Right now, hit singles are all the rage — from Ariana Grande’s iconic, rebellious “Thank U, Next” to smash hits like “Bodak Yellow” and “Despacito.” People seem to always be on the lookout for the next summer anthem and whatever No. 1 single Drake’s next album will bring. And though everyone checks in to the Grammys each year to pretend they care about the Album of the Year winner, the album format has clearly taken a backseat to singles.
New technologies are largely responsible for this trend. Social platforms constantly inundate people with information and have reduced collective attention spans to paltry numbers. Most of the time, it seems as though society cannot pay attention to anything for prolonged periods of time.
Streaming — and playlisting in particular — are the cherry on top. Playlists have placed a heavy emphasis on individual tracks; they stress the songs that will get you moving in the gym, the songs to clean your room to and the songs to have sex to, but there is little attention given to whole bodies of work put out by musicians. For this reason, many artists commission producers to create songs specifically for the purpose of being “streamable.” Loud, attention-grabbing tracks with short intros and quick choruses are becoming focal points for the music industry as music production becomes more disposable to the public.
All of this makes me wonder: What will happen to albums? What does this mean for the future of the long-play format? Sure, there are some artists who still place emphasis on an entire body of work. Grande just released the album of her career with “Thank U, Next,” and each of Beyoncé, Jay-Z, Kanye West and Taylor Swift’s releases is widely anticipated. But albums are now typically treated as something music fans can order from musicians like menus at drive-throughs.
An easy way to keep LPs from dying would be including them as part of merchandise and ticket packages. Essentially, the artist would include an album as part of a merchandise sale or the sale of a concert ticket. Not only does this inflate album sales (thus, raising chart positions), but it also increases revenue from merch and live events.
Travis Scott recently employed this tactic for his latest album “Astroworld.” Scott released an exclusive merch collection and bundled each purchase with a digital copy of the LP, which generated enough sales in the album’s first week to push it to No. 1 on the Billboard Top 200. Taylor Swift did something similar in 2017 for her Reputation Stadium Tour, which sold out and boosted her album sales.
Interestingly enough, streaming platforms present opportunities for keeping albums fresh as well. Since everything is digital, nothing is set in stone, and artists are able to treat each album as if it is a living entity; the content is much more malleable than it would be in physical formats.
In this case, musical releases are allowed to grow and evolve. An upbeat three-minute track with catchy choruses can transform into a slow and solemn five-minute ballad, yet retain its original name. Kanye West has done this multiple times now, most notably in his 2016 album “The Life of Pablo;” each alteration of the track listing was treated as a different iteration of the project as a whole, and this kept fans coming back for more.
But the popularity of streaming begs another question: Why have artists stopped doing deluxe editions of their albums? Now, more than ever, is the perfect time to diversify discography across platforms. Currently, streaming services do not require content to be the same for each interface, so musicians are technically able to release different versions of their work across all of the digital service providers. Fans are granted the excitement of chasing down every possible version of their favorite musician’s latest release, and artists can be comfortable in knowing that their fans are engaged with their work beyond just a hit single.
This would also be an opening for a return to the (very loathed) practice of releasing exclusive albums on streaming services. Many people may dislike when a new album is only available on a particular platform, but it is a very smart move on the artist’s part. This strategy pigeonholes the casual fan into either paying for a music streaming service — thereby granting the artist more royalties from streams — or buying the entire album outright, which is obviously the most lucrative outcome for the musician. To this day, Beyoncé’s “LEMONADE” is still only streamable on TIDAL, but fans can (read: are required to) purchase the album anywhere else. Because of this, Beyoncé’s first week was one of the highest of 2016 and of her entire career.
As far as physical albums go, the industry will have a major opportunity for revival by the mid-2020s. As millennials age, their nostalgia will grow. Thus, CDs are going to see a comeback in the same way vinyl records have — a move that can help keep albums afloat.
Labels could use new forms of technology to make CD packaging incredibly interactive; perhaps augmented reality is incorporated into the booklets or QR codes send fans to special websites.
Labels can also sell physical CDs at select locations, or different versions across different retailers. This method has already been used myriad times, and is still being done by some artists (Taylor Swift’s “Reputation” magazine being sold at Target alongside special versions of the album). Nonetheless, this would bring back the essence of lining up outside of a store for a release, and fans would be more inclined to have good receptions to the experience and the music.
Hit singles have always been a cornerstone of importance for the music business, and that will likely remain the same. What is troubling, though, is that major event albums — bodies of work that are meant to display an artist’s growth, give fans a peek into a musician’s life and create cultural discussion — are becoming overshadowed by one-off tracks. There are ways to exploit emerging technologies to remedy the problem, or at least make album sales resemble what they were in the previous decade, but the industry must be clever and act fast.
Willard Givens is a junior writing about the music industry. His column, “From The Soundboard,” runs every other week on Mondays.