A Music (D)evolution?

By John Frame, Class of 2017

By John Frame, Class of 2017

In 2008, The Guardian’s Jemima Kiss declared the “death of the album” after Mashable’s Stephen Hodson lamented, “At one time the album model worked giving you the best value for your money, but that is no longer true in the vast majority of cases.” In the year 2000, 730 million compact discs were sold in the United States. In 2015, that number was 125 million, an 83% decline. Factoring in digital albums doesn’t paint a much better picture.

No doubt the culprit is largely the advent of digital consumption formats and radio’s decline. Today, consumers can purchase a single song from iTunes, watch a video on YouTube, or stream an entire album on Spotify or Apple Music, all from the convenience of their smartphones. While music executives may be declaring a state of emergency in the music industry, consumers are benefiting from this evolution in music.  

The streaming phenomenon has become so influential that Billboard, creator of the Hot 100 Singles and 200 Albums charts, was forced to change its ranking system to include not only radio play and physical and digital copies of an album or single, but also digital streams, YouTube video views, and even free downloads. Rihanna’s Anti album caused the latter shift when she released one million free downloads of her album on the streaming platform Tidal that Billboard initially refused to count as sales.

U.S. Album sales have been on the decline over the past decade. Courtesy of statistica.com

U.S. Album sales have been on the decline over the past decade. Courtesy of statistica.com

Still, artists like Taylor Swift and Adele have actually boycotted streaming services they believe are hurting album sales and lacking financial stability. Streaming services pay artists about a tenth of a cent per stream of a song, with Tidal being the anomaly, dishing out over 7/10 of a cent per stream. Swift recently moved her wildly popular catalog exclusively to Tidal.

While digital listening is on the rise with no sign of stopping vinyl sales are curiously on the rise. In 2007, nearly one million vinyl albums were sold in the U.S., compared to nearly 12 million in 2015. While vinyl won’t save the music industry’s sinking album sales, the growth adds another layer to the complexity of determining what consumers want and in what format.  

Aside from sales shifts, some of today’s most popular artists are taking advantage of the wider audience, breaking records and innovating. Earlier this year, superstar Rihanna, whose career spans little more than a decade, became the solo artist with the third most #1 songs (14) on the Billboard Hot 100, ahead of veterans Michael Jackson (13), Madonna (12), and Whitney Houston (12).    

And 20-time Grammy Award winner, Beyoncé, released two full-length “visual albums” over the past three years that not only include a full set of tracks, but are accompanied by impressive visuals to enhance the listening experience. While considerably more expensive to produce, we could be seeing more visual albums in the future.

While executives are freaking out about how to keep music current and popular, consumers appear to be soaking in the abundance of choice. Total buyer power indeed.  

While John eventually purchased Beyonce’s Lemonade album on iTunes, he did enjoy the it first via a free trial subscription to Tidal. #winning