The Trend of Longer Albums in the Digital Age

A couple of weeks ago The Weeknd dominated the album charts even though six other artists sold more physical albums. According to the New York Times The Weeknd only sold 13,000 album units in that week in the US, while six other artists sold more physical albums. Next to the The xx, who had the most sales with 36,000 copies, the La La Land Soundtrack, Run the Jewels and Bruno Mars among others would have sold out The Weeknd.

Because of his incredibly strong streaming numbers, around 57.2 million, he still took the number one spot. The xx for example only had 12.3 million streams last week. When looking at these numbers the chart positions might seem fair, after all streaming is such an important way of music consumption nowadays.

Maybe people simply need to change the way they think about charts and the value of physical sales? The value of physical sales decreases constantly anyway and streaming becomes more important.

But there is something which makes this a bit more complicated.

The traditional album format is based on 10-12 tracks, a CD simply limits the length of an album due to it’s capacity. In a digital format the album can be as long as you’d like it to be.

And because the ratio for streams-to-album-sales applies to songs rather than the whole album, putting out an album with a longer track list benefits album sales. More songs mean fans are going to produce more streams as they obviously want to listen to the whole album and more streams mean a higher number of converted album sales.

The Weeknd’s album Starboy has a total of 18 tracks (!), compared to The xx’s ten songs. So if the same amount of people, lets say 5,000 each, listen to The Weekend’s and The xx’s new album, it would make 90,000 streams for The Weeknd and only 50,000 for The xx. Divided by 1,500 (1,500 to 1 is the ratio which is being used at the moment) it would make 60 album sales for The Weeknd and only 33 for The xx. This is almost half even though the same amount of people listened to it!

So should artists simply make longer albums specifically for streaming services to generate more album sales?

We’ve seen this approach in many successful releases last year. Drake’s incredibly successful 2016 release Views was 20 tracks long, as well as Kanye West’s The Life Of Pablo and Justin Bieber’s 2015 release Purpose had 18 tracks.

It seems like a logical tactic, but doesn’t this lower the quality of the creative output, because artists are forced to make more songs? And songs which normally wouldn’t make the album cut because they are not got enough are being included anyway?

On The Weeknd’s Starboy quite a few tracks definitely lower the quality of the album. It feels like they’re just there for one reason: stretching out the length of the record. This can’t be in favour of an artist’s creative vision, can it? On Starboy it almost feels like The Weeknd lost his track when comparing it to his previous work and the stronger songs are not able to stand out as they simply get lost.

This might be a matter of taste to some degree, but noticing this approach so many times throughout the last year should definitely raise some questions.

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