What's The Future Of The Physical Album?

2014 has been a year of highs and lows for music sales. Downloads ahead of physical copies, vinyl sales making waves, as figures hit an 18-year high, but overall a drop in sales across the board. While there will always be purists that prefer  that analogue vinyl listening experience, why has there been such a change in CD and download sales? Why have music sales in general fallen?

As much as technology has advanced, CDs still have a longer life span than hard drives and mp3 players. Surely, buying a physical copy is better for when technology eventually fails? Has minimalistic living become so necessary that we don’t have room to store and display our music collections anymore? Are we now so impatient that we can no longer wait for delivery?

I personally would still prefer, like many, to own a physical copy of an album, often opting to pay the couple of extra pounds for digibooks. I still buy CD’s for the music above all else, but I like the digibook’s presentation. I feel it adds to my own collection more than a standard jewel case. I have to admit; I tend to buy new releases (new and sealed), from a certain online auction site over the label’s webstore, as posting and packaging is usually cheaper. That leads me ask; are downloads more favoured as they workout cheaper?

Is the way fans look at artists changing? I conducted an interview with an American band a couple of years back, where it was said European fans are more likely to follow a band than American fans. American music fans buy what music they like, whereas European fans will buy for the artist. While this is just one man’s opinion, I can see a truth, in that in my own purchases over the years, I’ve liked a bands first couple of albums, thought less of their 3rd release, but nonetheless, bought the 4th before the change in musical direction puts me off buying again.

Although this was said a couple of years ago, I’ve been thinking about this a lot more recently, even more so after a conversation with a local band. It came up in the conversation that streaming a whole album pre-sale could have a negative effect on sales, as it gives the listener more choice to say, “No, I don’t like it as much”. Whereas we all had to buy an album a few years back and then decide if we liked it or not, or go to a concert and see a new song played live for the first time. Now we have the chance to hear an new album before parting with our cold, hard cash. We already know if we like if or not before it’s even added to our mp3 players. No longer do we have to listen to an album 10-15 times before we are singing every word back at our speakers. With superfast fiber optic broadband, smart TV’s and mobile devices do we actually need to buy records anymore?

As a sales tool, used by unsigned bands and labels alike, would it not be better to compile a compilation of an album, with 20 seconds of each song, to stream? Personally, I cannot help but feel that streaming whole songs and albums has had a small but substantially negative impact on album sales.

Would the industry have been wiser spending its time embracing new technologies and innovating new formats (like the televisual and movies industries), rather than the endless cycle of lawsuits, finger-pointing, and blame-shifting for the demise of its revenue?

Are niché markets and collectors really the future of the physical album?

Comment by Jamie Sweetlove


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