Those who cannot remember the past…

One phrase kept coming back to me while I was researching the album:

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

George Santayana

I’ll tell you why (I can see you’re clamouring to know): we’ve done all this nonsense before. The music industry is just full of hysterical doomsayers with inflated egos… aware, perhaps, that music has value but unaware that not all value is monetary. But the money thing is beside the point, I’m getting distracted.

The point is that there are parallels between what is happening in the music industry now, and what has happened before, wherever we look.

  Then Now
A ‘singles business’?  

  • How many folk songs, learnt and taught in the aural tradition, do you think were released in album format? #justsaying 
  • The first notated music was written out by hand, usually by monks with nothing better to do. They would collate hymns.
    Later, when printing sheet music became possible and popular, music was distributed not only not in album format but in parts (ie. the piano part, the violin part, the cello part, etc.). Behold: the single.
  • The first recorded music that we might recognise as an album came in the form of recordings of shows / musicals. Before this, producers, such as they were, were recording single songs onto discs (which could only hold 3 minutes of music, or thereabouts). The 3 minute pop single is born!
  • Now we have music industry and technology people declaring the beginning of a singles business…
  • The album hasn’t been a ‘thing’ for very long, historically speaking. Leaving aside the desire of musicians and music industry personnel to each earn as much as a premier league footballer, what’s to say we couldn’t make a singles-based business work again?(We might all have to take a pay cut though, and an awful lot of internal restructuring would be required to keep those musicians and songwriters who are already at the bottom of the foodchain from ending up on the breadline.)
Piracy
  • In the 15th century (bear with me) manuscript printers had to have a licence from the crown to print music. Anyone who didn’t have a licence but copied and distributed music anyway… well, they were pirating music.In the 1400s.
  • Brilliantly, music pirates of the late-1700s, early 1800s would take work and ‘improve’ it – I like to think that somewhere out there, there’s a pirated Beethoven piece that is considerably better than Beethoven’s original work. Oh, actually, there might be.
  • Cassette tapes (we’ve jumped forward a few centuries, keep up). People realised they could record mixtapes onto cassette tapes and then strut down the street with their Sony Walkmans, feeling fab and looking 80s AF.Needless to say, the music industry was having none of this, and BPI launched a campaign called ‘Home Taping Is Killing Music’, in a bid to end the practice.
    I mean, that went well…
 

  • This one isn’t quite so current. Napster was founded in 1999… and basically the music industry had a collective nervous breakdown. Amusing, sure, but not for the people they sued.
  • So it turns out that people have always wanted to share music with one another (who knew?), but the regressive and aggressive response of the music industry to piracy – first on tape, then online – might be what really caused all the damage here.
  • There were purists in the 1900s who resisted the introduction of recorded music altogether, but the music industry embraced it. It continued embracing change all the way through to the 1970s, but something clearly changed…
  • My theory is that the music industry just got too rich. There was (is?) no consensus that innovation is a good thing, because the status quo is (was?) so profitable. When the business had less to lose, it was more willing to change.

 

 

Playlists
  • Books of sheet music, collated by genre. Church music and/or hymns, for example. Not all by one artist. Sort of like a playlist?
  • The radio.
  • Mixtapes –  the first time, perhaps, that playlisting became an autonomous, consumer behaviour, rather than something consumers had served to them.

 

 

  • SPOTIFY PLAYLISTS WILL BE OUR RUIN!They won’t be. They’ve been around in one form or another for centuries; calm down. If you’re that worried, just make your radio and TV pluggers shift their focus a little. Most of the panic is around the idea that playlisters / curators have more power than artists / labels / etc., when it comes to the new music that consumers are hearing. So, music industry, create your own playlists. Create a body responsible for creating playlists or something. Just stop screaming and running around in circles, for goodness sake.
Video killed the Radio star
  • MTV. Launched on 1st August (awwww, my birthday!) 1981. Record companies started diverting money away from, you know, recording, and focusing on singles over albums because those were the songs that would have videos accompanying them. Plus our pop stars had to get a lot sexier, very quickly. And learn to dance.
  • YouTube. Okay, there are significant issues concerning how the money YouTube makes comes back to artists and their teams, granted. In terms of YouTube turning the music industry in a singles business though? It’s just a continuation of the same thing. MTV 2.0.

 

So, boys and girls, what have we learnt? — That’s right, the technology dictates the format. And the music industry needs to pull itself together, develop some internal communication, accept progress and make the new models pay for everyone in the business.

People will always want to listen to music, but they’ll happily stop listening to its industry. Especially if the only sound coming out of its mouth is hysterical screaming.

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Streaming, Downloads and Marketing Music

Right, so we’ve had a look at the importance of ‘buzz’ around an album. Now I’m going to talk about streaming and downloading’s effect on the album. Because it’s jolly interesting.


 

So… Napster became a thing at the end of the 90s, which is when music piracy really kicked off. Music industry analyst Mark Mulligan says:

“Whereas with file sharing many users downloaded entire albums – and as bandwidth and storage improved, entire discographies… With iTunes, price was a limiting factor and so people focused on acquiring single tracks rather than albums. Labels and artists had been scared iTunes would cannibalise album sales, they were right.” – Mulligan, 2014

iTunes appeared in 2001, although it was only available on Macs until 2003. We all know how iTunes works; it’s not particularly exciting.

Piracy encouraged unbundling (and Mulligan clearly thinks otherwise) and iTunes emboldened the trend further, but I would argue that YouTube also had a great impact on the unbundling of albums. YouTube was launched in 2005, acquired by Google in 2006, and was in a sense the first music streaming platform.

The thing with YouTube is that it’s all about videos. Which means that when it comes to music, it’s all about singles.  Unless you’re Beyoncé and can afford to make a video for every track on your album, you’re going to stick to the traditional and somewhat cheaper model – only putting out videos for your singles.

For a lot of now 15-25 year olds, your first experience of streaming music

Which segues neatly into some ‘hits-driven album’ stuff.


“singles are the lifeblood of the music industry, and people prefer their music as bite-size chunks, in whatever bit rate available and on their phones whenever possible. ” – Montgomery, 2010 

Some people have been suggesting we move to an entirely singles-based industry; do away with albums altogether and just release single after single after single. Which could be problematic if you’re not really a hit-writer.

Others, quite rightly, have picked holes in this plan.

“A single-only release model assumes every release must have independent mass appeal. It furthers the notion that every single has to be designed as a hit or it’s not worth the resources to produce, market, and release. This is problematic because it ascribes value only to music that appeals to a broad audience and ignores the experimental and the esoteric…

… Stand-alone releases effectively put blinders on listeners who are more likely to explore music when presented with options.  Becoming acquainted with an artist’s musical catalogue allows listeners to understand and appreciate it; appreciation begets loyalty, and loyalty is vital to career longevity.  Shorter career lifespans are likely on the horizon for the modern performer” – Newman, 2014

Tied in with this idea of releasing a string of singles instead of an album is… THE PLAYLIST. Playlists are cool. Everyone likes playlists.

“playlists risk making everyone either highly specific or woefully generic… [playlists do not promote] an enjoyment of music in the old sense, nor… foster a sense of community between fans.”  – Walker, 2014

Hm. Maybe not everyone.

 

The Buzz

I recently had a discussion in class about whether, these days, the quality of an album is as important as the buzz around it.

(I’m doing a music business degree, taking the entertainment industry very, very seriously is sort of what we do all day.)


So where to start?

How did we used to find music? Well, back in the old old days, we went to these wonderful mythical places called ‘record stores’. The main benefit of record stores – particularly independent ones – was the experts one could find therein.

“You could go into a store and ask a clerk, “What’s really good?” and he’d give you 10 choices, most of which were pretty high quality. This is something that the music industry is still looking for today online. Now we call it “music discovery” and VC’s still throw big money at anyone who claims to have an app.”  – Music ThinkTank

Which was fabulous. Except record stores are few and far between these days. They started to see a decline when the CD came in – a new technology that was priced accordingly; a price that never came down. The CD could hold many more minutes of music than vinyl could and artists / record labels took advantage of this fact. CDs ended up full of absolute twaddle. People went to buy 10-12 great songs and ended up with 3 radio-friendly wannabe-hits and 7 or so fillers.

Then there was the internet. Piracy – and later legal downloading from iTunes and the like – killed off much of the remaining interest in record stores as people realised they could get hold of the killer without the filler.

That’s that unbundling thing I mentioned before.


“We could quite easily get caught up here in the seductive stories of the democratization of music (where anyone talented enough can chart) and the notion that the consumer is now setting the musical agenda. However, this would be to overlook the continued and undoubted power of contemporary culture industries, or ‘global culture industries’… as they operate in new and unseen ways to restructure buying habits and as they flex the marketing skills required to get artists heard in the digital arena.” – Music Culture and Web 2.0 [PDF]

We somehow all hoped that the internet would set us (musicians) free from the tyranny of the major labels. We were mistaken.

The surprise release, pioneered by Radiohead with In Rainbows (but, as though the trick’s history has become as mainstream as its use, later attributed to Beyoncé), is one spectacle used to cut through all the music freely available on the internet… and all the distractions we find on our various social media. (One of my favourite facts at the moment is that our generations now, apparently, has the collective attention span of a goldfish.)

“[If] there’s one thing digital natives do understand, it’s the concept of the Pop Moment: the trending topic, the Gifable glimpse.” Robinson, the Guardian 


While occasionally (rarely) an artist or an album comes along that’s so utterly, unbelievably brilliant that everyone spontaneously and simultaneously sits up and takes notice, it seems like it’s only the big artists who are able to pull of stunts big enough to get the public’s attention.

Almost everything else falls by the wayside.

 

So… does that mean that the hype around an album is now more important its content?

“These days, a new album needs a lot more than a billboard or hit single to galvanize the public’s attention; it takes a nonstop barrage of social media and news headlines…” – Grammy

 

The Present – in stats

I would totally have done a ‘The Past – in stats’, except I’m really tired and it’s not really relevant. This is my blog; I get to decide those kinds of things.

Right then, where are we now? Oh yeah:

tombstone

 

Lots of people are saying that everyone is saying that the album is dead. Which might just be code for the album is so last year, right guys? 

But I think my pro-album bias is showing.

Here are some hard-ish, slightly chilly facts (not all of them will appear relevant at first; stick with it, I’ll explain in a sec.):

  1. According to the IFPI, US album sales (CD and digital) have declined by 22% since 2008.
  2. “There were 30m fewer albums sold in the UK [in 2013] than in 2009.”
  3. There are about 2bn Spotify playlists.
  4. 29% of streaming ‘consumers’ “mainly listen to albums”  (presumably that statistic applies to streaming behaviour, rather than their overall music consumption habits)
  5. 30% only listen to albums and individual tracks ‘a few times’
  6. 27% of US music consumers only buy physical formats or downloads (basically, they don’t stream – this makes them a bit more likely to buy albums rather than individual tracks, but not considerably, since they’re still downloading)
  7. “60% of 16-24 year olds stream while just 20% buy CDs.  Compare that to 40-50 year olds where 34% stream and 43% buy CDs.”
  8. Short-form video managed to get  4.2 trillion views in the first half 2015
  9. “as sales dwindle (down by 29% in the last 5 years) music fans are investing in their favourite artists in time and attention rather than money.  We now operate in an attention economy
  10. “In Japan 78% of music sales are still physical.”
  11. All of this complicated stuff:

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In case you hadn’t picked up on it, there’s quite a lot to say about the album. And I’m not going to say all of it. I’m lazy. 

 

Generally speaking, the decline in album sales has been attributed to our dear friend The Internet. The Internet is to blame for piracy (because file-sharing never happened before the internet! Oh wait…), which enabled consumers already sick of album filler to only listen to killer tracks.

Album filler probably evolved as a result of the fluke that was the album format’s success – basically, the album was making so much money (you can charge more for 14 songs than you can for a single or EP) that the music biz was keen to exploit it as much as possible. Labels had all their artists making albums, even if they only had a couple of good songs. It didn’t matter – put the good songs on the radio and people will buy the album and you’ll make money irrespecitve of how bad all the other songs are.

Naturally people got a bit bored of this set-up. They were already skipping certain tracks and making compilation mixtapes / CDs of their favourites; file-sharing just enabled their existing filler-avoiding tendencies. The only trouble is that, by the time that iTunes / legit, paid downloads came around, the album had been well and truly unbundled. iTunes lets us buy the individual tracks rather than pirate them! Hooray! Unfortunately that approach still makes an awful lot less money for everyone involved in the album-making process than album-buying does.

 

The stats suggest that younger music fans are streaming much more than older fans. And streamers tend to prefer individual tracks to complete albums. Possibly because we young’uns have the collective attention span of goldfish.

To be blunt, when the older generation of full-album listeners dies off, the album might die with it.

Or it might not. Germany and Japan still prefer physical (that’s actually an interesting question; can music ever be physical?) to digital music – which usually means buying CD albums.

No, we can’t kill off all of Germany and Japan in order to get to year zero and invent a new lucrative music format. Stop suggesting that, you maniac.

 

All in all, it’s kind of good news for the consumer. They’re certainly getting more choice. This is another instance in which the music biz is playing catch-up. We’re all having a bit of a panic about what to do next…

#cliffhanger

 

What is an LP Album?

LP stands for ‘long-playing’. (Album stands for ‘album’. Collection of songs. Record. You know the kind of thing.)

‘LP’ was originally used in reference to vinyl, in contrast with the ‘EP’ (extended playing) and Single vinyl records.  A 12-inch vinyl record would play 45 mins of music over both sides… or 12 songs at 3 minutes and 45 seconds each. 6 songs per side.

Albums still tend to be about 45mins long. They still tend to feature 11-13 songs. Songs still tend to be 3-4 mins long.

The most popular early (we’re talking 1910-ish) vinyl discs were 10-inches, which could only play about 5 mins per side; restricting the length of compositions. This quite quickly became convention – hence the “3 minute pop song” we all know and probably hate.

 

So originally albums were just collections of songs; compiled by genre or artist. For a while there was the ‘Concept Album’ (some artists are still making concept or concept-style albums – that’s a discussion for another day / post)… and now?

Since the internet became a thing, there’s been rather a lot of unbundling going on.

By ‘unbundling’, we mean only listening to certain songs from an album rather than the whole album and not even necessarily the singles. Everyone’s tacitly agreed that ‘unbundling’ is pithier.

People have made mixtapes for, like, ever – but the creation of mixtapes still required someone somewhere along the line to have bought the whole album. When the internet (read: piracy) came along, people could pick and choose the songs they liked from an album and just download those few. They didn’t have to have listened to the whole thing. iTunes allows the same practice, albeit legally.

Streaming means you can listen to the whole album, choose the songs you like, then only listen to those… or, if you’re really serious about it, download those. Or, for the few remainingly physical-format-devotees, buy those singles (if they’re singles… otherwise, this hypothetical scenario doesn’t really work.)

 

So lots of worried music industry people / smug tech industry people have been declaring the death of the album. They’ve been declaring it every year for… what feels like a lifetime.

And that’s what I’m here to talk about. (Hi.)