Music has value. I’ve been seeing this written on t-shirts recently. It’s a phrase that’s been championed by Scott Borchetta of Big Machine Records, and many are taking note. Scott has been on the front-lines, fighting for artists and the industry, and I thank him for it. Having said that, I don’t like the statement. With all due respect, Scott, I propose rephrasing it: good music has value. That’s better.
What an historic week we had back in November. Adele’s highly anticipated album, 25, moved 3.38 million copies in the first week of its release in the US alone. This betters the previous first week US sales record set by NSYNC with No Strings Attached (2.4 million units). What does this mean, though? The industry has been telling us for years that the Internet has destroyed the record business. I have to disagree. Disrupted, sure. But destroyed? Like any other industry, when technology innovates, the industry must respond by improving itself – not by fighting a losing battle with innovation. Just look at the taxi business: ride sharing services like Uber and Lyft offer a better experience. This always wins with consumers.
Bringing this premise back to music, what Adele has shown us is that if you create high quality content, people will support it. And support it they did. Let’s look at the numbers (borrowed from Billboard): she sold more than double the combined sales of the rest of the top 100 albums (2-100) in its first week; was responsible for 41% of all albums sold across the US, with 1.71 million physical CDs and 1.64 million digital albums: 49% of every download sold.
These are unbelievable figures, but moving past Adele’s incredible success, others have had great years too. Taylor Swift’s latest album, 1989, was released a little over a year ago, and remained in the top 10 for 52 weeks; and Drake sold over a million on a mixtape! The point I’m trying to make is, if the music is quality, people will buy. This isn’t to slight artists in any way who aren’t selling. Lots of artists make great music that doesn’t sell. It’s more than just great content; it’s the amalgamation of quality content, a strong marketing effort, and great radio promo. And this is where artists and labels have been failing.
When the music business was disrupted by Napster 15 years ago, it started a chain reaction. First, the industry didn’t know what to do, and fought technology: mistake number one. Once labels realised fighting it was a losing battle (some still haven’t realised), they were forced to play catch up. Shareholders don’t care about this though, they care about returns, plain and simple.
So what’s the easiest way to make sure profits remain high? Cut costs. That’s been the de facto strategy. When I started my professional career 10 years ago, things were different. Labels would book the best studios, they wouldn’t hammer us on our rates, there would be a food budget every day to make sure the talent was happy and fed. All of this meant one thing: the talent creating the record was taken care of in such a way that the only worry was making sure we made great music. The same corner cutting has happened in the offices, too. Labels have cut so much staff, they’re operating at the most anaemic levels possible. This leads for very little bandwidth to get things done. It also means everyone is scared of being next on the chopping block, and prevents anyone from taking a risk. We make music! We’re supposed to be innovators, risk takers, challengers of the status quo!
When I listen to Adele’s album, what I hear is a group of incredibly talented people, working their asses off to make something of quality - of value. I can hear it in the pianos, in the reverbs. These aren’t cheap records to make. This wasn’t producers emailing files online, and engineers mixing in their bedrooms. Money was spent. Once the product was ready, marketing and radio had the ammo they needed to go and do their jobs, which is just as important. There’s a correlation between the albums that do well, and the rest. All of the albums that are doing well are firing on all cylinders. Great content. Great marketing. Great radio team.
If 25 has proven anything, it’s that good music has value.