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Albums in the streaming era: ‘Just think of it as a blank canvas for telling stories’


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Streaming is a world of tracks and playlists rather than albums, right? An event in London last night organised by British industry bodies the BPI and ERA promised to explore the role of the album in the streaming era, including some stats and views pushing back on the assumption that it doesn’t have one.

Added spice came from the event’s location: the YouTube Space studio at the heart of a company that the BPI has regularly taken to task over the ‘value gap’ issue. Or as one attendee muttered to Music Ally on the night: “We’re deep in the belly of the beast!”

That beast is evolving too, though: in his introduction to the event, BPI boss Geoff Taylor admitted that “it may seem a little incongruous that we’re celebrating the album here at YouTube”, before pointing out that albums are still a prominent way that the recently-launched YouTube Music service puts music in front of its subscribers.

Taylor set the scene. “Some commentators have been quick to consign the album to the great format graveyard in the sky,” he said. “But the album is not some fixed physical thing. It’s an idea, a concept, that is used by both artists and fans to provide a richer experience of music… We see the album as a canvas that the artist can use to tell a story or communicate an idea.”

He also trailed a key theme of the night: that the album as a format can also evolve. Taylor suggested that some artists might want to “serialise” an album over time, on streaming services, as “chapters” in the same way that Charles Dickens published his most famous novels chapter by chapter.

“An album can also evolve through time. The elements of an album aren’t fixed: they can be added to or remixed by the artist, so the album becomes an ever-changing body of work,” added Taylor, using the obligatory example of Kanye West’s ‘The Life of Pablo’, which was tweaked several times after its initial release.

“If it’s good enough for Kanye it should be good enough for a lot of other artists,” said Taylor.

The event was also a partnership with Midia Research, whose MD Mark Mulligan stressed the point that the album isn’t an immutable format. “This is what streaming is doing to the industry: the rules are getting rewritten all the time,” he said.

Mulligan admitted that change often breeds fear and tension, citing composer John Philip Sousa, who in 1906 wrote an essay warning of “the menace of mechanical music” – music recordings and ‘self-playing’ instruments.

“I foresee a marked deterioration in American music and musical taste, an interruption in the musical development of the country, and a host of other injuries to music in its artistic manifestations, by virtue – or rather by vice – of the multiplication of the various music-reproducing machines,” wrote Sousa at the time. As Mulligan pointed out, switch out ‘music-reproducing machines’ for ‘music-streaming services’ and it could be an argument being made today.

“The lesson is: change is always difficult, because it’s the unknown. And that’s why most of the time, the things that come next look pretty much like what came before, with a bit of polish.”

Mulligan’s argument was that the ‘album’ hasn’t really changed that much since it was invented, although he noted that the albums of the 1950s were a lot like the streaming playlists of the 2010s – “Christmas songs, St Patrick’s Day songs, cowboy songs… Actually, the album back then was basically a playlist!” he said.

The fundamental structure of the album has remained intact, and still influenced (in length) by the technical restrictions of formats including vinyl and CDs. Now, in the streaming world, he thinks it’s time to push all the boundaries.

“We’ve got a real opportunity for the album to be many different things, in many different settings, in many different genres,” said Mulligan. That may include stretching the format (more or less songs, shorter or longer songs); and rethinking the schedule (drip-feeding tracks that will become an album, releasing clusters of tracks or focusing on EP bundles).

“The most liberating thing is thinking: actually, there isn’t any constraint… [in the past] there was only so much music you could put together and you needed to put it in a certain order. Now there are no such constraints. Just think of it as a blank canvas for telling stories.”

Mulligan was followed on-stage by Will Page, director of economics at Spotify, whose message was partly that albums are still important on that streaming service, but also (mirroring Taylor and Mulligan) that they can and will evolve in this environment.

Page said that the understanding of how albums are being listened to has developed markedly in recent years. He cited the example of two albums that were big in 2012: Gotye’s ‘Making Mirrors’ and Lana Del Rey’s ‘Born to Die’. The former was the top album on Spotify in 2012, while the latter was seventh.

Yet the stats for ‘Making Mirrors’ were vastly inflated by his global hit ‘Somebody That I Used to Know’. Page said that when Spotify analysed the two albums by the performance of their median tracks rather than their total streams as a measure of how far into the albums people listened: “Gotye went from number one to off a cliff, and Lana Del Rey went from number seven to number one,” he said.

“So now we know that Gotye is a one-hit wonder… If you’re booking Gotye for a festival, I’d say give him four minutes and 20 seconds on-stage!” But Page said Lana Del Rey would deserve a full set plus an encore – because her fans really were engaged with her album beyond its biggest hit.

“We’ve always had album charts, we still do have album charts. We didn’t know how albums were being consumed in the past,” continued Page. “But now we still have albums and now we know how they’re being consumed. I can’t stress too much how much you need to understand this point for a coherent discussion of this topic.”

Page had some new stats to wield. In the UK, on Spotify alone, more than five million people a week stream music from album pages – as in the pages on Spotify that house an album and its full tracklisting, rather than from playlists, charts or artist profiles. He added that according to research firm Kantar, that’s more people than were buying digital albums at the peak of the music-downloads era, in 2013 – and that was on a yearly basis.

(There’s a discussion to be had around how meaningful this stat is. It’s not a like-for-like comparison of ‘album listeners’, or even of modern-day ‘album streamers’ and past-times ‘album buyers on all formats’ after all. And as Page pointed out, we don’t have historical data on how those past album purchases related to actual listening after they were bought.)

Still, Page was clear: “Fewer than five million people [in the UK] actually purchased digital albums. More than five million people are streaming from album pages on one DSP.” He added that 46% of all Spotify streams in the UK come from songs that aren’t ‘singles’.

Spotify is thinking hard about how to measure album listening. Page talked about the recent album ‘Chris’ by Christine and the Queens, which was the 32nd most popular album in the UK in its week of release, but the sixth most popular if only ‘album-page streams’ were counted. Jungle’s new album ‘Forever’ was eerily similar: 35th in the overall albums chart, but sixth when ranked by album-page streams only.

“What does this mean? Being completely honest, we’re still working it out… But as we’re developing this metric, it helps us understand the types of fans the band is attracting,” said Page, suggesting that these bands with lots of album-driven streams may be the tortoises to the track-driven artists’ hares. A positive comparison.

“I would argue this bodes well for these artists going forward. As they scale, they scale heavy-consumption users based on their album concept,” said Page, who also flagged up Spotify’s ‘marquee’ feature – the one that flashes up a full-screen promo for a new album when you open the app – as proof of the service’s willingness to support the album format.

He finished off with a call for that format to stay flexible. “There’s a role for nostalgia, but don’t let nostalgia damage the future of the album,” said Page. “As the album adapts, please don’t hold on to the past like it’s got a right, a god-given rule to work its way into the future. Think about how that album concept is going to be future-proof.”

“Think of the album as a means to an end; which is to engage fans in a collective body of work. Don’t get hung up on the album concept or syntax, and do realise there are many means to that desired end.”

One thing you’ll often hear is that one of the main reasons albums still matter is that they matter to artists: who still relish the idea of creating a body of work rather than just a string of tracks. At the BPI/ERA event, two artists had their say on the topic: producer and rapper Novelist, and J.Willgoose Esq. of Public Service Broadcasting, who were interviewed by Midia Research’s Zach Fuller.

Both were relevant choices: Novelist was recently nominated for the Mercury Music Prize for his debut album ‘Novelist Guy’, while PSB’s second and third albums ‘The Race for Space’ and ‘Every Valley’ were both critically acclaimed for exploring longer-form concepts/stories – in the latter case, the history of the coal-mining industry in Wales.

That album got to number four in the UK album charts in its release week. “It’s a testament to a.) the power of the album and b.) watching a band, almost in real-time, realise that and become more brave in taking risks with it,” he said.

Novelist offered a different point of view on why he wanted to make an album. “The songs on my album are all about different sides of me. You can’t really look at the world from one perspective. You’ve got to look at the world from a few different perspectives, and I feel a body of work is how you can do that,” he said.

“You can only do so much with a single. You might have a lot to say! There’s so many perspectives that one person can have.”

Willgoose talked about the way albums can also be challenging. “The music I’ve got the most out of has always been album-related. It has been the stuff I haven’t really understood at first,” he said, citing the Manic Street Preachers’ ‘The Holy Bible’ as a good example.

“It kind-of seeps into your consciousness, almost rewires your brain in a musical way… and you do need a length of time. I couldn’t have done that with one song by the Manics: I could have played ‘Faster’ over and over again, but I wouldn’t have got that sense of claustrophobia [that the whole album offers]. That’s my experience.”

Willgoose admitted that the risk of making a longer album based on a single, possibly-challenging concept, is that it is “asking a lot more” of listeners in terms of attention span. However, he said that within albums, the editing process of cutting out unnecessary padding is more important than ever as a way of holding that attention.

Novelist agreed. “Quality control, and taking time on the actual craft and all of those things? That’s the most important thing. And whatever comes of it comes of it… if you’re not yourself happy with the music that you’ve made, what’s the point? If my mum likes my music, then it can roll!”

Labels also had their say at the event, with Jacqueline Eyewe of Atlantic Records and Jo Kalli from Sony Music taking to the stage after the artists, and giving their views based on their experience (respectively) working with catalogue music and frontline hip-hop artists.

On the catalogue side, Kalli said that a lot of things have stayed the same over the last decade. “We’re talking about albums and that still, fundamentally, is the heart of the story that we’re telling. It’s still fundamental to the artist,” she said. “It’s just that the approaches have changed and obviously the technology has changed massively.”

Eyewe agreed. “The album still means a lot to the artist,” she said, while noting that an artist like Young Thug might release a new mixtape every two to three months. “That’s how quickly his audience wants to consume his music,” she said. And that doesn’t necessarily fit with the traditional concept of an ‘album’.

“Now, technology and the way people consume stuff is a lot quicker. There’s a lot more noise,” she said. “The way people consume is reflective of how their behaviour has changed… but what hasn’t changed is what albums mean to artists. It solidifies them as artists, and it solidifies what they want to say.”

Earlier in the evening, Mark Mulligan had suggested that it’s hip-hop artists who are taking the lead in pushing the boundaries of what an album can be, and Eyewe agreed. She also praised Beyonce’s achievement of not just dropping an album (‘Lemonade’) by surprise, but making it a truly audio-visual work (or a ‘visual album’ as it was described at the time).

There are challenges here for labels trying to help catalogue albums from contemporary artists (as opposed to Bob Dylan and similar-calibre heritage acts) cut through the noise of the streaming world. “You’re trying to convince people to listen again or listen for the first time in amongst all this amazing [new] stuff that’s happening,” said Kalli. “It’s challenging, but in a really exciting way. There’s lots of opportunity.”

Flexibility is key, added Eyewe. Whenever Atlantic signs a new artist, it has an album in mind in terms of a body of work. “But it really depends on the artist and the space they operate in. There’s artists who go straight in to albums in urban music, and that’s great, amazing. And there’s artists who do three or four mixtapes before they do an album. Neither is right and neither is wrong,” she said.,

“If an artist creates a piece of work that they’ve poured their passion into, that will normally stand the test of time, whether it’s deemed a commercial success or not,” concluded Kalli.

Both were asked to look three years into the future and predict what’s next for the album. Eyewe said that more and more consumption, facilitated by streaming services (YouTube included) will only be a good thing. “To make these artists successful, it starts with awareness and it starts with consumption,” she said.

A final panel saw The Official Charts Company boss Martin Talbot give his views on how albums are evolving. “The album is almost becoming the punctuation at the end of a project,” he said, later returning to the idea. “People are going to start building their campaigns with the album becoming the punctuation at the end of the project.”

Talbot freely admitted that charts bodies are having to think hard about how to measure the success of albums, compared to individual tracks, in a world where the data is supplied to them (as it is to label) on a track-by-track basis.

“At the heart of this is the way the industry has evolved in a world where streaming is not just a promotional discovery tool, but it’s also a revenue generator,” he said. There are, broadly speaking, two ways to measure an album in this climate: to measure consumption of the album as a whole, and to measure the sum total of consumption of its individual tracks.

The panel also saw Page talk about artist Tom Misch, who operates through artist-services firm AWAL. “We saw his new release, the album ‘Geography’, grow huge demand for his catalogue. The new content spiked and the old content grew with it,” said Page. He also praised Misch’s wider approach. “There was no ‘strategy’. It was a mixtape here, a single there… He was keeping up the conversation… He’s letting the new release drive interest in the catalogue at a very, very early stage in his career.”

ERA boss Kim Bayley brought the event to a close, reminding the audience about the industry-backed ‘National Album Day’ later this week. She also said that there are two voices to pay attention to when thinking about the album. One is the artist, and the other is fans.

“They tell us they still love albums. We know that 50% of teenagers still listen to albums every single week,” said Bayley. As she saw it, that’s ample evidence that there’s life in the format for some time to come.

Stuart Dredge

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