'It still has a future': Execs talk National Album Day and the evolution of the LP

'It still has a future': Execs talk National Album Day and the evolution of the LP

The first edition of National Album Day was staged over the weekend, with support from BBC Music, and prompted an outpouring of affection for the enduring 70-year-old format. From a BBC Radio 2 countdown of the biggest sellers of all-time to a range of events including MQA’s high-quality streaming and playbacks of John Peel’s record collection, no one can doubt the effort that went into the inaugural NAD. There are signs from organisers ERA and the BPI that it could become a regular event.

The celebration coincides with a falling off in sales for physical albums, down 20.6% for the year to date, though in value terms it’s still a significant business. But with physical and downloads in decline, the main concern is whether DSPs are picking up the slack. While the BPI’s figures for streaming equivalent albums show an increase for the year to date of 35.1%, there remains uncertainty about whether consumers are listening to albums in full on digital platforms.

Liquid Management’s David Manders, whose acts include Life and National Album Day ambassadors Public Service Broadcasting, called for streaming platforms to do more to support the format.

“I believe the DSPs need to be more behind promoting the album - bigger features on front pages regarding albums than singles,” Manders told Music Week. “[The album] clearly has a challenging time ahead with more people streaming from compiled playlists. However I strongly believe many artists want their work to be heard as a whole album, and true fans of an artist will delve deeper into an artist’s body of work. Those are the artists that will have long careers in music. As long as there are artists out there that believe in the album and want their art to be heard in this way, there will always be a future for the album.”

Geoff Taylor, chief executive, BPI and BRIT Awards, conceded that some DSPs “could do more” in terms of support for the album. But he noted that the major platforms had engaged “enthusiastically” with National Album Day.

“There’s no doubt that streaming is helping to change people’s consumption habits and playlists now have a big part to play,” Taylor told Music Week. “But we believe you’ve got to start from the artists and, for artists, the album remains a really important way of communicating with their fans. The album is a format that artists can use to say something perhaps more profound than they are able to say through individual tracks and there are a lot of aspects to the album, such as the cover art, which make it special.”

With Decca set for a big Q4 with long-players from Rod Stewart, Jeff Goldblum, Andrea Bocelli, Katherine Jenkins and Alfie Boe, it’s understandable that label president Rebecca Allen is supporting the format.

“I still believe massively in the journey of an album, and that’s why it’s important that we still celebrate bodies of work,” she said. “As the audiences change on streaming services, so will the habits of those listeners and they may not become so one-track focused. 

“There are obviously the hits, which is a huge part of the streaming business, but also there’s this wonderful discovery. That’s the thing that I love most about streaming services, I love the journey that you can go on.”

The idea of an album or body of work is going to be important for any long-term careers

Adrian Pope

Manders agreed that alighting on a track could lead to listeners “exploring further, playing the album, the artist’s catalogue, going to a show and buying the merch - it all adds up to developing a true fanbase.”

“It really is in the hands of the artist to make albums something special,” he added. “They need to develop and educate their fanbase into digging deeper. Some of an artist’s best works are often not the singles you hear on radio. We have been here before, back in the ‘50s and ‘60s, when the single was king; over time people got bored of that and wanted a more immersive experience from the music they were listening to. Times change and I hope that the novelty of easily compiling streaming playlists will tail off, and that the generation that have grown up with streaming start to have the desire to go deeper with their artists and explore the album.”

Adrian Pope, chief digital officer, PIAS, said artists had more options now - but bodies of work would remain key to building long-term careers. 

“Some artists may want to create albums, some may feel more affinity with creating EPs, and then those products become an album at a later stage,” he said. “It’s not a one-size-fits-all business any more, but the idea of an album or body of work is going to be important for any long-term careers and artists with a meaningful live business.”

With 452,441 sales to date (OCC) for sophomore album Staying At Tamara’s, George Ezra has shown how an artist album can perform strongly across physical, streaming and downloads in 2018. 

“The album is still the best format we have to communicate a musician’s particular artistic vision so, yes, it still has a future,” said Columbia’s head of marketing, Alex Eden-Smith, who’s overseen Ezra’s campaign. “There is a type of fan that just wants to pick off the top two or three tracks and add them to a playlist, and this is obviously growing in the streaming age and it’s fine, but for those who want to dig deeper the album format is still relevant.

“I don’t think we should cling to a bygone age whereby listening to a whole album is seen as the optimum experience. People should listen to music in any way which moves them. Ultimately, if there’s enough artistry to a body of songs and to an artist’s narrative, people will want to explore their catalogue.” 

Streaming equivalent albums now represent 65.3% of the market, though the level of streaming varies wildly even within the Top 10. Depending on the type of music, there are also differences in the proportion of an album being listened to in full.

Hip-hop is one genre that appears to performing well on streaming, particularly major North American rappers whose entire albums would often impact on the singles chart but the for the three-track OCC limit on primary artists. Eminem, Lil Wayne and Drake all helped to encourage listening of albums on streaming by dropping new records on digital platforms ahead of a physical release. 

In the absence of a physical release, other US rappers’ album success is almost entirely down to streaming. Cardi B’s Invasion Of Privacy, which is the 34th biggest seller of 2018 (84,853 sales - OCC), is being issued physically on October 26 - six months after its digital release. Travis Scott’s Astroworld (51,456 sales) is released on CD this week (October 19), two months after the digital edition. 

But for Cherry Red chairman Iain McNay, who helped push for the National Album Day initiative, the album artefact will continue to endure.

“The fall of physical has been over-publicised, I don’t think it’s as dramatic as it’s made out,” he said. “The actual non-streaming physical [album] sales unfortunately are now less than 50% of the overall sales, but I just think the album is still so important. Having something physical, with a package, is never going to go away. Physical will never die.” 

To read how streaming platform Deezer is backing the album format click here.

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