In our last Music Biz Monday, we looked at the rise of music streaming (and rather rapid decline of downloads) as the primary method of consuming recorded music. We’ve addressed in the past the pro’s and con’s of streaming music as a whole in the industry. Today, we are taking a look at how record companies seem to be responding.
In our recent audio review, DBM noted the shortened length of the latest LeFevre Quartet release, Ascending, with the album coming in at just 8 songs total (which is technically too long to qualify for EP status as per RIAA guidelines, but still short of the accepted standard of 10 songs). Prior to that, The Oak Ridge Boys released 9 songs on their 17th Avenue Revival album, again, shy of the 10-song norm. In 2017, both Steve Ladd and Misty Freeman released 6-song EP’s, while the Nelons released two separate 9-song collections (on the same day, no less). The 10-song album appears to be fading away as album sales (both physical and download) continue to decrease in favor of ala carte streaming services that allow users instant individual song access without needing to purchase a full album.
As I’ve noted in the past, the 10-song album basically came about in the early days of recording technology. When Columbia introduced of the LP (or long-play) vinyl record, one could fit on average 5-6 songs per side safely, so the industry standard for a “full-length album” became 10 songs, even if some of them were only there so as to not waste space on the disc (“fillers”). Even 45 RPM singles often had B-sides that were fillers for the same reason – to fill up the empty space. Those fillers at the time weren’t necessarily a hindrance to an album or single because hit singles are what promoted the album. Fans would still buy the album for the “good” songs, and the songwriters still got paid even if the song itself wasn’t all that great (a sale is a sale, after all, whether it’s liked or not).
On the current streaming model, every song is essentially a single (even fillers). The problem arises when those fillers collect digital dust on a streaming platform in favor of the stonger songs. Unlike full album (or even EP) sales where a sale is a sale, if a song isn’t streamed, no one gets paid (even if it is less than one cent per stream). If your focus is on streaming revenue, then instead of wasting time (and money) recording those fillers, why not just release the best songs you can, even if it’s only 6-8 songs at a time, and be done with it?
In fact, some record labels are now reducing the overall total of songs per album across the board. One recent report indicated that Daywind Records is looking at making 8 songs per album the label standard for physical CD’s, eventually reducing that number to 6 (effectively making all album releases EP’s). This seems to jive with the EP approach that artists like Freeman and Ladd (and myself) have been taking, but I believe it’s less about economics (at least from the overall album budget standpoint) and more about trying to fit into the new ala carte system.
While I agree with this logic in general (seeing as streaming seems to be the direction of music consumption as a whole – just ask YouTube), I still believe there is still a happy medium to be found, especially in a niche market like SG. Streaming vs Physical Products doesn’t have to be an either/or scenario; instead of retrofitting CD’s into a streaming model by cutting out songs, why not make the best of both worlds? Release a full-length CD (10-12 songs), and then release a streaming version that includes the 6-8 best songs from that collection; die-hard fans will spend the extra $$ on the physical copy to get the extra songs, while the strongest songs can work as the “singles” for the streaming audience. If there is a high enough demand, then the rest of the album could be released to streaming as well.
Another issue that seems to be more prevalent in southern gospel music than secular music is concert merchandise sales. These serve as impulse buys at concerts, allowing artists to recoup some of their travel costs. Telling someone your album is on Spotify or Apple Music doesn’t guarantee a sale; you have to have something in your hand you can sell them directly (and immediately). This is where having CD’s will best serve the artist, and why I don’t think CD’s (or physical product in general) will ever completely go away; their place in the market may just shift a bit.
I have to give record labels credit for trying to find what works in this new realm of music consumption. There will definitely be some growing pains along the way, which leaves us with the incredible shrinking album in the mean-time. At the rate we’re going, the industry may just abandon albums altogether in favor of singles released several months (or even weeks) apart. If a song is successful, then the artist/label knows they’re on the right track and can immediately record a follow-up. If a song bombs, they know fairly quickly what to adjust for their next song. It also allows for record deals that allow for an artist to be retained or dropped from a label much faster.
As the industry continues to morph as never before, it really is anybody’s guess where it will all land….