Sheeran, Drake et al – How They Rescued The Album

The argument appears to have been raging for close to two months now and shows little sign of dying down any time soon. The ability of entire albums to sweep en-masse into the singles chart was thrust to the fore of the news by the near-total domination of the Top 10 achieved by Ed Sheran’s Divide album back in March. It has prompted an extended debate as to whether things are now “broken” regarding the way charts are compiled, and the popularity of songs is measured. From my point of view it has resulted in the most-read Chart Watch piece since I migrated the column to its own site almost a year ago, and this previous posting where I refuted suggestions made by the BBC as to how things might be “fixed”.

However, for a few weeks now I’ve become convinced that there is one thing that is indeed broken. What Ed Sheeran (and other streaming Kings such as Drake and The Weeknd) have actually done is rescued the album from near-oblivion. And that was actually the last thing that anyone expected to happen.

The idea of the album as a complete body of work, as opposed to a random collection of songs assembled for convenience, only truly dates back from the late-1960s with the invention by the likes of The Moody Blues and The Beatles of the ‘concept album’ with all tracks being bound by a single theme or narrative. By the 1970s the LP was seen by some acts as an artform in itself, elevated above the level of the mere pop record and the mark which distinguished the average performers from the truly great. Rock giants such as Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd released famous bodies of work and by and large declined to lower themselves by promoting them with single cuts. You didn’t cut pieces from your masterpiece, the argument went, you sat back and appreciated it as a whole. And people cheerfully bought into that idea. If nothing else, the technology of the time meant that the only ‘proper’ way to listen to a long playing record was to put the needle at the start and let it run until the end. Anything else was too much of a faff and involved getting out of your seat to move the needle along. So why bother?

The slow death of this concept actually came far earlier than anyone realised, with the invention and subsequent adoption by the mass market of the Compact Disc player. For the first time music was available by random access. As much as the marketing of the early players focused on the crystal-clear sound of the reproduction (so good you could hear the singer breathing), the system was also sold on the idea you could program or even randomise the available tracks. I remember as a teenager visiting friends whose parents had indulged them with hi-fi systems that played the wondrous silver discs in order to hear the latest album by our favourite groups. This would normally consist of programming in tracks 1, 2, 5, 6 and 8 on the basis that “you don’t need to hear the rest, they are a bit rubbish”. People had started to enthusiastically cherrypick the killer cuts from a long playing record. It was just that nobody really noticed – you still had to buy the complete disc regardless of how much of it you wanted to hear.

Hence when the digital era arrived, the iTunes store and the concept that every individual track was effectively a ‘single’ you could buy was less of a revolution than it might have first appeared. In 2007 when the gloves finally came off, and any track was free to chart, I and many other chart-watchers were anticipating mass invasions of the singles chart by the complete set of tracks from the biggest names in pop. Except it never really happened that way. What we saw instead was a savvy music buying audience homing in on the most popular tracks from an album and cherry-picking those ones alone. Two or three, or at the most four, tracks from a hot new long playing collection would make brief chart appearances before fading away to perhaps await the day they were properly elevated to ‘singles’.

It was this break-up of albums into their constituent parts which not only frustrated the veterans (Pink Floyd albums were notoriously slow in appearing online, Roger Waters refusing to countenance Apple’s wish that tracks could be purchased individually and insisted that his masterpieces were designed to be appreciated as a whole) but also the music industry as a whole. While singles buyers enthusiastically embraced this new musical form, album purchases remained stubbornly locked to their physical past – a market that was slowly but steadily dying. Many attempts were made to fix this problem and migrate people to the idea of purchasing full albums digitally, whether it was the iTunes “complete this album” button which allowed you to snap up the rest of a collection you had partially bought for a discount, or the “instant grat” tactic whereby a pre-release purchase of a big name album allowed you immediate access to one or more of its tracks.

None were particularly effective, and the near-calamitous collapse of the album market over the past few years can be directly attributed to the decline of the physical-buying audience who simply were not replaced in sufficient numbers by those who wanted complete digital sets.

It seemed safe to assume that this trend would continue, that (freaks of nature like Adele aside) the album was largely dead and the future lay in the cumulative sales and streams of particular tracks. When the Official Charts Company made the move to fold streaming data into the albums chart they rejected counting plays of entire albums, or certain percentages thereof, in favour of counting the total listens for individual tracks from a set, weighting down the biggest singles and adding them in on a 1:1000 ratio. It was a way of continuing to measure the overall popularity of artist collections in an age when all the evidence was that nobody actually listened to albums any more. This is why there was no need to put in place any kind of rule to stop entire albums swamping the singles chart – because let’s face it how likely was it that this would ever happen?

Except that of late, we’ve seen a significant social change. For far too long, appreciation of recorded music has been a solitary activity. We’ve all become used to vanishing into our own musical world via a pair of earphones and a portable player. Your musical choice was nobody’s business – unless perhaps you were 13 years old and riding on the back seat of a bus. Yet slowly but surely music has become a collective activity again. All thanks to social media. Twitter and Facebook mean we can band together with like-minded individuals, congregate on a hashtag and enjoy the shared experience of the appreciation of a work of art. “Second screening” started with television fans and has now spread enthusiastically to music lovers.

Gathering for an online listening party is now the done thing in the wake of a big name release. Fans will co-ordinate their efforts to listen to the work of their idols track by track, commenting and interacting along the way. Radio has picked up on this too. Once upon a time, a major album release by a priority act might be marked by Radio 1 making it a weekly feature and sprinkling tracks from it across dayparts. Now they will devote entire programmes to their own listening parties, playing a release in full, one song at a time. For the first time since the 1970s people aren’t skipping, randomising or programming. They are listening. Albums have become an important part of the narrative again.

That then is why Ed Sheeran, and to a lesser extent acts such as The Weeknd and Drake managed to “break” the singles chart. Because their fans played the new music in full, en masse, and repeatedly over a short period of time. There was little discrimination. Every track was effectively just as popular as the next, and in they shot to the singles chart side by side with each other. It isn’t the charts that are broken, just that the public have started to behave in ways that were never anticipated.

Don’t panic. I’ve not quite come over to the dark side and believe in making rule changes to stop this. This tendency for new releases to create floods is also a consequence of what is still an immature streaming market, one which is still effectively dominated by the early adopters – and in particular those newly-minded music fans who have never bought a record in their lives and probably never will.  Those who have embraced this new means of consumption are overwhelmingly young and their tastes lean almost entirely towards acts of a more urban nature. Because nobody else is doing this in such numbers, they have the ability to swamp the market when they put their minds to it. Or when there is an exciting new release to hashtag listening party. As the market grows and matures and listeners with more diverse tastes arrive online and start to bend the charts to their will, the ability of one act or sound to completely dominate will be greatly diminished, simply because the weight of numbers are against them.

For now, however, we are in what should be a brief period where things do indeed appear to be broken. At least I assume it will be brief. As reports of the premature death of the album have proved, even the smallest of assumptions can be a very dangerous thing.

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