to end up releasing a short EP or even a single track. This flexibility means that artists don’t feel obliged to make an album to make the most of studio time.
With individual album sales musicians could guarantee that every track, regardless of quality, would contribute to the total income of the album. Now though, each track earns its money individually through streams, meaning that artists don’t need to fill an album with filler tracks that are there to justify the full cost of the record. With streaming, if songs on an album aren’t well received, they just won’t bring in money. This could lead to artists only publishing the tracks they think most reflect their style and ability.
In the past, albums have been made with the intention of promoting the three, four or five singles distributed pre-release. They have often been rushed out to ride the coattails of the success of an artist’s singles and capitalise on the fleeting popularity of individual tracks. Now though, artists can take their time releasing tracks and EPs, without feeing pressured into capitalising on short-term spotlight. Streaming gives artists so much more power than they once had, and the choice of choosing quality over quantity.
Because each song on streaming services has a play count, artists can pretty quickly work out which of their songs are most popular and generally, it isn’t album-fillers. Why then, would an artist choose to make a 12-track album with songs that they don’t think are single-worthy, when instead they could focus their energy and studio time on making a 4-track EP where every song is good enough to release individually?
There are styles of music that albums work best in, progressive rock and metal for example. For some, including hyper-produced chart pop, albums can feel slightly gratuitous. It’s safe to assume that if albums do fall out of mainstream practice, some genres will ensure they don’t disappear completely.
Music has never been so accessible to the consumer. Not only does streaming and the internet in general allow artists to connect with new fans around the world, it enables the new, up-and-coming and relatively unknown to distribute their music to the world, without the huge costs of physically printing music.
Because music is now available in an all-you-can-eat buffet style, not just on streaming services but the likes of YouTube too, consumers can make quick judgements of new music they hear. Even people who buy individual albums can demo them online to help them decide if it’s worth the investment. In the past, all you’d have as an indicator is the album’s singles or if your mate had bought it first.
When you don’t need to pay for each individual piece of music, you don’t take as much notice of it, because you don’t need to find the value. Don’t like it? Remove it from your Spotify library, and don’t bother trying to get into it. With pre-internet music, an album represented a pretty significant investment and therefore, consumers were more inclined to dedicate more time to listening to it because we don’t like to feel like we’ve wasted our money. There’s also something to be said for the amount of music that we can consume now. In a time where albums cost individually, music enthusiasts would be paying out handsomely each month in order to have as little as five or so new albums. At about £10 per album, this forced financial limit (not that it’s something we ever want back), stopped people from simply flipping from artist to artist, album to album, and actually taking the time out to think about which piece of music they most want to hear and buy. Have a think: if you could only listen to 5-10 albums in a month, you’d try a bit harder to get into the tracks that don’t immediately have you hooked by the ear wouldn’t you? While our amount of choice is very much a positive, it does stop people making an effort to listen to whole albums at a time. You can hear the surface-level good stuff from the album and move on to another artist.
To most dedicated music enthusiasts, the process of owning a physically existing piece of music is a more rewarding experience than having one saved in your Spotify library. Albums are a nice thing to own and although buying records individually is pricey, that shouldn’t stop you wanting to own the physical version. If you’re a bit of a collector like me, it’s nice to have your favourite albums as physical objects in your house.
The recent popularity of vinyl, although partly thanks to its audio quality and the distinctive sound, is also partially a result of people still wanting to own music. With the continued fall of digital physical music (the CD), vinyl has found a purpose as a collectible because it doesn’t come in a cheap plastic case. The average vinyl tends to be much more individually packaged than the CD, often including collectible added extras.
Vinyl records are nearly always albums so without the format of the album, they would struggle. Conversely, artists that do well from vinyl will be the last to stop making albums.
While I don’t think albums are going anywhere anytime soon, they aren’t as suited to the modern formats of music as they are to CD and vinyl. Album sales themselves are falling, while streaming continues to grow. Last year, the UK saw a 37.7% rise in subscription streaming revenues while total album unit sales (CD, vinyl and digital download) dropped by 13.2m (-22.1%). Physical album sales (vinyl and CD) only brought in £36.2m, completely dwarfed by the £829.1m made by streaming services – which have helped the UK music sector recover to be 30% bigger than it was in 2014.
Streaming has provided the solution to the problems the music business has had in the last two decades but we could see the album format diminish as a result. It’s less sensible for artists to make albums, and consumers have so many other ways of listening to music that the album can seem arbitrary.
Though the album won’t disappear for a while yet, there is a certain amount of writing on the wall.