The penetration of adults that claim to listen to whole albums monthly, stands at just 16% (Q4 ‘18 data from MIDiA, a drop from 22% in the previous quarter), compared with say, 35% listening to music on the phone.
While this statistic might be disappointing, to be fair we never ever really know how and if consumers who bought albums actually listened to them.
Competing in the attention economy today
The album’s competitive pressures go wider than music. In the attention economy, albums compete with Netflix, Fortnite, TikTok, and Instagram. In music’s own attention economy, albums compete with singles, playlists, games, podcasts and box sets and the latter two categories are stealing the show.
The one size fits all model is becoming unfit for a purpose. We’re seeing some innovation, especially from Hip Hop artists like Migos, Drake, and Kanye, but this trickle needs to turn into a flood.
When the CD began to give way to streaming, it’s fair to say the labels embraced it. In some ways, the CDs decline was ushered in rather than managed out but what is yet to see is if labels are taking the same level of aggressive-progressive approach when it comes to succeeding the album format.
Meanwhile, there is no doubt that the EP has made a comeback, and has become a useful vehicle for new artists to drop a collection of songs as a showcase of their repertoire.
Here are some other options:
- (Bring back) Album Exclusives: With some services favoring the single track, could the labels divide & rule with full album licensing fenced off to other album focused services? The platform differentiation is a strategy both labels and platforms need when it comes to content. If some services stepped up in full support of the album, the format stands a better chance long term. Another option could be selling full albums exclusively on label-owned streaming services.
- Physical Exclusives (through vinyl): Favouring both the true fan and the artist, perhaps vinyl should become the exclusive way to hear the whole collected work. For artists looking to do something truly different, this is an option. Pre-order, custom versions, pre-sale and merch during tours, and pop-ups, as well as sell-through Amazon, Bandcamp, and brick & mortar, the product sale potential is larger than it looks.
- More visual outputs: Video remains huge and continues to grow in short-form, and long-form too. The TV and theatrical productions are hunting very actively on music’s turf for artist stories. It’s fascinating but by definition, not the same ubiquity potential of audio formats.
- Experiment with entirely new formats: New platforms such as voice and the car provide possibilities without a doubt. From Spotify’s Canvas moving images to Pandora’s new Stories format, to Apple’s continued video format innovations such as Up Next, the platforms pitch these formats to artists as much as labels.
- Expand into the live sector: With money coming in from streaming as well as outside investment, labels could buy smaller live promoters and venues.
What about artist proposition and label economics?
The album is still the format that drives industry economics as a whole.
For the vast majority of artists, revenues are now following a Pareto curve, with their ‘top songs’ making up a fraction of their catalog but the large majority of their streaming income. When an established active artist releases a new album, the impact is often on those jewels in the crown more than the new collection but an album isn’t the critical vessel to achieve that goal.
The digital streaming age is a challenge to artists to make better albums but the album as a canvas still feels relevant for some artists, but only some.
The album is already a niche in consumption terms, unmeasurable in streaming terms, but still the essential deliverable in the deal.