I’m going to let you in on top secret piece of industry information. Lean in close, nose to these letters, okay? Ready? ALBUMS AREN’T SELLING LIKE THEY USED TO!!!
As a general rule, there are only three types of albums that sell well in bundled form these days:
Critically acclaimed albums that are appreciated by an older demographic, who want a physical CD for their car (Barbra Streisand’s Greatest Hits, Adele’s 25)
Soundtrack and concept albums, whose plot lines only make sense if you listen for the entire 45-60 mins (The Original Broadway Cast’s Hamilton, Dave Cobb’s Southern Family).
Albums by – usually pop – artists who have a strong enough fanbase to convince them that albums are precious works of art that deserve to be paid a fair price for (Taylor Swift’s 1989, Fifth Harmony’s Reflection).
Yesteryear’s music fans are probably to blame. Like, why should they have had to lug around a $12.99 LP, with two singles and filler for the rest, to the car every morning? Bands needed to either step up their game when it comes to full albums, or give them a way to choose which songs they wanted, and letting them only pay for those, preferably not in a heavy CD jewel box…
And then came the internet. They say that the late Steve Jobs single-handedly “saved the recording industry,” with the launch of the iTunes store. Sure, we were never going to buy entire 12-track albums the same way as we used to, but this was a relatively cheap way to buy the only songs you want on a filler album (which, let’s face it, too many bands still make). It was also a lot safer than risking viruses by downloading strange files off an overseas server just to get free music. But that was in the early 2000’s. As of writing this, it is 2016.
This is where I come in. I was born in 1997, and spent my early music-taste forming years (ages 10-14) in a country with, let’s say, more relaxed copyright enforcement policies. There was only one English-language talk radio station, so we listened to music with the cassette machine in our minivan on the way to and from skating practice. From what I remember, it was mostly show tunes and Barbra Streisand – not complaining there. YouTube, Facebook, and other social media websites were banned. I was the middle school loser/bullying victim; my only company were books. Then one day, I stumbled into a record shop. Of course everything was pirated; the only royalties going anywhere were into the pocket of an entrepreneur with a CD pressing machine in his apartment. But for the equivalent of $3.00 (my weekly allowance), I could buy any one disk in this store. I spent three months worth of pocket money there that day.
Now, obviously, I didn’t recognize the names of any of these singers, so I bought the album based on the cover artwork. Carrie Underwood’s Play On is a clear example of this. The picture of her with a flower in her hair made her seem like a down-to-earth and friendly girl, someone I wish I had more of in my real life – also, occasions like these are what drove me into country music.
When I was 14, my family packed up and moved to Ottawa, Canada, where I go to college now. Walking into an HMV for the first time was quite a sticker shock. Enter the age of the iTunes Store. And at the age of 19, the Apple Music era.
The reason I am telling you the story of my life is for perspective reasons. I am not a saint when it comes to only purchasing music legally. Neither are many of the people reading this piece, I imagine.
When I first heard about streaming, the idea appealed to me as a consumer. Safe, high quality (okay, higher than YouTube) music, as much as I want, for $10 a month. As an artist however, the idea of making less than a thousandth of a cent sort of scared me. I immaturely tried to block out the idea for a while, before finally taking the plunge and starting a free 3-month Apple Music trial. In all honesty, I feel guilty about it sometimes, and vow to make up for it by buying t-shirts of the bands I like; I don’t even wear t-shirts, so that rarely happens. I still sometimes buy an album/EP from a small or local artist, simply to support them. But four months later, here I am facing my own presumptions about streaming music.
People download hundreds of albums at once, but only listen to a few of them: I do not. My average amount maxes out around six full length albums per month. While some might catch my excitement to listen to first, throughout the weeks, I always get around to the last ones. It makes them all more special that way. MYTH
Subscribers to streaming services don’t listen to free cover songs anymore: I used to listen to and download covers of songs out of necessity, an easy way to put the song on my phone without spending $1.29. Being a cheapskate also led to me discovering smaller artists, and then supporting them. Now, I can listen to the full version, and appreciate the cover artists who put interesting twists on their versions, instead of seeking out the one that most closely resembles the original. MYTH
People who stream music listen to entire albums now, because they can: Personally, I’ve always been an album person, since every sad ballad on the LP very rarely gets released as a single. But if I get an entire album along with the songs I know I want, I will listen to it. TRUTH
Subscribers to streaming sites pay less attention to music reviews than they used to: I’m not sure on this one. While not depending on the opinions of critics before spending money on an album isn’t something I normally did, it makes less sense now that I can listen and judge it myself- seeking critics to validate my already made up mind instead. It would have rescued me from times I bought an album, physical or digital , and then disliked it, and had no way of returning it. However, with the overwhelming amount of choice that streaming sites offer, a favourite critic (mine is Spectrum Pulse) or a go-to friend with good taste are still useful to have. MAYBE
Music has less value in the eyes for a person with a streaming subscription: Absolutely wrong. The asking price for an .mp3 file has gone down, but there has never been a better time to surround oneself with music. There is no excuse for any audiophile not to play music 24/7. Streaming is dirt cheap and songs can be synced offline too. Even the casual listeners don’t need to only buy albums or songs from a b(r)and they trust to provide a sound they’ll like. There is no loss other than time when you stream an album that you decide isn’t one you like. While the price may be lower, music has certainly not lost any speck of value in our hearts and ears. MYTH
Yeah, Apple Music – and similar services – are a wonderful thing; but what’s the catch? I am now a singer and music industry professional – and I stream music. Did anyone really think that the creators of this recorded music (the singers, the producers, the session players) would receive the same amount of income as they would have before?
Take an indie singer-songwriter recording a small budget 5-song EP. For the sake of the exercise, the whole project – from recording time to the album cover design – costs $1000. He isn’t doing to a run of physical CDs, and is selling online exclusively. After taking out iTunes’s cut of the profits, he needs to sell approximately 275 full digital EPs to recoup his costs. In this day and age, very few recording projects actually breakeven by sales alone. Almost all money is generated from live shows and merch sales. Recordings are no longer places for stable income, and instead a teaser-trailer for fans to come to your shows, and spend their money there.
Yes, as artists who spend their hard-earned cash (may it be from a day job, crowdfunding campaign, or loan) on studio time, streaming hurts our feelings. But unless we’re so powerful and far-reaching that enough loyal fans buy recorded albums to keep us afloat, we have to stop complaining and not only keep up with the times, but be ahead of them. Your precious physical album is a merch piece to sell to die-hard fans and grandparents, situated in-between the t-shirts and posters on a fold out table at the end of the show. Stop treating it like the only way you’re going to make a living. Put on an amazing show, sell interesting merch, and offer something special with the purchase of a physical CD. The iTunes store is dead. If the fans want a digital copy, they’ll stream it. If you insist on printing a run of physical copies, market them as something special. Don’t be scared to give a few away to fans for free. They are promotional items, not your raison d’être for having a career anymore. So wipe your tears, open your mind, and start a 3-month trial.