Mind your language

There is always a row about how to quantify success and it is rarely more evident than in the music industry where a large number of factors contribute to an act’s profile and reputation. A well-reasoned blog this month pointed out how the industry is in danger of painting itself into a corner over how it measures sales and reports success.  The complaint being made was that we all run the risk of downgrading our most valuable financial asset (the album) by confusing what an album actually is.

For the sake of being contrary I would actually argue that the industry’s most important asset is now the single. I’ve made the point before (two years ago!) that we’re in the age of the mega-track and the growth and popularity of streaming is only more likely to enforce this point. People continue to consume music in their own traditional (and new) ways but their entry point to the album is always likely to have been through hearing a single, it is the definitive gateway drug – an earworm that drags you to purchase. A mega-track will always result in increased album sales for the artist concerned but the lack of one can kill an album. It remains the best advertisement and should also exist as a stand-alone revenue source.
It’s all in the measurement, perhaps, but forget the formats and think about sales – whether single or album streams, downloads or physical. You can read it in many ways and too much into it.

In the current climate you’d imagine that someone scoring five number one singles will have success in single, streaming and even album sales. An album with five chart-toppers on it is rarely seen outside a greatest hits compilation, it surely cannot fail.
Jess Glynne has now had five UK number one singles. The fact astonishes me but it’s clear that someone in her camp, or probably the camp as a whole, knows what they’re doing. Five number one singles, that’s significantly more than Fleetwood Mac (1), Kate Bush (1) and Bob Dylan (0) to pick three random examples. Thus, if we’re measuring success by number one singles, then Jess and, even less believably, Cheryl Fernandez-Versini, are bigger than Bob, Kate and the Mac. Of course not even Jess herself in her most ego-driven moment (all artists have them) would believe that this is the case but it happens when you compare oranges and apples, they’re both fruit but obviously not the same fruit.

Let us not decry the album, they still have a purpose even if that purpose may only be as a gift for a friend or relative you don’t know very well. The artist may want them; the industry may still revolve around them but their function in an ever-increasing world of streamers is likely to diminish. I fear that unless you have five mega-tracks (or more in Jess’s case as she has 7 UK top 10 releases) or are preaching to an existing, converted and dedicated fanbase then the importance of an album is possibly over-rated, if not now then very soon.
Since the dawn of the download the industry has been fighting to become future-proof. The concentration on streaming and getting the deals right is a huge part of this. It only serves to confuse and there doesn’t seem much point in arguing about semantics. Let us not complicate the language: a single is a single, an album is a collection of songs, a track may be a single or a selection from the album, sales (download or physical) are sales and they generate revenue. The more sales (in whatever form) and streams or radio play an artist has, the more successful they are. It isn’t that complex. An artist will always be searching for a hit, the one song that connects with the widest possible audience – that’s what success looks like, more people listening to and buying your songs. Report it however you like, we’ll all know who the stars are – they’ll be the ones charging the highest price for their concert tickets.