For the past 33 weeks, music charts all over the world, not least here in Australia, have been dominated by Ed Sheeran.
The week his third studio album was released back in March, every one of its sixteen tracks made the Australian Top 40 singles chart. Great for Ed Sheeran. Not so good for his album.
See, the greater the availability of individual tracks to purchase and stream online, the fewer the sales of the full-length albums that those tracks come from.
Album sales in this country have trickled to truly paltry volumes. Recent releases bounce around the upper half of ARIA’s official Top 100 albums chart like yo-yos, many departing the chart almost as quickly as they arrived. Conversely, older titles are hovering around the bottom half of the chart for years and years on end.
Albums by barely established and/or niche artists now frequently achieve #1 on debut—a feat previously considered impressive for even the most established and commercially successful artist. Many of these high-flying chart entries then drop right out of the top 10 the very next week. It wasn’t that long ago when falling from #1 to #5 was about as bad as it got, but look what we’ve seen in the past twelve months alone:
- Michael Bublé’s Christmas album took an astonishing tumble from #1 to #85 (admittedly it was at the end of the festive season, but no other Christmas album has ever plummeted so far from the top spot before)
- A Day To Remember’s Bad Vibrations fell from #1 to #12 (what an apt name for a band I’ve no recollection of)
- Westway (The Glitter and The Slums) by Sticky Fingers fell from #1 to #10
- Bon Jovi’s This House Is Not For Sale dropped from #1 to #8
- Illy’s Two Degrees nose-dived from #1 to #20
- The Weeknd’s Starboy dropped from #1 to #8
- I See You by The XX fell from #1 to #7
- The Kids Will Know It’s Bullshit by Dune Rats fell from #1 to #17
- Busby Marou’s Postcards From The Shell House dropped from #1 to #14
- Ironbark by The Waifs fell from #1 to #7
- Lana Del Rey’s Lust For Life fell from #1 to #7
Except for the Bublé Christmas album, every single other album in that list fell from #1 in only its second week on the chart, with at least five of those artists also being largely unknown.
As well, that list ignores the plethora of #2 and #3 debuts that fell all the way out of the top 20, or even as far as outside the top 30, in their second week. It’s a more-or-less weekly occurrence these days, and it’s been happening now for years.
Five years ago, it seemed impossible that an album could reach #1 with sales of just 3,000 units. Only 18 months ago, it still seemed so absurd that it made the press.
In 2017, the picture is even more dire. But it’s not just down to sales.
A few weeks back Melodrama, the second studio album by Kiwi songstress Lorde, shot up to #2 on the chart. It did so off the back of just 800 physical and online sales. 800 sales. #2 on the albums chart. In a country with a population of 25,000,000 people.
But there’s something missing from these lists. Something we’ve all heard of and probably been guilty of enjoying more than once in our lives.
Way back on 25 June 1989, the ARIA albums chart included titles like Hits Now ’89 at #49, Hits Of ’89, Volume 1 at #43, Hits Of ’89 Volume 2 first week in at #37, Hot Metal at #29 and Hits Now ’89 Vol. II up at #4. Yes, the ubiquitous compilation album. They’ve been around forever and many of them have been among the biggest selling albums of any given year.
But the very next week, on 2 July 1989, ARIA pulled the ‘various artists’ titles from the main albums listing and popped the top 5 compilation sellers into a little chart all of their own, right at the bottom of the page. Whether Hits Now ’89 Vol. II ever would’ve made it beyond #4, we’ll just never know (although it did spend nine consecutive weeks at #2 on the compilations chart!).
And so it’s remained for the past 28 years. Today ARIA still publishes a summary of each week’s ten biggest selling compilations, as a standalone list in their weekly ARIA Report. (ARIA never publishes actual sales volumes, although it does show the Gold and Platinum accreditations awarded to individual releases in recognition of total sales).
So what does all of this mean for the Australian albums chart in 2017?
Individual album tracks became widely available for purchase online back in about 2005. Since then we’ve seen a gradual shift—far more rapid since the advent of streaming services—towards the hugely fragmented albums chart we see today. ‘Commercial’ or ‘pop’ artists tend to have a greater volume of individual tracks purchased online, at the expense of sales of their full albums. Meanwhile, virtually unknown indie/alternative artists often achieve (relatively) solid full album sales for a week or two, but their individual tracks rarely make an appearance.
Add to this the recent inclusion of streaming figures into what has become an increasingly complex way of calculating album unit sales. Keen chart watchers might reasonably have expected the inclusion of streaming data to settle the albums chart back into a more ‘regular’ pattern of movements. But that hasn’t proven to be the case.
In his recent article on noise11.com, music journalist Paul Cashmere revealed that the Australian Top 10 albums chart for the week of 14 August was about as far from an accurate reflection of album sales as it could possibly be. As published, it looked like this:
1. ÷ Ed Sheeran
2. MELODRAMA Lorde
3. DAMN. Kendrick Lamar
4. MOANA Soundtrack
5. BABY DRIVER Soundtrack
6. EVOLVE Imagine Dragons
7. LUST FOR LIFE Lana Del Rey
8. NEVER TOO SOON Boo Seeka
9. ONE MORE LIGHT Linkin Park
10. EVERYTHING NOW Arcade Fire
That’s a list based on what’s known as Stream Equivalent Album (SEA) values—that is, a combination of CD and vinyl sales, online downloads, and streaming volumes.
However, factoring that week’s compilation album sales back into the list paints a very different picture:
1. SO FRESH THE HITS OF WINTER 2017 Various Artists
2. ÷ Ed Sheeran
3. RAY HADLEY: THOSE WERE THE DAYS VOL 2 Various Artists
4. 101 CLASSIC HITS Various Artists
5. TRIPLE J HOTTEST 100 VOL 24 Various Artists
6. SO FRESH: THE HITS OF SUMMER 2017 + BEST OF 2016 Various Artists
7. SING YOUR HEART OUT 2017 Various Artists
8. 35 YEARS OF WAKING UP WITH TODAY Various Artists
9. MELODRAMA Lorde
10. DAMN. Kendrick Lamar
So what are we seeing here? First and most obviously, seven of that week’s top 10 albums were ‘various artists’ compilations. Only three of them were long players by individual artists.
With all those compilations up there, that paltry 800 units that Lorde’s Melodrama shifted to apparently propel it to #2 really only sent it as high as #9. Not so very long ago, 800 units wouldn’t have even cracked the top 50.
According to Paul Cashmere the ARIA sales data also revealed that the #1 So Fresh compilation sold nearly 4,000 units more than Sheeran’s ÷ album. The significance of that number can’t be understated: in recent years, few albums by individual artists have amassed that many sales in total to hit #1, let alone held that much of a lead over the runner-up.
As well, if streaming numbers are removed—numbers that presumably don’t count for much toward compilation albums—then the Kendrick Lamar album drops out of the top 30 altogether.
So with all that in mind it may seem that any comparison between artist albums and compilation albums will never exactly be apples-with-apples. And that’s as maybe. But it’s a disparity that could apply across the board.
Record companies have different marketing strategies for different artists and all artists have different demographics: some have more focus on live performances and albums, others have more of a single track focus; some have far greater online sales, others are almost exclusively streaming; some have bigger vinyl sales than any other format, while others no longer release physical product at all.
If ARIA were to publish one combined chart for all artist and compilation album sales—which I firmly believe they should—for the greater accuracy it would provide, these are vagaries that would simply need to be accepted for what they are.
Whatever the potential future situation, ARIA’s current calculation of album sales in this country makes it clear that Australians are buying far more compilation albums than long play albums by individual artists. I think that’s a really sad thing.
If nothing else, it throws into question the recent 19-week reign at #1 of Sheeran’s ÷. It’s one of a handful of albums to amass a huge run of weeks atop the albums chart over the past 28 years: 18 weeks for Mariah Carey’s Music Box (1993-94), 19 weeks for Savage Garden (1997), 20 weeks for Shania Twain’s Come On Over (1997-99), 29 weeks for Delta Goodrem’s Innocent Eyes (2003-04) and a whopping 32 weeks for Adele’s 21 (2011-12). But how many of those albums would’ve achieved such chart domination, had compilation albums still been included? And yes, I’m mostly looking at you, Ms Adkins.
Meanwhile, I’ve the more distressing issue of the death of the long play album to work through.
As a teenager, birthdays and Christmases typically saw 12″ x 12″ square gifts coming my way, and I couldn’t wait to rip the wrapping paper off them so that I could turn the stereo on. As I listened intently, I’d start pouring over the front and rear covers, and the lyrics and liner notes on the inner sleeves; I’d check out the quality of the dust jacket, and I’d read every single character of the production and writing credits on the label at the centre of the shiny black vinyl platter.
During the 90s those gifts shrunk to roughly 5″ x 5″, but my excitement was always the same—it was never about the size, always about the quality. Basically, nothing could ever beat the elation of those first moments with a new album.
I still buy albums today. CD albums. Vinyl albums. And yes, I do occasionally download albums too, if it’s something I know I’m going to physically buy anyway but I’m too impatient to wait to hear it, or if it’s a title that I just know I’m not going to go scouring the stores to find—and let’s face it, there aren’t that many stores left to scour anyway.
I used to spend ¾ of my life, and almost all of my money, in record stores, browsing or buying records and CDs. I’d happily spend an entire Saturday meandering from the HMV Megastore to the Virgin Megastore, then on to Sanity and JB Hi-Fi, followed by a full afternoon of trawling through all the fabulous secondhand record stores at the southern end of Sydney’s CBD, hoping to score myself a rare or long sought-after pre-loved find.
It makes me sad that I can’t do that anymore. It kinda makes me sad that today’s generation of music lovers really can’t do that anymore either. Even for the more ‘old school’ music fans of the younger generation, getting their hands on physical product invariably means trawling through an online store and having the apple of their eye delivered in the mail. They can’t experience that pure unadulterated joy that comes from flipping through row after row of CDs or vinyl in a cramped and musty old shop. The poor things’ll never know what they’re missing.
So, they’re being produced in ever decreasing numbers, there’s hardly anywhere we can go to physically find them anymore and, even with online access to them at the touch of a virtual button, they’re no longer even selling in sufficient numbers to fill the Top 10.
Looking back over the past 50 years of music there are countless albums, irrespective of genre, that define an era or a generation—everyone knows them, recognises their covers, knows the singles they spawned, remembers the music videos, or went to the live shows and tours that followed.
When today’s generation looks back on its life in music, what will they remember? What tangible thing will they find? Shelves filled with beautiful album covers and artwork? Or a cloud account full of mp3’s and m4a’s? A Spotify account full of favourite playlists? All they’ll have are electronic files of throw-away songs. Assuming they even keep them.
What an appallingly depressing state of affairs when one of our future octogenarians looks back and finds that LMFAO’s Sexy And I Know It and Adele’s Someone Like You are the only two musical memories they have.
So thank you, long player. For all those times you stood by me. For all the truth that you made me see. For all the joy you brought to my life. For all the wrong that you made right. For every dream you made come true. For all the love I found in you. I’ll be forever thankful. You’re the one who held me up, never let me fall. You’re the one who saw me through. Through it all.
RIP, my graphically equalised friend.