Vinyl, Cassettes & Retail

Is “Album Only” The Answer To Anything?

iTunes vs. Kid Rock and The Music Industry

The Wall Street Journal took a look at why some artists are keeping their music off iTunes. Because the store does not allow full album only downloads, Kid Rock, AC/DC and others have opted out. Some acts like Radiohead did it to protect the artistic integrity of their work while others are clear that their motivation is money. Single tracks don’t net the same profits that albums do.

"Since the beginning of 2006, only the Beatles have sold more "catalog" albums in the U.S. than AC/DC — also without licensing their music to iTunes. Among the six best-selling catalog artists during that period, the act that sold the most individual songs digitally — the Rolling Stones — sold the fewest albums, digital or Rollingstones
physical. That is important because while the Stones’ six million single tracks sold may seem impressive, they represent low-cost, low-profit transactions. Album sales, on the other hand, are much more profitable."

It would be easy to conclude that many more album only releases would benefit the industry. While clearly an option for some super star acts, album only releases also inhibit music discovery. It’s a lot easier to be impulsive at $.99 than at $9.99; and if the only ways a fan can get the single track they want is to pay $10 or to grab it free via P2P; which one do you think they’ll do?

The staggered release could…

also be viable monetization model.  Offer 1 to 3 tracks at a time and if
the tracks are worthy, fans will come back for more dropping a dollar or two each time. Subscriptions may prove an even better
revenue source. For example, Josh Rouse works with Topspin
to deliver a $29.99 subscription to his entire creative output for the
year plus exclusive member content. (Though I have to say that his site does a poor job of explaining exactly what you get for your money.)

Apple is wrong to require only single track sales. These kinds of
heavy handed policies have led to a steady erosion in label confidence
in the retail giant and someday consumers may follow. But a few
successes should not lead the industry to conclude that album only
releases are the answer to its woes. The music industry should learn
from its previous mistakes and remember that in the digital age
restricting consumer access is seldom the answer. – Bruce Houghton

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  1. Bruce,
    You are correct. The staggered release is absolutely a viable option these days (unless your goal is to be the next Rick Roll..).
    I’m working with a band, The Minor Kings, that has 12 stellar tracks in the final stages. I have been preaching bundling 3-4 tracks together in anticipation of ultimately releasing the entire album at a later date. You build momentum in the process. And, as you said, keep fans coming back for more.
    Considering #12 is almost as strong as #1 on their album, why not stagger the releases? How else will new fans pay attention to each and every song?

  2. Actually, iTunes does not require “only” single song sales; they might require artists to make their songs available as singles but I’ve bought several whole albums from there.
    And where did WSJ get the idea that albums are so much more profitable than singles? Only considering digital sales, albums are oftentimes LESS profitable. Take your example – singles cost $0.99, album costs $9.99. The album is only more profitable if there are less than 10 tracks on the album. I don’t know of any instance where a digital album sold for MORE than $0.99 per track.
    I reach the complete opposite conclusion on the motivation of the singles holdouts; clearly there is a lot more money to be made by allowing singles sales and if the decision were purely financial, it would be a no-brainer.
    However, as a music lover first and industry participant second, I think the concept of singles downloads is arguably one of the more destructive forces facing music. It’s the delivery equivalent of fast-food.
    Every time I hear someone talk about the death of the album, my mind immediately goes to The Wall. Anyone who found their passion in music by listening to this Pink Floyd record knows why moving towards single releases is such a bad idea. What would the music world be like if all we had from this album was “Another Brick In The Wall, Part II?”
    In art, the ones who play to the masses are rarely rewarded with our respect; they are chastised, as they probably should be. So what if Apple wants everything to be a single? So what if singles are more convenient? Are these REALLY good reasons to abandon the album format, or to label those opposed to singles as either greedy or old-fashioned?
    The album tells a story. It is often the sum which is greater than its parts, providing a creative expression grander than a mere collection of tracks. It provides a frame of reference for distinguishing the progression of an artist’s career, or for comparing one band to another. You simply don’t have enough to work with when digesting music song by song and out of context.
    I’m not saying singles have no place in the future – they’re a great way for a band to tell radio what song is their favorite, or to provide an introduction to a band. I’m also not saying that staggered releases are entirely bad, or that we should adhere to the 12-song album format. However, let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater. Albums are a GREAT thing and anyone who loves music should be championing their cause, not encouraging their demise.

  3. Bruce,
    Why would I want to spend ten to twenty dollars for a CD that has 1, maybe 2 good songs? The rest of the songs are usually filler songs and it’s been my and most of the people I know experience’s that these filler songs suck most of the time.
    The artistic integrity point is pure bs. I don’t give a rat’s ass about the artistic integrity of a CD unless most of the songs on the CD are good. The only reason I am most people buy songs is because the music is enjoyable to us. Forcing us to spend 10 to 20 dollars just to get 1 song that we like isn’t going to help them make more money because most of us won’t buy the CDs.
    And one comment with iTunes. When I buy a song from an artist on iTunes, I quite often play most of what they have listed in iTunes to see if they have other songs that I like and have bought songs that weren’t hits I heard on the radio.

  4. Six million Stones tracks is a low profit result?? People are buying the classic singles, which have been in profit-mode for 30 – 40 years. Unlike new recordings, every cent is profit. They sure haven’t made an album anyone’s cared about for 30 years – if they had to rely on that for iTunes sales they’d probably have to tour even more than they do.

  5. This is an interesting debate. I think the solution lies in a rethink of old ways of thinking. With each new change comes the drama of “what this will do” to the industry.
    Music is no different to any other art form, and in the digital age artists can be independent of many of the middleman costs associated with being in the business. The customer gets to consumer more of what they want at a faster rate, and the artist gets an outlet to produce more music.
    It’s the choice in how you deliver that empowers the artist, and makes the record-execs run scared, because they can’t turn it into a formula for their own success.

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