Let It Burn: The Demise of the Platinum Album

We’ve all grown accustomed to the constant proclamations about the sorry state of the music industry. The latest of these laments is for the death of the platinum album. For an album to achieve the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) certification as platinum, it must sell one million copies, and the number of records achieving this certification has been falling every year. This year, however, the only album to achieve a platinum certification has been Taylor Swift’s 1989, which reached this status in a matter of days. People have cried havoc at this apparent death stroke for the music industry, but is it really all that surprising?

Due to these poor sales, publications like The Guardian issue bimonthly obituaries, announcing the death of the album format. The causes of this sinking trend in album sales are the usual suspects. We have had the ability for over a decade to just pick and choose which songs we want from an album without buying the whole thing. This helps explain why even artists that have dominated the charts in the past year, such as Lorde and Beyoncé, haven’t been able to reach the coveted status of platinum for their full albums. This comes as no surprise to all who bought Iggy Azalea’s “Fancy” and, like me, have no idea what the title of her album is. A lot of blame gets tossed towards streaming services, such as Spotify, and rampant music piracy, which allow us to listen to these albums without spending a single cent. The queen of music sales, Taylor Swift, was smart enough to jump this hurdle by avoiding the release of her album on Spotify to guarantee more first week sales.

With 5 platinum albums by October last year, and more reaching that status by the end of 2013, it seems shocking that the industry barely eked out a single platinum album in 2014, but if you compare this year to last year, the reasons for the extreme drop seem obvious. These days, only massive pop, country and hip-hop artists have the ability to sell platinum albums, with the occasional appearance by the world’s 5 biggest rock bands or the Frozen soundtrack. Last year we had releases from Kanye West, Justin Timberlake, Beyoncé, Jay-Z, Eminem, Drake, Blake Shelton, and Luke Bryan. Those are the world’s biggest acts, and country music usually continues to perform well in album sales. This year, despite being a great year of music, has sorely lacked these sorts of superstar releases. Besides Taylor Swift, the only likely contenders for a platinum record were Coldplay – who barely promoted or toured their stripped-down, 9-song Ghost Stories, making it far less appealing to the public than their previous two larger-than-life albums – and U2, who disqualified themselves from their guarantee of selling a million copies by giving their record away. In light of this diminished competition, it is easy to see why Taylor Swift stands alone, with a very slim chance of welcoming Nicki Minaj or the Foo Fighters to the platinum club by year’s end. While this might seem like a tragic end to an era, the death of the platinum album could be a rejuvenating event to kickstart a musical golden age.

Despite the large amount of outcry about these plummeting sales from musicians, execs, and angry voices on the Internet, this is no doomsday for the art of music. It may cost some industry executives their jobs, but in a rapidly changing industry, that is to be expected. Artists don’t make their money off of album sales anymore, and rather than lead to the death of the album as a format, this opens up the potential for an artistic renaissance for the album.

The more money tied-up in something often leads to a bland homogeneity in art, without risk-taking, as artists try to give the people what they want in order to sell more product. Occasionally, experimentation is rewarded with success, but why risk a bold flop when it is much more viable to produce two nearly identical albums and keep bringing in profit. Mumford & Sons’ sophomore album Babel strictly adhered to both the style and formula of their debut and went double platinum in the United States.

In the hey-day of music sales, labels could squash the creative ideas of artists in order to keep pumping out successful records. Wilco were dropped by their label after they wrote Yankee Hotel Foxtrot because it strayed too far from the alt-country sound the band started with, so they streamed it for free online, and now it is one of the most critically acclaimed albums of the past 20 years. Freedom from financial constraints allows artists to hone their craft and produce the type of music they want to produce, which, more-often-than-not, has a far superior outcome than an album designed for high sales.

Artists make the majority of their revenue by touring, and every type of artist is capable of attracting a crowd, whether the crowd comes to hear a few hit-singles or to watch a concept album played through on stage. Billboard ran an article last December stating that 2013 was the best year the touring industry had seen in decades. This is great news for today’s superstar acts that are essentially liberated to create whatever type of album they want, because they can rely on touring revenue. Kanye West can release an aggressive experiment like Yeezus without a lead single, and play to sold-out stadiums. U2 can release an album for free, because their 2009 tour was the highest grossing tour of all time, and Coldplay can release a short somber album with only one upbeat single and remain the world’s most popular band.

However, it is not only these massive acts that prosper. Billboard notes that this success came in a year with surprisingly few of the mega-tours that skew these statistics upwards (i.e. Madonna, The Rolling Stones, U2). Small acts have been out of the running for platinum albums for quite some time now, so they have already coped with the importance of touring and filling a creative niche. This has led to a wide variety of excellent small to mid-size bands that can make a living, giving us, as listeners, an amazing selection of music to listen to.

The lack of money in albums will, in a way, make albums more special. Some artists’ careers are based on their singles – releasing 4 great tracks and 6 useless pieces of filler per-album. With less of a focus on album sales, these singles-driven artists can keep doing what they’re doing, and perhaps move away from the album format, and focus in on what gives them their appeal– well-crafted, infectious hits. People will still want to see them live, and they will continue making money. Because albums won’t be a necessary facet of money-making, if a pop artist wants to release a full album of their work, it will be a more ambitious and cohesive effort, along the lines of Michael Jackson’s Thriller or Kanye West’s 808s and Heartbreak. Artists will only create albums if they have a raison d’être, something that makes the longer format necessary to listen to in full.

This process of revitalizing the album is already well underway. Every year some artist will declare that the art of the album is dying, but that this inspired them to work extra hard and make an album that demands the listener’s attention. Green Day took on this task of saving the album with American Idiot 10 years ago, yet artists continue to come out with acclaimed albums making this same mission statement. Last month, Weezer released their ninth album Everything Will Be Alright in the End, which lead singer Rivers Cuomo prefaced by saying that his goal for the album was “for artistic and creative reasons, to try so hard to make this an album people want to listen to,” and the result of this focused effort is their best album in 18 years, revitalizing a band that had become a joke into respectable artists once more. You see this trend increasingly, despite the incessant claims of the demise of the album. The most respected artists in every genre are focusing their energies into crafting masterpieces: Kendrick Lamar’s good kid m.A.A.d city, Against Me!’s Transgender Dysphoria Blues, and Vampire Weekend’s Modern Vampires of the City soar to greater artistic heights when taken as a whole. Even Taylor Swift has described her platinum 1989 as a unique and consistent departure from her previous styles to a fully realized pop record. It may not be a concept album, but Swift realizes the importance of creating a unified album, and this helps feed her success.

Of course, there’s nothing inherently better about album artists over singles artists. They can both amaze. Sometimes you just want to dance to a Katy Perry track, and other times you want to sit down and listen to a long-form study of suburban ennui with Arcade Fire. Both are perfectly wonderful musical expressions, but now with less pressure to generate profitable albums, creativity can flourish unhindered by economics. When albums aren’t mandatory, artists will try to create an album that demands to be heard in full – something worth listening to, and if the death of the platinum album continues to fuel these creative ambitions, then let it die!

One response to “Let It Burn: The Demise of the Platinum Album

  1. While I think your analysis is relatively on point, it completely misses the issue of widespread cultural diffusion due to the Internet. The glorification and exponential spread of subcommunities and niche fandoms has hugely dented the cultural cache of any one artist.

    We do not see cultural juggernauts like we used to because “culture” has become even more ephemeral than ever due to the way we can filter and select what content comes to us. We are our own gatekeepers now; without a powerful cultural force binding our tastes together, there is less convergence.

    This phenomenon is more about culture than it is about music labels or marketing, in my view.

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