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In Defense Of The Digital Album

K2552946As the popularity of playlists grows, and music consumption habits gradually change in favor of the single, many artists are gravitating away from full-length albums, something which could have negative consequences for both artists and fans.

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Guest Post by Heather Willensky on Medium

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What’s the best band you discovered on a streaming playlist? Go have a look at their artist page, and the chances are the song you heard has gotten a lot more traction than the rest of their music.

Spotify recently announced that their Discover Weekly playlist has reached over 40 million users, who’ve streamed a collective 5 billion songs. While the service increases exposure for artists, it’s driving listening habits in traditionally album-centric genres towards singles. Now that algorithmic music curation and playlisting are the new hit-makers, artists who may have once favored album-craft are left wondering how to most effectively release their music, and whether to make albums at all.

In our attention-deficit times, albums are often seen as a clunky, bloated format — expensive to make, difficult to promote, and withholding in the gratification they provide their listeners. For decades they have been goosed with filler produced at breakneck speeds to gently pad out a band’s best-known songs. Many artists are abandoning the album in favor of releases more instantly effective in connecting with their fans.

Data from streaming services helps artists and labels make informed decisions about their releases. Listener responses can determine whether a label should plow more money into marketing a single, or to cut their losses and move on to the next band. Five Thirty Eight recently reported on a data scientist helping a band analyze their catalog and A/B test their new songs for maximum popularity. While an extreme example, it’s never been easier for artists to mold their music to the tastes of their fans.

It also helps that recording is now more democratized than ever. Most bands can assemble a home rig for less than the cost of a day in the studio. Hands-on recording is malleable, and it makes it possible for artists to upload their songs onto their Bandcamp moments after they’ve bounced down their Logic sessions.

Aside from the exclusive tier of artist-celebrities, the economics of being a musician have changed drastically over the past decade. Given the increasingly imaginative revenue streams needed to cobble together a musical career, it’s no surprise bands are shaping their sound to fit their audience. The pace at which playlists feeds us new music creates a hunger for bands that can quickly respond to our demand.

So where does this leave the album? Singles have always driven the music industry’s progress, from 78s to 45s, cassingles to the present. But where the single is the purest representation of art for commerce, the album is a rare opportunity for musicians to commercialize art. The golden era of the album in the ’60s and ’70s found bands who’d made their bones in radio pop exploring the boundaries of their craft. The sonic palates that dictate Pet Sounds and Graceland extend past the confines of 3-minute marketable music.

Albums haven’t always been fruitfully utilized. There are countless songs recorded by bands you know, love, whose hits you’ve probably sung drunken karaoke to, that have been relegated to the dusty B-side of our collective memory. It’s hard to describe my disappointment as an 8-year-old realizing that not all of Kris Kross’s songs were as catchy as Jump.

Through the boom years of the music industry, albums were far too often used as an upselling tool rather than a vehicle for musical expression. Because most music fans connect with a handful of singles rather than the depths of a catalog, it’s easy to dismiss albums as a privileged medium for a small, intended audience. I’d like to argue in their favor.

Where popular music aims to find the most direct path to its fans, music remains a creative art. For artists growth-hacking their careers, it has never been easier to engage with their fanbase and release music in intimate conversation with their most avid listeners. But the ability for fans to influence art has complex implications on individuality in music. We are hungry for more of what we like, but quickly bored by imitation. By removing the singular voice of the artist, we risk creating an ocean of music where everything sounds good, but little stands out.

An album can give artists a chance to develop, evolve and establish their sound, and lay deep foundations with their fans. The pool of album listeners may be small, but they exist within the long tail of digital music consumption. While they may not trade on instant gratification, album-producing artists have access to the same metrics and marketing tools, helping them find and target their appreciative audience.

Album fandom has another upside — it drives demand for touring. The most dire words I ever heard a band say on stage were, “and now the song you all came for!” Bands with deep catalogs have more ammunition to create engaging live shows. It follows that fans familiar with catalogs are more likely to want to see those bands. Indie artists like Courtney Barnett, St.Vincent and Mac DeMarco sell out large venues every time they tour. They also make excellent, cohesive albums.

The pace of media consumption makes the album easy to dismiss, the proliferation of release models allows artists to decide what to create, and whom they want to make it for. Perhaps the EP will rise as the new artist-favored format. Maybe the development of interactive technology will make linear music obsolete in a decade. For now, we are fortunate that in our age of infinite choice, we never really have to choose.

Heather Willensky: Label manager at Highline Records, music licensing lady, pinballer, maker of cheeses.

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