Is Music Streaming Good For Album Sales?
To claim that Mumford & Sons sophomore LP Babel has been warmly received would be the understatement of the year.
Trumping teen sensation Justin Bieber’s Believe, with 374,000 units shifted in its initial week of sales, England’s most popular purveyors of the resurging folk movement sold a mammoth 600,000 albums within their debut week.
Coupled with the 442,000 digital sales, Mumford & Sons have established themselves as major players on the worldwide stage.
Not only that but the UK quartet have just cracked six hits concurrently in the US Billboard Hot 100 pop charts, a feat not achieved since The Beatles managed it over 50 years ago.
In short, Babel’s success is monstrous.
However, what strikes as the most interesting aspect of the album’s success, is the recently revealed streaming stats.
With over 8 million streams on Spotify within its first week of release, Mumford & Sons’ Babel has surpassed expectations and smashed records as they triple previous titleholders (though Spotify won’t divulge who) to claim the highest trafficked debut album in the service’s history.
With 10% of Spotify users in both Australia and the US streaming the album throughout the week of release, the service has facilitated the distribution of the album in ways incomprehensible to those preaching a traditional business model.
With such a widespread network of users granted free access to the much hyped album, one must wonder whether streaming services such as Spotify are contributing to the promotion of an artist through increased exposure, or conversely discouraging album sales and taking out of the pockets of musicians through an increasingly effortless interface, delivering free music directly to users.
While the strong sales of Babel – eclipsing releases from high-profile artists such as Green Day and No Doubt within the same week – indicate the band is doing just fine, and perhaps even benefitting from the exposure.
With the massive gap between the 600,000 albums sold and the 8 million streams, are we to assume streaming has become the preferred method of listening for consumers?
Even taking into account that many users will have streamed the album multiple times, the divide between the two figures is enormous.
Having been available in Europe for nearly five years, Spotify has gained momentum at a frightening pace over the course of the last two years.
Integration with social networking goliath Facebook and expanded availability into regions such as America, New Zealand, and in Australia has seen the service boom over the past twelve months, peaking with 15 million users at time of writing.
While a premium service is offered at $10 a month, negating ads and giving unlimited access to the extensive catalogue of over 16 million songs, only 4 million of Spotify users have subscribed to the paid service.
With a limited percentage of their consumer contributing financially, criticisms have arisen over whether the artists themselves are being paid fairly.
Despite reports that the service has paid $150 million to music labels and publishers, split amongst the expansive list of artists in their catalogue, there’s not a lot of cash to go around.
In one case late last year, Mercury Music Prize nominated artist, Jon Hopkins, claims to have been paid a measly £8 (roughly $12.50) for 90,000 plays of his music.
Spotify’s Chief content officer, Ken Parks, hit back however, arguing the service is complementary to album sales, rather than cannibalistic.
“Our streaming numbers sit alongside a very healthy sales volume,” said Parks when speaking to the LA Times, “We’re living in a new age. There isn’t a single model of consumption for recorded music.”
Despite this, many big players in the industry refuse to comply with the service and disallow access to their releases until many months after initial availability both on physical formats and on competing digital services such as iTunes.
Three of last year’s biggest releases; Coldplay’s Mylo Xyloto, The Black Key’s El Camino and Adele’s 21, were absent from the service during their all-important debut week, in fear of losing physical sales to the increasingly popular service.
Speaking to The Guardian, Coldplay cited a preference for their record to be heard as “one cohesive work” in defence of their decision, despite complying to iTunes’ pricing model where individual songs are available and promoted for purchase.
However, band manager Dave Holmes, may have revealed the truth behind the matter when he protested to the Sydney Morning Herald, “Spotify competes with download stores.”
Losing album sales seems to be the biggest concern for most musicians, and many big names are yet to join the service, including heavyweights such as Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, AC/DC, and The Beatles.
However, as artists with a consolidated legacy, they seem to transcend such models – AC/DC in particular are notorious for denying their music from many burgeoning technologies such as hip-hop and DJ sampling, use in video games and still being unavailable on iTunes.
Despite this, the founder of Glassnote records and distributor of Babel, Daniel Glass, recently defended the service, telling the Los Angeles Times “Spotify is a huge form of exposure, and they’re not stealing.”
Commenting on the prevalence of piracy in the current music model he went on to claim “it’s re-training people to buy music through streaming services. Could we be getting better compensation? Yes, but I’m not going to hold it back from them. That’s old thinking.”
Not an overwhelmingly positive response, yet it is recognition of the services’ sturdiest argument; that it is a legitimate alternative to physical albums sales, which have been losing relevance as the internet revolution takes hold of our music consuming habits.
Presenting the ease of access and affordability touted by illegal file-sharing websites in a model that recognises artists both financially and statistically, Spotify is converting the waves of Internet users flocking to the convenience of torrents.