The album is in crisis: Streaming services, artists' preference for singles have put the format under threat

Amit Gurbaxani

Jan 29, 2019 12:34:54 IST

In my last column, I wrote about how the launch of India’s first official music chart is one of the things I’m looking forward to this year. A couple of days after the piece was published, trade organisation the Indian Music Industry informed me that the chart is now scheduled to launch in the first quarter of the next financial year, which means anytime between April and June.

They will start with a survey of international music and aim to follow it with one for Indian music by the end of 2019. As I had mentioned, the chart will be compiled on the basis of data from audio streaming services. This makes sense, given the negligible amount of sales of physical CDs and digital downloads these days. Notably, the Indian charts will be only for singles, with no plans for an albums list as of now.

Maybe this is just as well given that the album, as a format, is said to be under threat in the streaming era. Chart watchers would have read a disconcerting piece of news last week. The sales of the Number 1 album in the US, Hoodie SZN by rapper A Boogie Wit Da Hoodie hit an all-time low of a paltry 749 copies. This was down from 853 copies the week prior, which was the previous all-time low. How was it at Number 1? Its 20 songs were streamed over 83 million times, which according to chart publisher Billboard equates to 56,000 “streaming equivalent albums”.

What the chart doesn’t tell us is how many of the people who streamed Hoodie SZN listened to all of it or just a few select tracks. For Billboard, it doesn’t matter which track from an album is heard; a certain number of streams of any of the tracks is equal to the sale of one album. If you’re wondering if this system is slightly flawed, then have a glance at some listenership stats of the Number 1 album for all of 2018 in the US, Scorpion by Drake, which “earned” over 3.9 million “album equivalent units”, of which only 3.3 lakh was from actual sales.

Scorpion tallied over 3.3 million “streaming equivalent albums” or over 4.6 billion streams. But here’s where the penny drops: Until November of last year, as per numbers crunched by Tim Ingham, the founder-publisher of Musicbusinessworldwide.com, 63 per cent of Scorpion’s global streams were courtesy of just three songs: ‘God’s Plan’, ‘Nice For What’ and ‘In My Feelings’. These chart-topping singles, along with three other tracks, accounted for 82 percent of its total streams, with the remaining 18 percent spread over 19 other, for lack of a better word, ‘flop’ tunes.

At the same time, as hip-hop fans would know, many rappers seem to be releasing albums with over 20 tracks. This is another consequence of the dominance of streaming.

The logic behind longer track lists is that even if a fan streams a 25-song hip-hop album just once, that’s automatically more than double the number of listens garnered by a standard ten-to-12-track pop or rock set.

As this study revealed, songs are also getting shorter. This is because an artist gets paid per track streamed, irrespective of its length.

Hip-hop acts are also putting out albums with a greater frequency than ever before. For example, rapper Future, who replaced A Boogie With Da Hoodie at Number 1 with a somewhat more respectable sales figure of 15,000 copies, has issued two mixtapes and one “proper” album within the last seven months. In order to get a listener’s attention on audio streaming services, it’s important for artists to get their music featured on as many playlists as possible, and the easiest way to do that is to put out new material as often as possible.

The album is in crisis: Streaming services, artists preference for singles have put the format under threat

(Left) Everything is Love (Right) Scorpion

Turning one’s view to India, we see quite a different narrative. Here, hip-hop thrives not on audio-streaming platforms but on the video streaming service YouTube. The country’s most popular independent rappers Divine, Naezy and Emiway have each built successful careers without ever releasing an album. Instead, they’ve uploaded a steady stream of hit videos.

Of course, most Indian albums are in actuality EPs, especially when it comes to the most popular genre of them all, Hindi film music. This is more so in the last decade during which we’ve witnessed the trend of filmmakers reducing the number of song sequences in movies and sometimes doing away with them altogether. Unless the film is a musical like Gully Boy, the OST of which features 16 tracks, the average soundtrack comprises between four and six tunes.

In the independent scene, eight is considered the magic number that allows an act to call their release an album. Interestingly, out of the 16 new Indian indie releases this month, only four contain eight or more songs. Most upcoming artists, who strive to save up to buy studio time, start out with an EP. A release is important because it is to a musician what a showreel is to an actor, and a band needs at least half-an-hour’s worth of material to score a slot at a live gig.

The contrasts between the US and India can be attributed to the fact that independent acts here have never depended on album or singles sales to earn a living. Many, like electronic music producer Nucleya, give away their music to download and stream for free, and a substantial few like the aforementioned rappers simply upload it on YouTube.

In the US, meanwhile, record labels and artists have been trying different strategies to boost album sales, from bundling them with concert and merchandise sales, wherein the record is essentially given away free with the purchase of a ticket or a T-shirt, to dropping surprise efforts a la Beyoncé and Eminem, and breaking the release up into a series of EPs, as John Mayer did, or slew of singles as The Chainsmokers did.

These strategies, though, only work for acts with long-established and loyal fanbases. As for who continues to buy albums, it seems to be older consumers with a personal fondness for romantic balladeers such as Adele and Ed Sheeran, who also occasionally shell out for a CD of a soundtrack that has become their own or their child’s newest obsession. The bestsellers of the last decade include the OSTs to the films Frozen and The Greatest Showman.

However, the handful of artist albums that have sold in multiples of millions over the last four years generated fewer hit singles than their predecessors. Compare the number of chart toppers from Adele’s 25 to those from 21 or from Taylor Swift’s Reputation to those from 1989. In other words, it’s getting harder to have hits as we move back to a singles era. Doubt that Adele or Swift care too much, they know their fans will flock to their exorbitantly priced shows, and cheer and sing along to the album tracks with as much gusto.

On the other hand, Justin Bieber has racked up a decent tally of hits through a string of collaborative singles. From the serious artist’s perspective however, an album is seen as essential, for it’s an opportunity to showcase a body of work and make a creative statement. And from a fan’s standpoint, especially one who grew up in the format’s heyday, it represents the most complete picture of a musician at a given point of time.

Sure there are countless albums padded with fillers but there are also plenty of all-time classics. While we might come to a point where a playlist becomes the de facto album, it won’t quite have the same feel. There’s a certain joy in connecting with a deep cut or a non-hit. It’s almost like an imaginary secret you share with your favourite act.

Amit Gurbaxani is a Mumbai-based journalist who has been writing about music, specifically the country's independent scene, for nearly two decades. He tweets @TheGroovebox

Updated Date: Jan 30, 2019 12:13:11 IST