Albums don’t work anymore? Sure, if all you want to do is make a million

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Recently, I read an article by Bob Lefsetz in Variety, stating that “the album is dying in front of our very eyes” and that the format will, or should, be abandoned for musicians to have any hope of a viable future.

Before going into any more detail, I would like to make it clear that I agree with Lefsetz on a considerable number of issues raised.  Album sales have indeed greatly decreased over the last decade, with many consumers resorting to illegal downloads or cherry-picking their preferred tracks if they prefer a more kosher route.  He also states that music promotion must “be a 24/7, 365-day-a-year effort”, and quite rightly so.  However, I find certain points in Lefsetz’s article to be rife with gross generalisation and a debatable definition of “success”.  To further explain my reasons for this, we must consider the bigger picture, the lower levels of the music industry, and inevitably the musicians themselves.

Katy Perry’s new album, ‘Prism’, apparently only sold 287,000 copies on its initial release. According to Lefsetz, that’s not only a real flop, but also cause for us to reconsider releasing albums at all.  However, it does call into question WHY this is considered such a failure, when many hardworking musicians can only dream of selling this figure.  I would like to bring to the table a comparison; another one of 2013’s major releases – Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds’ ‘Push The Sky Away’. Now, it’s fairly obvious to most that the latter could not hope to compete with the hype goldmine that is the former, yet Cave is somehow managing to live quite comfortably off the back of his most recent album.  So why does ‘Prism’ require such an inflated sales figure to be considered a success?  Well, for starters, perhaps her management could have saved a few pennies by not forking out for nine separate producers (excluding Perry herself) in contrast to a considerably reduced figure employed by many other artists and genres.  This in turn raises further questions, such as how can any real form of cohesion between songs be created if each were put together by a completely different team?  Does ‘Prism’ even count as a complete musical work or simply a collection of singles?  It could also be argued that Prism’s rather lavish advertising campaign (a collaborative effort with Pepsi, no less) was something of a misfire. Meanwhile, The Bad Seeds’ less invasive campaign earned their album a total of ten global number ones as opposed to Perry’s seven.  Of course, they couldn’t hope to compete sales-wise in the long run, but their immediate impact coupled with the album being produced by a more condensed team suggests that it is the somewhat bloated business model that is not working, rather than the album itself.  Let’s not forget Adele’s ’21’, which became the UK’s best-selling album of the 21st century. And that wasn’t a decade ago, before downloading really took hold – that was 2012.  In March 2013, Justin Timberlake’s ‘The 20/20 Experience’ managed to see 968,000 copies sold on its debut and has since reached over 2 million sales.  Perhaps an even more striking example would be the success of Beyonce’s recent self titled album, with a non-existent promotional campaign mirroring David Bowie’s earlier attempt with ‘The Next Day, which suggests that may Perry is not the ideal example of current market trends.  However, this could all be considered totally irrelevant if we stop to consider what the definition of success may be to those outside the chart pop world.

Forgive me for over-romanticising my point here, but let us take a step back and look a little lower down the ladder from our polished idols who require 24/7 high-end media coverage to survive.  This includes everyone from up-and-coming bands embarking on their second or third global support tour to that one kid who drags his battered secondhand acoustic down to his local open mic every Wednesday to try and hawk the EP he recorded in his bedroom.  Can we honestly say it bothers them all that they’re not shifting 300,000+ copies a week?  The vast majority would simply be happy to sell enough to live on, and even if they have to work another job to fund their latest album that may not even see a thousand sales, who are we to say that their release is no longer valid because of lack of monetary gain?  A recently-emerged area that also deserves recognition is musicians using the likes of Kickstarter to fund new projects.  The likes of Misery Signals and Protest The Hero turned to their fans in an attempt to raise the necessary capital for a new release, both receiving over double their target figure.  This isn’t bands producing albums because they feel they have to, this is bands producing albums because their fans want them.  Lefsetz states in his article “if you want to penetrate the consciousness of a large group of people…an album isn’t working,” which is simply not true.  Just look at the Ramones, a band often credited for their part in founding not just a genre but an entire cultural movement.  But read through the liner notes of their reissued studio albums and you come across a running theme: frustration at a lack of commercial success.  At its current rate of sale, ‘Prism’ will have most likely gone Gold in the United States by the end of 2013, a feat that ‘Ramones’ still hasn’t managed some 37 years after its release.  Can we honestly say that looking back in 37 years’ time we’ll consider Katy Perry to have had a similar cultural impact?  It’s hard to say, but I doubt it.  The point is that commercial success and having an impact on an audience are by no means the same thing, and this impact can be anything from starting a movement to simply being told that your music meant something by a random stranger.  Whether your album worked, was a success, a worthwhile venture shouldn’t be solely left to those monitoring the profit margins, but to the audience and the bands themselves.

A final point that that is confronted by Lefsetz is the matter of genre.  He bemoans that it is only “a matter of weeks” before the audience tires of a new release and demands more, but the likes of Katy Perry are pop artists, and that’s kind of the point.  Pop is one of the most disposable genres of music in existence, and its fans are some of the most fickle.  This is by no means a new thing either, having been the case since the 45 rpm single was invented.  Is it any wonder that some of the best-selling records of each decade have been greatest hits collections?  So “no one wants album tracks anymore unless they’re every bit as satisfying as the hit”?  That’s a fair point, as the album tracks on pop releases are usually just bland filler to separate singles because they are all that matter in chart pop.  So what of all the legendary music acts that were never prolific producers of hit singles, so as Led Zeppelin, Neil Young or Bob Dylan?  Did they reach and manage to maintain their legacies because no one wanted their album tracks?  No, and neither did any of the other notable album artists of today.  Their releases have an almost non-existent influence on the charts yet thousands still buy their records every year, so their music and ability to construct an album as a complete work is evident, otherwise they would have been forced to pack the whole thing in years ago if their only motive and idea of success was financial in nature.  While they might not be able to buy an extra gold tooth, or a diamond tiara for their cat, has it been considered that perhaps that’s not what they’re in the business for?  There are millions who consume chart pop and millions who don’t, and the latter party seems to still be quite keen on the whole LP idea.  It takes considerable talent to complete a body of songs in such a way that speaks to the listener in its entirety, and as long as someone has the passion to produce and another has the passion to really listen, the album is far from dead.

 

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