Last week was record-breaking on pop music charts all over the world. It was also quite a telling week regarding the state of music in the digital age.
Here in Australia, Ed Sheeran’s third album ÷ (aka, Divide) debuted at number one, already certified 2xPlatinum for first week sales of more than 140,000 units. During the 90s and early-2000s plenty of albums racked up multi-platinum first-week sales and debuted at number one, but these days it’s a double-whammy that almost never happens; in fact, it’s a feat only achieved so far this decade by two other albums.
Sheeran also set a chart precedent ten weeks ago when Divide’s first two singles were released at the same time and debuted at numbers one and two; no other artist had ever sent two singles to the Top 2 of the Australian chart, on début, in the same week.
Six weeks later, while Shape Of You and Castle On The Hill were still on the two top rungs, the third track from Divide, How Would You Feel, also crashed into the chart at number two, pushing Castle On The Hill back to number three; the same artist occupying the entire chart podium had only ever been seen twice before—when Beatlemania took off in 1964, and, inexplicably, when Karise Eden won The Voice in 2012.
Last week, the remaining thirteen tracks from Divide all debuted within the Top 40. Yep, every single track.
And if you think that sounds weird—it certainly is, at the very least, highly unusual—then spare a thought for Irish music lovers: the entire Top 16 of last week’s Irish singles chart was the tracks from Divide!
Shape Of You and Castle On The Hill were, officially, Divide’s first two singles, while How Would You Feel was designated as a ‘promotional single’. And the other thirteen? Well, at least for now, they’re just tracks on the album. And this is where the modern way of things starts getting a tad confusing, if you actually try to understand how it all works. So let’s forget the complexities of the present for a bit, and take a step back in time for some context.
In the olden days (but, really, not that long ago at all) a single was a single, and in 99% of cases its prime objective was to promote album sales. A single had a physical release in at least one format, it was played on radio (sometimes) and on music TV shows (sometimes) and it only hit the chart if enough people went to a retail outlet and paid for it; subsequent singles from the same album would follow more-or-less the same pattern. Total sales volumes and resultant chart positions were determined by a physical exchange of cash for product—a CD, a cassette, or a black vinyl platter that, as if by magic, had somehow been infused with music. It was a pretty straightforward process: 1 payment = 1 exchange = 1 sale. 100 payments = 100 sales, 35,000 payments = 35,000 sales and, in the latter case, a gold record accreditation.
It was also extremely rare in the olden days for any non-single album track to ever see the light of day on TV or radio.
In the olden days, albums were always the big-hitters. Other than any singles already released, we were largely unaware of an album’s content until we actually bought it—and so, there was a vested interest in buying it; invariably, we enjoyed some tracks more than others, and there were sometimes even tracks that we didn’t like much at all. But we still viewed an album as a body of work and we listened to each track in the order in which it appeared on the album; even in the age of random play and ‘shuffle’, some music lovers stood firm in the belief that this was the order in which the artist wanted us to hear the album.
These days, the content of any album is readily accessible online, at least to ‘preview’, without necessitating any kind of purchase whatsoever. Individual album tracks can mostly be paid for and downloaded, whether they’re a single or not; in fact, as far as digital downloads go, these days there’s virtually no discernible difference between an album track and an actual single, other than the fact that some singles are available before an album’s release and some have their own bespoke cover art; some also contain additional tracks or remixes, both of which usually leads to an ‘EP’ designation and a price hike.
These days, album tracks, as with singles, can also be streamed. While downloads count towards a track’s total sales just as physical purchases did in the olden days, the part played by streaming involves a more complex equation. According to ARIA CEO Dan Rosen, it goes something like this: “Say for example it was 175 streams equating to one sale, once you work out that conversion you tally up all your streams, divide it by that number, tally up all your iTunes downloads and add the two and that’s the number for the ARIA chart”… clear as mud, right?
These days, there are virtually no physical sales of singles—although, the vinyl revival of the past few years has seen that changing, if only in small numbers. Specifically in the case of the thirteen Ed Sheeran tracks, though, it was the enormous number of times they were streamed that saw all thirteen of them hit the chart at once; purchased downloads only accounted for the tiniest proportion of this seemingly bizarre outcome. Such is the way the charts are calculated these days that three of the tracks made it all the way to the Top 10, joining the first two singles that were still sitting pretty at the top of the chart—and streaming volumes just keep getting higher and higher, to the point where digital services accounted for more than 60% of total market value in 2015.
Meanwhile, Divide, saw an almost 50/50 split between physical CD sales and digital downloads, which in itself is also quite unusual for any album these days.
Measures of success have also shifted. In the olden days, whether a single was successful or not was largely inconsequential as long as the album it was promoting sold like hot cakes; and if it did, then even the least successful of singles could go on to be fondly recalled as a massive hit.
In 1970s and 80s Australia, full-length LPs were still relatively expensive. Nevertheless, Australians snapped up albums like Cold Chisel’s East, ABBA’s Arrival and Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours in massive numbers; it was as if everyone everywhere knew every word of every song on every big-selling album. Some of those albums also featured singles that were hugely successful in their own right, although that certainly wasn’t always the case, but at any rate albums were the artists’—and the record companies’—bread and butter; singles were merely promotional tools.
Fast forward a decade or two and the radio producers and presenters who were air-guitaring and lip-syncing to all those songs in the 70s and 80s were now adding them to their playlists; even if they were never big hits to start with, their status as pop and rock classics was now assured, thanks almost entirely to radio and music video airplay decades after their release.
But there was trouble brewing. Long before the Internet started to skew how we watch TV and movies, it also had a significant hand in the slow demise—or, at very least, the destructive realignment—of the music industry.
In the olden days, the only way to hear those non-single album tracks was to preview the album at a retail outlet—some larger retailers, like Virgin and HMV, offered ‘listening posts’, others had a stereo at the counter to serve the same purpose, while smaller stores would simply play whatever you wanted to hear through their speakers, in turn allowing everyone else in the shop to hear and thusly pour scorn all over your questionable taste in music… or was that just mine? In most cases, though, the only way some people ever heard those tracks was to actually buy the album.
Since 1998 the Internet has given rise to a constant evolution of how we consume music. Today, anyone can go online, preview album tracks, largely ignore them, buy individual songs, or use streaming services to listen to some or all of any given album, the latter of which avoids a purchase and results in artist royalties that are, at best, variable and, at worst, contemptuously minimal—for example, a track apparently needs at least 1,000 streams on Spotify to earn the artist a paltry $1.
Industry bodies have acknowledged artists’ record sales for decades. In Australia, the first sales accreditations were established by record companies in the 1970s. The numbers weren’t always consistent between the companies and levels were sometimes different between singles and albums but, generally, a Gold accreditation was awarded for 50,000 sales and Platinum for 100,000 sales. The physical award that was presented to the artist was generally a gold or platinum-coloured copy of the vinyl disc, in a great big frame with a plaque—thus the terms “gold record” and “platinum record”.
Having taken end-to-end management of the national charts in-house during 1988, in 1989 ARIA revised accreditation levels down to 35,000 for Gold and 70,000 for Platinum—possibly something to do with the organisation having been created by a conglomerate of the four major local record companies in 1983.
Even though the reduced numbers meant greater recognition of singles sales, albums were still far and away the biggest hitters. Throughout the 90s, high-selling albums regularly achieved certifications of between 5 and 10xPlatinum, while the really big ones—Alanis Morissette’s Jagged Little Pill, Savage Garden’s 1997 début, and Shania Twain’s Come On Over—were certified up to 15xPlatinum. Earlier mega-sellers, like The Best Of ABBA, the Grease soundtrack, Michael Jackson’s Thriller, John Farnham’s Whispering Jack, Meat Loaf’s Bat Out Of Hell and Dire Straits’ Brothers In Arms, have all, over time, been accredited for sales in excess of 20xPlatinum.
In 1993, Whitney Houston’s mega-hit I Will Always Love You became the first single ever accredited 4xPlatinum by ARIA, recognising local sales of more than 280,000 units. Five years later Elton John smashed that record when his tribute to Princess Diana, Candle In The Wind, achieved an unprecedented 14xPlatinum certification, a record that went unbroken for seventeen years. But, under ‘normal’ sales conditions, Houston’s achievement technically stood for two decades, although it looked like it was about to be bettered multiple times before then—Lou Bega’s Mambo No. 5 and The Offspring’s Pretty Fly (For A White Guy) had also joined the 4xPlatinum club in 1999, but it wasn’t until 2003 when, after twelve weeks at number one, Eminem’s Lose Yourself was well on its way to becoming ARIA’s first 5xPlatinum single. Then… nothing. But finally, after the best part of a decade of a consistently small volume of digital sales, Lose Yourself was, all at once, awarded seventh Platinum certification (and therefore, by inference, its fifth and sixth) in mid-2013.
But by then, a 7xPlatinum accreditation for a single had become so commonplace that, in July 2014, LMFAO’s Party Rock Anthem was certified a whopping 15xPlatinum—not only making it the only single to ever sell more than a million units in this country, but also placing it just behind the only eight full-length albums that have ever sold more. And since 2013, ten other singles have also been certified between 10 and 13xPlatinum.
That’s how much things have changed, certainly since 1993, but most significantly in just the past five years.
In the olden days albums were, by far, the bigger sellers—singles just propped them up—but these days it’s the reverse. As a general rule, singles now sell by the (digital) truckload, sometimes bouncing around the chart for up to two years. But long-player sales have been so depleted that it’s not uncommon for an album by a niche artist to début at number one off the back of a couple of thousand sales, before disappearing from the chart altogether within three or four weeks.
The divergence between olden days volumes and today’s—and the very reason why Divide’s opening week tally of 140,000 units is so significant—is crystal clear with a few historical comparisons. In December 2003, for example, Guy Sebastian’s Just As I Am had opening week sales of 164,000 units; in 2006, Anthony Callea’s A New Chapter couldn’t edge any higher than number 45 with sales of nearly 5,500 units. By January 2014, the entire Top 500 albums combined sold just under 182,000 units; in March 2015, one-time superstar Madonna’s Rebel Heart debuted at number one on less than 7,000 sales, before nosediving to a measly 1,300 sales in its second week; three months later, just 3,777 sales pushed Ed Sheeran’s previous album X back to number one; and even in the UK last week, Sheeran’s new album sold more units than the rest of the Top 500 albums combined.
As well, the hugely reduced volume of overall album sales results in a whole lot of super weird in/out up/down activity on the albums chart that simply wasn’t seen before about five years ago; ultimately, it calls into question the relevance, or even the validity, of the chart, particularly given outcomes like the one seen last week with Ed Sheeran—for example, why should non-single tracks appear on a singles chart, rather than their streaming and download volumes being combined to reflect sales of the album they feature on? Surely that makes more sense and it couldn’t be that hard, could it? I mean, I’m no mathematician or statistician, but it seems logical to me that each download of a single track from a 16 track album should amount to 1/16th of a sale of that album… shouldn’t it?
At any rate, it’s unlikely any of the thirteen Sheeran tracks will see the light of day on the radio again, once post-release hysteria has been quelled, unless they’re released as a single.
Cue the question of ‘what does the future hold?’, because, at the current rate of change, music seems to be evolving in ever-decreasing circles.
Radio’s been around for a century, and for much of the last sixty years it was the go-to source for music that people wanted to hear; today you’re more likely to see people gathered around a smartphone’s Spotify playlist, while radios merely generate background noise in kitchens, on desks and in mechanics’ workshops across the country.
Music television took off in the early-80s and, for music lovers, was an essential resource for at least twenty years; today, a music video isn’t even guaranteed for any release and, more often than not, if there is one they’re usually not much more than an ultra-fancy YouTube lyric video. Music Television, as we knew it in the olden days, is virtually dead; the ABC’s Rage, which celebrates its 30th anniversary next month, is now pretty much the sole survivor.
The ability to quickly and easily convert CDs into individual audio files in the late 90s lead directly to the P2P file sharing revolution, which, come 1999, had music lovers all over the world partying like it was, indeed, 1999 as they uploaded and downloaded free song after free song after free song—as quickly as their glacially slow dial-up connection would allow them to; but even Napster, the one that arguably started it all, was dead within seven years.
So-called “legitimate” online services have very much become the accepted norm since the local launch of the iTunes Store in late-2005, and they more-or-less had a monopoly until about 2012; but since 2015 the increasing uptake of streaming services has seen digital download revenues decrease by more than 10%, year-on-year—in other words, as streaming uptake increases, the number of paid downloads decreases.
What’s next, then? How soon can we expect streaming to also become obsolete? From what we’ve seen in the last ten years alone, its demise is probably just around the corner. Should we expect a replacement with an even shorter life-cycle?
Whatever it turns out to be, it will inevitably be some form of online platform. And, it’ll mean yet another nail in the coffin of the video and the radio star.