Is the Album Really Dead?

Derek is an MBA in entrepreneurship, painter, and bassist for Onward We March, a local progressive metal band. He teaches business skills to artists and writes weekly music business advice for his blog Derek Thinks Music. Got a business question about your art? Shoot him an email at derekmiller5@gmail.com

I’m conflicted.

love albums. That’s how we’ve all grown up listening to and understanding music. It’s a milestone upon which a band builds its mythology and expresses a grand vision. Albums allow for extended storytelling that couldn’t fit in a single song. (Could you imagine The Wall being released as a series of singles?)

However, after I’ve given most albums a listen, I move the tracks I like to a genre/emotion-based playlist and move on to the next band. Very few albums get a complete repeat listen from me.

This is not uncommon.

The landscape of the music industry has irrevocably changed, and there are compelling arguments in favor of releasing singles instead of albums.

1. The number one listening platform for music among teens is YouTube.

More than radio, iTunes and CDs, YouTube is where the next generation of music obsessives (teens) get their music. It’s free, streaming, and instant access to any song you could ever care to listen. With the prevalence of smart phones and 4G wireless, this a better service than CDs or MP3s for these listeners.

As Lefsetz puts it:

You want to know how they listen?

They pull up your track on YouTube. Whether in an authorized version on Vevo or a bootlegged take posted straight to YouTube. And they instantly decide whether they like it or not. And if they don’t, they forget about you. Just that fast. It’s like they’re carrying your album straight to the dumper. As if you walked into McDonald’s, sniffed and left and they threw all the food out and closed the doors. As for listening to all twelve of your tracks, are you nuts! Don’t tell me people have a short attention span, hell, they’re marathoning “Breaking Bad” as I write this. They just don’t have time for what is not exceptionally great, and if you can tell me ten albums from the last two years that are good from beginning to end, I’m all ears.

Listening has changed. It used to be entertainment options were limited. You bought little and played that which you owned. And it’s not only music, newspapers are competing with blogs, TV is competing with YouTube, everything’s changing, are you?

You’ve got to step up your game. You’ve got to focus on excellence.

The album isn’t center stage on YouTube.There’s no need to buy an album full of mediocre filler tracks anymore. Two clicks and you’re listening to the song you want, for free.

2. We’re moving towards an access-based music model where owning albums is irrelevant.

Ownership isn’t always best, and the music consumer is beginning to realize this.

Think about all the CDs & MP3s you have that sit around collecting dust. Other than earning “cool points” for having stacks of music lying around (guilty), is there any additional value to having piles of stuff? If it’s about having access to your music, streaming beats owning. Streaming gives you an infinite collection that you can access instantly, without having to search through poorly labeled MP3s or polish scratched CDs. Streaming gives you all the access of ownership without any of the hassle.

We systematically over-value ownership for countless other knicknacks, too. The US spends $22.45 BILLION on storage space to keep all of our stuff that won’t fit in our house. Everyone I know has a “crap room” that happily houses mountains of junk that “had” to be owned. How often do you dig around in your storage space / attic / crap room? Wouldn’t it make more sense to skip the price tag of ownership and only pay when you actually need a Gene Simmons costume?

This is the direction businesses are heading.

Entertainment services like Spotify, Steam, and Netflix aren’t alone in moving toward access-based services The software industry long since figured out the real value in Software-As-A-Service (SaaS) as a business model. Even items that traditionally were owned are moving to access-based services. Startups like car-sharing service Zipcar allow people all the benefits of having a car to get around without any of the annoying maintenance or registration.

Derek Thomson and Eric Weissmann at The Atlantic elaborate on the Millenial generation turning down ownership:

The typical new car costs $30,000 and sits in a garage or parking spot for 23 hours a day. Zipcar gives drivers access to cars they don’t have to own. Car ownership, meanwhile, has slipped down the hierarchy of status goods for many young adults. “Zipcar conducted a survey of Millennials,” Mark Norman, the company’s president and chief operating officer, told us. “And this generation said, ‘We don’t care about owning a car.’ Cars used to be what people aspired to own. Now it’s the smartphone.”

Expect access-based services to continue growing. Just don’t expect people to understand how they work.

3. In an access-based marketplace, profit comes from utilization (listens) instead of album sales.

A Hypebot interview with D.A. Wallach explains how Spotify sets up it’s payments:

We feel the metric of success should be based on how many people are listening to your music over a period of years, as opposed to looking at how many units are shipping in one week. People are used to seeing big numbers from a unit-based model, but that’s really front loading what is happening. Comparing iTunes sales with Spotify payments over a two month period of time is not a great way to look at things.

What we are trying to create is a system in which you earn royalties forever for good music, and the time horizon is simply different than what folks are familiar with now. One can actually think about a download sale as a down payment on all future listening that a fan will do. If you took the effective per play rate that I’ve paid for every time I’ve listened to my Dark Side of The Moon CD, it would be trivial compared to what I’d have generated if I’d done all that listening on Spotify.

This is fascinating.

This new pay structure rewards musicians who create music with longevity over those who create one-off sales. Even if the band hasn’t released new music in years, dedicated fans keep royalties flowing to the artists simply by continuing to listen. This is great news for bands making classic albums, not so much for bands relying on hype to make a splash with first week album sales.

—-

While I don’t forsee the complete demise of the album format, I suspect that they may become a niche release strategy (like prog rock concept albums) as opposed to the dominant music paradigm.

Time will tell if this is good or bad.

(For more about new music strategies, see my previous post Electronic and Hip Hop Better Suited to the New Music Industry)

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