2014: The Year the Playlist Replaced the Album
by Alex Cosper (12/28/14)

Music industry experts have been issuing warnings in recent years that "the album is dying." In 2014, album sales hit an all time low since Soundscan began electronically monitoring music sales in 1991. In some weeks album sales fell below 4 million units, which is considered very weak. While Taylor Swift's 1989 album, released October 27, sold over a million units the first week and became the year's top seller, no other albums could claim to be million sellers for the year except the Frozen soundtrack, which added to its robust sales from 2013.

Only a handful of artists had albums that sold between 500,000 and 800,000 units, which included Beyonce, Lorde, Sam Smith, Coldplay, Lana Del Rey, Luke Bryan and Brantley Gilbert. But most of those albums, except the ones by Sam Smith and Coldplay, were released the previous year and merely padded sales in 2014. The best selling album of the past decade was Adele's 2011 release 21, which sold 5.8 million. Last year's top seller was Justin Timberlake's The 20/20 Experience, which sold 2.4 million.

Interestingly, Taylor Swift pulled all her music from Spotify at the time of her new album's release. This move clouds the thesis that the playlist is gradually replacing the album, but it still makes sense from an artist perspective. She said she pulled her music because the streaming service did not pay artists fairly. That's coming from one of the most played artists of the year, who expects more than fractions of a penny per spin. In that sense her album beat the playlist concept. But for almost all other artists, they became part of either user chosen iTunes playlists or streaming curated playlists.

After all, besides Swift's album, not too many other albums got much national press coverage during the year. There were respectable releases by Tom Petty, Pink Floyd and Barbra Streisand, but the sales did not come anywhere close to the previous album sales of those artists. Weird Al Yankovic made history with the first number one comedy album on the Billboard 200 in five decades, but sales only hit around 100,000 the first week then sales fell off. Yankovic promoted the album by releasing several different videos on YouTube in the week leading up to the release.

It's hard to count U2's free album on iTunes Songs of Innocence as a top album, even though it was downloaded by over 26 million fans. When the physical album came out with a price tag it sold poorly for a megastar release and quickly fell off the national radar. As much as the "album" made history, it was really the "playlist" of the album that made iTunes history since not everyone downloaded the entire album. It might also be the highest paying album of this century since Apple paid the band over $50 million upfront, but it somehow doesn't fit the same category as albums bought by fans. Again, it was more like a free playlist of tracks for fans, who then mixed the songs into multiple playlists with other artists., one of the most successful artists of the past decade, said in an Associated Press video interview in August that record contracts were historically based on recording tracks for albums. But now he acknowledges that the album is dead and that people need to imagine new industries for music. He claimed he did not see any YouTube revenue for his 2012 video "Scream and Shout," which got over 300 million views.

Despite the media attention shining on Spotify and Pandora, iTunes still overwhelmingly has the top market share for music sales, although that percentage has dwindled the past few years. Streaming, despite being an unprofitable venture so far, has been gaining audience in recent years to the point where many music industry observers are calling it the "future of music." But no matter what format comes out on top in the next few years, whether it's digital downloads or streaming, the playlist is what seems to be what's really happening in the 21st century.

Prior to the internet and digital download revolution, not many people talked much about "playlists," but music fans certainly talked a lot about albums through the mid-nineties. One of the turning points besides Napster's rise in 1999 was the legal download solution from the iTunes Music Store in 2003, a few years after the debut of the iTunes Music Player. Prior to these key developments, most radio listeners understood the term "playlist" as something controlled by radio stations and night club DJs. Even people who created their own mix tapes didn't really talk about "playlists" unless they were already professionals in the radio or music industries.

But digital music players, especially iTunes, allowed music fans to begin experimenting with their own playlists. That's when the term started to expand from the professional world to the consumer world. People could now easily choose their own playlists instead of waiting to find out what someone else would play for them. The term "album" hung on for many years even after the decline of vinyl LPs because the term really refers to a collection of songs by an artist or various artists. YouTube, which has become the king of free online music listening, calls its video sequences "playlists."

Today people are talking about albums less and less because they are too busy creating or shaping their own playlists. Musical environments have come down to a song by song decision making process. Since there really haven't been many monumental albums since the 90s, consumers are more concerned about filling up their listening experiences with songs they already know and like. For years the bulk of album releases were designed to have a few good songs and the rest filler material, although any music fan can still name hundreds of great albums. What iTunes did was it shredded the filler and allowed consumers to spend $15 on 15 songs they liked instead of a few songs they liked plus 13 filler tracks.

The rise of the playlist has been a gradual evolution. In many ways it's amazing that the album lasted as long as it did, knowing that albums were over-priced for years and didn't provide the same satisfaction as creating your own playlist. Albums were particularly made popular by The Beatles in the sixties due to the concept nature they brought to the medium, which influenced the music world for the next several decades. Yet in the new century, not even rock critics have talked much about concept albums as the major labels have focused more on consistent song formulas rather than broader creativity. Maybe more concept albums are what fans are really waiting for.

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