Drake Didn’t Kill the Album. It’s Way More Complicated Than That.

Drake's Scorpion album on CD.
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Drake's Scorpion album on CD.
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Yours for $17.98.

Drake didn’t even release a CD until week two.  And many of his fans have never even played a disc in their lives.  But does that mean the ‘album is dead?’

You can’t talk about the history of music without talking about albums.  Actually, you can’t deep-dive into modern music without delving into albums at some point.  It’s just that the album isn’t the defining glue anymore for the mainstream music industry— not by a long shot.

Instead, the album has gone from being a defining release platform to a mere collection of songs.  The ‘album’ still has the same name, but it now means something totally different to an overwhelming majority of music fans.

And look no further than Drake for evidence of this.  Drake didn’t even release a CD until week two, and who knows if a vinyl LP is coming.  Sure, you can saunter over to Urban Outfitters and pay $17.98 for a Scorpion double-CD.  But that sort of feels like paying $20 to watch a Game of Thrones episode in a movie theater.

Then again, the album still means everything if you’re into certain genres or eras.  You can’t talk about Miles Davis without discussing Bitches Brew, just like you can’t deep-dive into rock n’ roll without talking about Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band or Exile on Main Street.

And if you’re into vinyl, then everything revolves around the album.  Outside of the odd 45 collection, it’s really the nature of the format these days.  And vinyl now accounts for millions in revenue, with double-digit year-on-year growth.

But from a cold hard business perspective, the album is mostly a sideshow.  And Drake treats it accordingly.

For the most part, ‘album sales’ are now a fictitious aggregation of free streams, paid streams, paid downloads, and actual, bonafide CD and LP sales.  Somehow, that motley mix gets magically translated into an ‘album,’ with algorithms cooked up by Billboard’s statisticians.

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But comparing the actual album sales of Led Zeppelin or The Beatles to those of Drake or Ariana Grande is like comparing home runs to slam dunks.  But even worse, it’s as if 5 singles, 2 doubles or 3 steals suddenly equaled a home run.  Sure, we can pretend that these smaller accomplishments somehow add up to the big, crushing home run…. but why?

Accordingly, Billboard and Nielsen Music have been playing this game called ‘album equivalence’ for more than a decade.

The rough idea is that x-number of downloads, x-number of free streams, and x-number of paid streams somehow equal an album.  Oh, and an actual album sale, when that occurs, still counts as 1.

I’ve always thought that this fiction is rooted in emotion for a bygone era.  Before the internet crashed the party, the album represented a perfect product bundle.  It was no different than a case of beer or a car loaded with extra options.  Bundling is a proven business mechanism to lower costs, increase per-session purchases, and boost profits.

No wonder we all want to pretend that the album never went anywhere.  But when do we admit that our old, rich uncle is no longer so rich?

The reality is that no matter how many ‘album sales’ records Drake smashes, the artist himself doesn’t give a f—k about this format.  And neither does his label, management, or fans.

When Drake released Scorpion, something caught my eye on Spotify.  This ‘double album’ was split into two distinct sections, and each bore an icon of a disc.  But many of Drake’s listeners have — literally — never experienced a CD or LP.  And that number will grow as the years go by.

Yes, technically Drake just released a double-album, which everyone knows is called Scorpion.  But most people just treated this as a big collection of songs, which they put on shuffle during release week.  And if we needed anyone to declare to the industry that the music industry doesn’t revolve around albums anymore, then that messenger was Aubrey Drake Graham.

99.9% of Drake listening happened via streaming services, which revolve around individual tracks.  Those tracks were eventually mixed into thousands of different playlists.  Accordingly, all of those singles clogged the Hot 100 — or whatever Billboard chart you want to talk about.

+ Drake’s ‘Scorpion’ Could Become the First Album to Receive 1 Billion Streams In a Week

Billboard then mops up all that consumption and wraps a pretty ‘album sales’ bow around it.

And part of the reason is that people love the idea of the ‘Billboard 200,’ or the emotional concept of an ‘album chart’.  And Billboard’s entire brand, to a certain extent, revolves around its charts.  Those charts, in turn, had revolved around album and singles sales for decades.

No wonder they’re clinging to the past with increasingly complicated math.  It’s a core part of their identity and business.

But the reality is that the album isn’t really an album anymore, at least as it’s been traditionally defined.  It’s a collection of songs, a bucket of singles that are increasingly being streamed one-by-one, then cherry-picked and placed into other buckets called ‘playlists’.

In turn, those playlists are about 1,000 times more important than the age-old album.  In fact, you could argue that the album itself is just another type of playlist, which is our brand-new bundled god.

That is, except for albums that are still actually sold — and consumed — as albums.

When I put Houses of the Holy on a turntable, it’s not a playlist!  But somehow, it still gets counted alongside ‘album stream equivalents’ of Scorpion.  In the end, this means we’re jumbling a bunch of apples and oranges — with some peaches and bananas tossed in — while ignoring the actual, real album sales that are occurring.

Even when that ‘actual album sale’ involves something like Scorpion.



3 Responses

  1. Reality

    I think this article begs the profound question: so what?

    • Sam @ Projekt Records

      As somebody who runs an indie record label, this is very interesting information. That’s so what.

  2. Nicky Knight

    Interesting article Paul and I agree, the whole album, especially the CD and cassette album is a product of another time.

    I mean, how recently did anyone here actually go out a buy a CD recently?

    For certain types of music the idea of an album works well like Oxygene by Jean-Michel Jarre or those German electronic ambient/experimental music albums..