The Album in the Streaming Era

As a society we seem to have reached the point at which every cause, culture, and concept has its own national or international day. Many of these worthwhile – International Women’s Day, World Mental Health Day, National Poetry Day – many less so – National Hat Day, World Egg Day, National Fried Chicken Day. I’m sure we can all agree, however, that National Album Day – taking place for the first time on 13th October – is a worthwhile day of celebration.

Spearheaded by ERA (Entertainment Retailers Association) and the BPI (British Phonographic Industry), National Album Day is a moment in which music lovers can look back over the 70 years of the long-playing record and reflect on the ways in which it has shaped our lives.

In an era synonymous with instant gratification and customised entertainment, it is easy to write-off the long-playing album as a relic of the past: a pre-AUX cord throwback to a time of corduroy suits and three TV channels. For many fans and artists, however, this is a lazy assumption. It is true that singles and streaming playlists dominate the psyche of many labels but 46% of UK streams still come from outside the singles market and the streaming sea change is not the first perceived threat to the album format. History proves that there’s often a time-lag between technological development and the industry catching up but these shifts force artists to push the boundaries of where the album stands and defines itself. Radiohead disrupted distribution norms with their ‘pay what you want’ policy for In Rainbows, U2 took advantage of technological shifts with their Cloud drop of Songs of Innocence, and Kanye West asked questions about the fixity of the format with his post-release changes to Life of Pablo. The album is most relevant when it is asking questions of our ingrained assumptions.

Whilst these innovations have left ripples in the culture it is impossible to ignore the fact that UK album sales have halved since 2010 and streaming subscriptions have soared. 2018 saw Spotify pass the 80 million subscriber mark and this figure continues to climb. Although this marks a seismic shift towards more customisable music consumption, it does not spell the end for the album format. Rather than cowering from the spectre of streaming, artists and labels must ride this wave and future-proof the album in a way that ensures its mainstream relevance – whether that be through the Life of Pablo model or a multimedia shift embodied by Beyoncé and Lemonade. There is most definitely still a place for the traditional album but it would be a major disservice to its innovative pedigree if it is shoehorned into the future on nothing more than nostalgic grounds; for the album to remain a viable option for artists it must find non-gimmicky ways to move in line with technology.

The widespread support for National Album Day has shown that, as long as albums are being made, there will be an audience but we need to ensure that this audience continue to support the medium and avoid casting it to the peripheries of musical engagement. Personally I will always be an album fan and will continue to listen to songs in their intended order whether that be on a CD in the car or on Spotify on the street.

David Boyden, October 2018.