As of December 27th, 2015, Adele’s 25 had sold 7.13 million copies. Taylor Swift’s 1989 has sold well over 5 millions copies. Physical copies. As in cd or vinyl. I understand that we’re talking about the 2 biggest names in music right now, but those are numbers that no one thought could exist in 2015.
You would think that those type of numbers would be an indicator for the other superstars of the world. You can promote your album, delay it’s release to streaming services and make money selling physical copies. In an age where full albums stream on Youtube, when artists are choosing to team up with a specific streaming site, the idea of keeping your music out of the digital world seems crazy. But those numbers don’t lie. It works!
So I’m not surprised to read that Kayne West’s new record, The Life of Pablo, is has been pirated by at least half a million people. And that number is just from torrents. I was able to do a quick google search and find an illegal download of the record and 10 minutes later, it was unzipped and on my desktop. The Life of Pablo is a Tidal exclusive and West has tweeted that the record will never be on Apple Music and will probably only be available as a Tidal stream. Which makes no sense from a business standpoint. Sure Tidal had a “success” with Rhianna’s Anti, an album that a million people got for free with a code, making it a Platinum selling record in one day, but that release was botched and the idea that the record went Platinum is up for debate.
And remember when Drake released Hotline Bling, exclusively on Apple Music? Drake was hoping to break sales records, but the track got lost in the shuffle being released only on Apple Music (plus Adele released Hello). The problem with picking a streaming service to team with is you can only reach so many people while alienating a set of fans.
The record industry is a free for all. The new release day is Friday, but artists can put their album whenever they feel like it. Say Anything recently put their record up for streaming on a Wednesday and announced it would be available for downloads that Friday. Beyonce always seems to just drop something new without a word of warning. If you follow independent music, you know bands will let you know via social media that their new album is on Bandcamp the day of its release. The art of the build up seems to be waning in popularity. Of course the above mentioned Adele and Taylor Swift both but out singles and gave a release day and sold more records than anyone in the recording industry thinks is possible. And with crowd funding, you could be contributing to a record that hasn’t been written or recorded and might take 1-2 years before you hear it, or you could be giving money to something that’s done and have a copy in a month. Vinyl is back and even cassettes are a popular way to release physical media in the indie/punk scene. People want something tangible to hold.
So what’s my point? Is that for mainstream artists, there seems to be blueprint, a blueprint that works for years and appears to be coming back into fashion. Are Adele and Taylor Swift fans that different from Beyonce or Kanye fans that withholding your music from streaming services for the first month would kill their status? Would it be worth the risk? I mean, everyone was waiting to hear this Kanye record, but how many people are being reached with a Tidal exclusive release where you can only stream the album? Maybe I don’t understand the genius of Kanye West.
Digital music lost it’s luster for me in 2001. I had downloaded most of Zao’s self-titled record on Napster and when I went to the store and bought the record, that love of getting and listening to a record for the first time was gone. I had already heard the songs a dozen times and I just didn’t really care anymore. I didn’t even buy The Juliana Theory’s Love when it was released because I had listened to those songs to death way before the album finally dropped. (I did eventually buy the record many years later). At that point I gave up pre-downloading albums I wanted to buy. Because I love having the physical copy and didn’t want to ruin that first listening experience. Sure, the way I listen to music now is different, especially running this site and getting records to review, but if there’s a band I love, I will try to wait until a get a physical copy (usually vinyl) before giving the record a spin.
Is there a new generation wanting to experience an album again? Or is it those of us who are older driving vinyl sales? Is pirating music the only constant in this shifting and changing music industry? I think the last statement is true. But there’s no option right now to pay for a copy of The Life of Pablo. I said a couple of years ago that I thought recording and selling albums in mainstream music was a waste of time and I thought record labels could save money on studio time and production cost by having artists just record about 4 songs a year that are released quarterly on digital services. But maybe I was wrong. Adele and T Swift’s numbers are incredible and proof that you can release physical albums and sell a lot of them. Maybe it’s time for record industry and re-evaluate their current structure and maybe go back to something that looks more like 90’s. Is streaming music really the future? The currents number suggest that streaming music is now and the industry is still figuring it out, but the blunders and oddities of the last few years, plus the huge success of Adele and Swift show that maybe the future ain’t what it used to be.