As a musician I have read with interest over the last couple of years about the demise of any music artists’ ‘bread & butter’…. THE ALBUM.
Is it dying and what changes can artists make, if any, when releasing music to their fans?
The concept of ‘an album’ gives bands, solo artists and indeed fans the chance to enjoy a body of work detailing the current mind set of the songwriters. As an artist it gives a focus… “I’m working on the album”, for the PR people it gives them a philosophy to promote and for the record companies it gives them a saleable ‘product’.
But over the last decade album sales have fallen through the floor and the very existence of the format is under serious debate. Last week in the US, album sales fell to an all-time low and this despite much hyped releases from Katy Perry & Miley Cyrus on the chart. Now you may argue that the cause of the collapse is summed up in my last sentence – “releases from Katy Perry & Miley Cyrus on the chart” – but that would be somewhat cruel and lacking in objectivity. I may be inclined to agree that Record Labels have hardly done themselves any favours in the artists they have chosen to ‘sign’ over the last decade and signing for short term gain does in the long term tend to backfire – but the poor sales of last week included critically acclaimed artists such as Pearl Jam and traditional big hitter Elton John. What is more confusing is that these artists are getting huge amounts of media coverage and work off massive promotional budgets…. and I mean massive –the type of money that in the past virtually guaranteed sales, even if the product was somewhat lack lustre.
So what’s gone wrong?
Obviously one of the key factors is the new digital world in which we live; one which allows people to stream music direct to their laptop. It’s immediate and instant. It doesn’t require you to purchase an album and it usually means people listen to ‘the single’ and move on to the next track in the Q – there is no commitment to a lovingly crafted collection of songs, the musical piece – no desire in a hectic, butterfly schedule to take the time to indulge and submerge oneself in a whole album. We live in a quick hit, easy gratification society and there is no time for slow cars, in depth art or long playing albums. Most people struggle to find time to buy ingredients to cook proper meals – in fact most people don’t even know how to cook a proper meal – some would argue people no longer appreciate what proper music is – preferring instead to be told by some Saturday night TV panel judge what it sounds like…. this absolves them of a responsibility in the same way fast food, and microwave dinners free us from the need to lovingly cook a decent meal.
Downloads are down 4% on I-Tunes – the first fall in a decade and supermarkets are simply stocking a small selection of discounted artists …. in the UK Supermarkets you’d be forgiven for thinking that only Gary Barlow, Robbie Williams and One Direction actually made albums to sell…. Oh and of course Michael Buble’s Christmas Album – you know, the one he sold last year and the year before.
So what’s the answer?
Well, maybe artists need to connect with their audience in a personalized way – special offers and bespoke marketing. And in turn the audience will need to show the artists they enjoy a degree of loyalty and support by actually buying music rather than streaming it, by going to gigs rather than by watching YouTube clips and by spreading the word about their favourite bands and artists on social media… sharing the content and growing the artist’s fan base. For me this will not only benefit the artist but also the audience, because if we as music fans are not careful the music business will become just one huge mediocre TV talent show devoid of creativity and originality.
Finally I think artists may have to go back to the old 60s model of releasing music more frequently in the same way The Beatles often released two albums a year. Joe Bonnamassa has made this business model work in recent years and in this way the artist can feed modern society’s need for ‘more’. Nowadays a band puts out an album and the public moves on in a matter of weeks, wanting something new. Some buy it, others catch it online and the thirst is quenched. If we are lucky the public like it and are quickly shouting “More!!’ So maybe the way forward is to release ‘little & often’. Maybe a four track EP two or three times a year rather than a 12 track album every two or three years…. It’s a concept I’m certainly going to consider for the future.
Maybe ‘the album’ is dying as a vehicle for mass market corporations but I do hope it lives on and I’m sure it will survive if only in the world of true music lovers and collectors on CD and vinyl.
Obviously in the meantime buy my album :-)