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'If Drake can't shift a bulk of physical albums, what hope have Irish musicians?'

Former Today FM CEO Peter McPartlin on how an Irish Album Day could harness the power of the LP.

Peter McPartlin

JUST LAST WEEK, the British music industry announced its intention to launch National Album Day, an industry-wide effort to renew the public’s interest in the LP. It will take place on 13 October, in this the 70th anniversary year of the first album release.

The day will mark the culmination of a week-long series of events, celebrating both new and classic releases across all genres, and paying tribute to sleeve artwork.

It has been dismissed in some quarters as just another retail sales gimmick but generally lauded by musicians and fans at a time when there is mounting concern about the long term fate of the album, as physical sales hit new lows.

The global music industry has had an upturn in its overall fortunes over the last three years, thanks to rise in streaming revenues. Total streaming revenues increased by over 40% in 2017 and became the industry’s single largest revenue source. But physical sales (particularly from CD and digital downloads) are falling rapidly and even though vinyl has been reinvigorated as a ‘must-have’ format, it still only accounts for around 4% of the total recorded music market.

If Drake can’t do it…

A further sign of the new music reality also came into sharp focus last week when it was reported that physical sales for Scorpion, the No 1 album world’s top-selling performer, hip-hop artist, Drake, were just 29,000 copies per week in the US and close to 6,500 copies in the UK.

These were the lowest sales figures for the week’s biggest-selling album in the States since they first began running the numbers in 1991. The trend is unlikely to be that different in Ireland where Spotify has now become the ‘go to’ platform for accessing and paying for music.

We live in an era of customised playlists delivered in flavours to match the ever-changing mood of today’s music fans. Increasingly, the choice for many new artists and fans favours random tunes released more regularly. So tracks have become uncoupled from albums in the same way that news articles have become separated from newspapers and TV shows from TV stations.

Ironically, people are listening to more music

Ironically, people are listening to more music now than at any time in human history because the barriers to access have been removed by the confluence of mobile handsets and limitless streaming. However, listening to whole albums has almost certainly declined to its lowest level in 50 years.

So why should we even care about the long term existence of albums? In the same way that the news‘paper’ habit has been replaced by one that favours news websites and apps, is the album, in its physical form, a relic of a faded music era?

Great tunes have of course, been the bedrock of the modern music business ever since Bill Haley rocked around the clock some 60 years ago. But the long-playing album has been regarded as the hallmark of an artist’s musical heft for close to fifty of those years.

The power of the LP

As a former national music station manager and now with an involvement in the vinyl music sector, I’d wager that any songwriter, musician, band or producer worth their salt, would still prefer to have their creativity, compositions and craft represented on an LP any day of the week. The album is still the ultimate statement of capability of a music artist to produce a coherent body of work and we should be cherishing its position in Irish music too in the same way that we value the importance of long-form journalism.

There are numerous albums in every record collection which have more “filler than killer” but not every album has to be a Sgt Pepper or Rumours in order to be worthy of respect. So this is less about the physical format that the album is delivered in and more about the importance of the album as a symbol of creative output.

We do have the annual Choice Music Prize which rewards the best albums produced by Irish artists but it is still relatively low key and inward-looking. So perhaps a national Irish Album Day which aims to raise the consciousness of the occasional as well as the regular music buyer is something that our own music industry, broadcasters, retailers and maybe even Culture Ireland, might consider supporting here too.

Any initiative which celebrates the range and diversity of artists creating and investing in LPs today and which raises the public consciousness of our rich album heritage is surely a cultural cause worth championing.

Peter McPartlin is a former CEO of Today FM and a marketing and media consultant.

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Peter McPartlin

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