Maybe the album format isn't ready to die just yet. Lady Gaga's "Born This Way" sold 1.11 million units in its first week of release and has moved another 4.28 million digital tracks. It's the first album in 18 months to sell over one million units in a single week. These numbers suggest the old way of selling music-and perhaps not the album format itself - is what's dying in the record industry.
In recent years, some experts have encouraged artists and labels to ditch the album format and release a steady flow of songs in bite-sized packages. We're in the era of playlists and access models, they say, and consumers don't want bundles of songs. They want to choose songs rather than have a set of songs imposed upon them. They want a steady diet of new music that reflects the constant communication fans now have online with their favorite artists.
It may look good on paper, but the theory has problems in the real world. So many things are tied to album releases: Tours, publicity and marketing campaigns all rely on them as anchors. Without an album release, artists will have one fewer event around which they can build corporate partnerships -that's important in the 360 contract era. And retail will lack the kind of event that will get the maximum number of feet (real or virtual) in the door.
Last week's sales of "Born This Way" show us the album release is still a major event, one that Interscope spent months laying the groundwork for. It's hard to imagine this much media attention and so many promotional tie-ins being created for the release of a single track or an E.P. After all, Lady Gaga released three digital tracks before "Born This Way" came out, and none generated the media frenzy that was associated with the album.
Ah, but "Born This Way" wouldn't have surpassed a million units if Amazon had not put it on sale for two days at 99 cents, right? That's true. However, Amazon's promotion only underscores the fact that retailers and corporate brands want to use album releases to their advantage. Billboard estimates Amazon lost $3.3 million on sales of "Born This Way." But it may have gained that back either directly (through incremental revenue) and media coverage (after all, publicity isn't free). Gaga may have said that digital copies of the album aren't worth more than 99 cents but it's easy to imagine that, if it's considered in terms of an elaborate advertising campaign for its cloud services, Amazon's campaign paidfor promotion was worth more than 99 cents a unit to.
There were other promotions that would not have attracted the same media or consumer attention if they were tied to a single or EP (or a series of singles or EPs). Copies of the digital album were included with Zynga gift cards and smartphone purchases at Best Buy. There was an HBO special. And there is now a Zynga online video game called GagaVille. All work well with the grand event that is the release of a major album.
In years past, a new album would be preceded by a radio single and would go on sale at record stores around the country. Now an album release strategy is far more complex. Partnerships are more important than ever. Today's business is about grabbing and keeping the consumers' elusive attention. Dribbling out a few songs every three or four months doesn't capture much attention in the age of the short attention span. As "Born This Way" proves, when done right, the album release is still the biggest event in the record business.