The glory years for the record album are over, but the record album isn’t dead yet. In the age of streaming, it actually might benefit artists to release long albums consisting of multiple tracks, as the success of Drake’s Scorpion demonstrates.
Drake released Scorpion on streaming services on June 29, and a compact disc released followed July 13. The CD is inconsequential. The real barometer of Scorpion’s success consists of streams. Within two weeks, Scorpion sold more than one million copies based on streams (per Billboard, 1,500 on-demand streams equals one LP).
Incredibly, all 25 of the album’s tracks hit the Billboard Hot 100 charts. As Rolling Stone explained, the long-form format of Scorpion– clocking in at one hour and 30 minutes – was crucial to the album’s success:
Drake’s supremacy on the Hot 100 was made easier by the popularity of music streaming. Because streaming services like Spotify and Apple Music charge a buffet-style monthly fee to listen to music rather than a per-song price à la iTunes downloads, long albums benefit artists by giving them more chances to rack up listens. Drake also partnered with Spotify for an all-out “takeover” of the platform in the days after his album dropped, which forced tens of millions of users to encounter his album. (They weren’t required to actually stream it – but the all-you-can-listen model of streaming services made it appealing and cost-free to do so, and the real estate on their homepage contributed to the average listener’s awareness Scorpion.)
Drake is not the only artist to capitalize on the vagaries of streaming. As Rolling Stone reported earlier this year, Migos released an album, Culture II, that clocked in at a whopping one hour and 46 minutes. Culture II debuted at Number One on the Billboard album chart. Culture II was eventually certified Platinum by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) for combined sales, streaming and track-sales equivalent of a million units.
Because an album’s sales via streaming are measured by 1,500 cumulative streams, it behooves an artist to release a longer album with more tracks to stream, which can lead to Gold and Platinum status. These accomplishments still matter as a barometer of an artist’s marketability to corporate sponsors.
But releasing lengthy albums to encourage streams comes at a cost. Listeners have short attention spans in the streaming era. Reportedly, one quarter of all songs on Spotify are skipped within the first five seconds. The typical listener skips a song once every four minutes, and there is nearly a 50 percent chance that a song will be skipped before it ends. In addition, according to Midia, “58% of subscribers report listening to individual albums and tracks just a few times while 60% are doing this more than they used to because they are discovering so much new music.”
In this context of short attention spans and disposable songs, every song has to capture a listener’s attention quickly. There is little room for songs that require repeated listening to be fully appreciated. Indeed, it’s difficult to imagine deep but rewarding cuts such as Led Zeppelin’s “The Battle of Evermore” or the Rolling Stones’s “Moonlight Mile” ever making it on an album today. Every song has to be an obvious crowd pleaser – a “Rock and Roll” or a “Brown Sugar.”
And, of course, more songs does not mean better albums. Yet it’s easy to see how artists will feel pressured to compromise quality for quantity in order to achieve sales if a lengthier album is rewarded commercially. Indeed, Scorpion received tepid reviews. (As Tim Sendra of AllMusic.com wrote, “ . . . Drake plunges headfirst into the icy depths of boredom and despair as the 25 songs go back and forth over the same lyrical territory and the monochromatic trap beats drag along slowly behind.”
In addition, artists are less likely to create thematically cohesive concept albums such as What’s Going Onor The Dark Side of the Moon. Instead, albums are more likely to be a collection of stream-worthy singles, akin to the way albums were created in the early days of rock and roll.
It’s too early to say whether the long format of streaming albums will have any measurable impact on album sales overall. But counting music streams, total album sales are up 18 percent year over year as of July 2018. Let’s see if streaming actually slows the long decline of record album sales — and whether albums will mutate to accommodate the new barometer of success.