So like your sonic soul

Is the album format really dead in the US?

I read an article from last week on The Guardian that discusses this very subject, making the point that Katy Perry (an apparently acceptable example of a well-selling pop artist in this country) has the current number one selling album in the country – and two weeks ago, the total number of album sales were 4.49m units, with Katy’s selling less than 300,000 units (out of the 4.49m). That’s depressing…both because Katy Perry’s album is at number one (in my not-humble-opinion), and because it’s sales are not good by industry standards.

The article goes on to make the point that the 10-song “artist-statement” format used since the 1940’s might be nearing the end of it’s line.  I’m really not sure that’s the case at all…nor is a follow-up response to this article found on  Music:)Ally.  To begin with, I think back to sales of Red Carpet Massacre – I don’t have a subscription to RIAA (Recording Industry Association of America) so I can’t really track sales, but I know I’ve read that by 2008 it had only sold about 88,000 copies. All You Need is Now didn’t do any better in sales (in fact I believe it sold even less overall).  So when you compare to that of Katy Perry’s 300,000 units in a week, the picture changes significantly.

What are we really comparing though?  If we’re using the 1980’s as the benchmark – I think that’s incredibly inaccurate. The entire world has changed since then. Back in that day, albums were really the only way to access your favorite artist between tours. You had the memories of the gig you attended (if you were lucky enough to be there!) and the albums you bought in between. Throw in some pinups and some shirts, and that was about it.  Nowadays, you’ve got social media, you’ve got YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, Myspace, Instagram, Pinterest…and a ton more than I’m not bothering to mention…and of course…I mustn’t forget iTunes and streaming. You can buy a song at a time. You can just subscribe to stream the songs…and frankly there are so many different places to stream that I’ve lost complete track. It seems like every single week someone else is announcing a new streaming website, and I can’t keep up with it all.

Just today I dutifully went onto iTunes because I wanted to purchase Direct Hits by The Killers. It’s a new compilation of a lot of their bigger hits, along with a couple of songs I don’t own. To be honest, it reminds me a little bit of Arena, except it’s not live; or Decade, except it does offer a couple of new tracks. I get to iTunes, hit purchase, and iTunes reminds me that I already own quite a few of the tracks. I know this, but I wanted to buy it just to have the whole thing, as I would if I were buying the physical CD (which I will eventually buy). I’m a pretty big fan of The Killers, and just as I do with Duran Duran – I have multiple copies of multiple formats of their music. However, I started thinking that it’s not like I’m buying the actual CD. I’m just buying the music files; well, the rights to the files anyway. So I started comparing what iTunes thought I had verses what I really do own. I couldn’t decide in some cases if what it was saying I didn’t own was really in fact the case or if it was a completely different version, so ultimately I skipped the purchase altogether. I would bet that this happens a lot, and while it’s a blessing in some cases, because there are certain bands where I only want a song or two and others where I want everything they’ve got in every single possible format, I can’t imagine it really helps sales. After all, if iTunes hadn’t told me that I already own the songs and just let me buy…well…I would be playing the entire album right now. Albums aren’t really “albums” in iTunes or mp3 form. They are a collection of music files in the same folder that you are buying the “rights” to play. So are albums really dead??

Industry folk point their blame at a variety of things, but this week – it’s YouTube, Spotify and other streaming sources. On YouTube, you can hear and see everything for free (as long as you don’t mind advertising) and apparently the issue with Spotify and other streaming websites is that it’s causing a 4% decline in digital downloads.

No one is tracking or is able to track (what year is this again??) – what streaming revenues look like. Doesn’t that matter? The article I read seems to indicate that yes, it matters, and it’s the big variable in this equation. (can you tell I’m teaching Algebra this year?)  I have no idea if the streaming figures will indicate where the market is headed, but I can’t imagine it wouldn’t at least give some clues. Every article I read seems to talk about how everything from standard radio to CD sales to digital downloads are suffering. Yet music is getting out there. It’s getting heard by someone. Seems to me it’s time to stop whining about what isn’t happening and start finding what IS. I just don’t understand why the industry is so incredibly slow to notice, react..and be proactive to the next steps for once.

The ONE thing I’ve learned about the music industry is that without a doubt, everyone goes for the low hanging fruit. No one seems to pay attention to what is going on at the very top of the tree (what is really growing) – they want to pick, or blame, what is easiest to grab, even if it’s the rotting fruit at the base of the tree!  That goes for whether we’re talking about sales, talking about what is going wrong in the industry, or even what artists should be promoted.  Exploit what we can exploit, ignore anything that might take a little more thought.

What does all of this really mean for Duran Duran in 2014? That really is the question, isn’t it? I know that the time will come where I’ll start reading the rumblings: “Management doesn’t get it.”  “They don’t know how to promote.”  “Sales suck.”  “Will the band go on?”  It’s the same statements with each passing album. To be fair, I think the band has some idea of what success really means for them. That’s key. I think the fan base should have a better, much more realistic view of what success means as well. I don’t think it’s any surprise that for the band, touring is huge. It means revenue, and it means connecting with their fans and using that fan energy to their benefit. The new music is a way of the band speaking directly to their fans. It is their art.

The 10 song album format should not be declared dead. That artist statement is very important, and albums are the vehicle for how that proclamation is delivered (regardless of what format – vinyl, CD, mp3, etc – we’re discussing). To call that dead is very much the same as suggesting paintings should be a thing of the past as well. After all, we can certainly create digitally…and yet we’d never consider to tell our great painters and visual artists to stop using the medium with which they choose, would we? The key is finding the space where albums not only exist, but thrive. In order to move forward, we must be clear that this is no longer the 1980s or 1990s. Much has changed, and the same sort of tracking that worked during that time is no longer fully accurate. I would argue that the moment we decided to tear that album apart, by allowing single songs to be purchased on their own, we created the avenue upon which we currently travel.  Yes, it’s a double-edged sword, as is every step forward we take in technology; but now is the time to stop damning what has already been broken and start the rebuild.  Ask the right questions and perhaps the real answers will be revealed.

-R

2 thoughts on “So like your sonic soul”

  1. Well, the old meaning of success as I was used to know it,success = huge sales, is over.
    I think the real success to the artists is to be able to connect to their fan base.
    I also think the artists off our generation (the 70s and the 80s) today stopped making new music for money, indeed they make new music to keep being relevant.
    They can boost about having a strong catalogue from their past and are aware that the immortality of the old songs would “overshadow” the good quality of every new studio song recorded.
    They just go to the studio to record new material, because they love music, they love making music, they love their long time fans' unconditional love.

  2. I agree that the band must love making music…otherwise the rest of this hardly seems worth it. However, I don't know that our “unconditional” love is really as much a part of it as we would like to believe. At this point, I'd like to think the band makes the music they want to make – and if that connects with fans, that's great. Art isn't created because an artist is commissioned – art is created because it speaks to someone.

    -R

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