Is the pop album dead?

Album sales in Ireland are a third of what they were eight years ago. John Hearne wonders if this signals the end

YOU think the building sector has had a bad recession? Talk to someone in the music industry. Two thirds of the market has disappeared in the past seven years. Back in 2005, album and singles sales in Ireland stood at €160m. Last year, it was €52m.

Last June, after 77 years in Dublin, EMI upped sticks and moved out. Meanwhile, according to returns lodged with the Companies Office this month, Sony Ireland doubled their losses in the year ending March 2013, despite releasing huge albums by Taylor Swift and One Direction. All three of the boy band’s albums are currently in the Irish top 20. The latest, Midnight Memories went straight in at No 1 when it came out last month.

This isn’t, of course, just an Irish problem. In 2013, for the first time since the 1980s, there will be no million-selling album in the UK. Emily Sandé’s Our Version of Events was released in 2012, and remains the top selling album of 2013. Yet it has still managed only 600,000 sales. Overall, 11.2% fewer albums were sold in the UK this year compared to 2012.

In the US, Lady Gaga’s much heralded third album Artpop could only manage a week at No.1 and in that week, sold only a quarter of what her previous album Born This Way sold in its first week. Katy Perry shot to the top of the US album charts when her album Prism was released in October, selling 286,000 copies in its first week. It sounds impressive, but the truth is that total album sales for the week — 4.5m — were the lowest since 1991. Miley Cyrus, meanwhile, sold even less when her album Bangerz came out in October.

You can’t, however, pin seven years of collapsing sales on the failure of three US pop divas to deliver. Some music execs have blamed their annus horribilis on release dates. Usually, you’ll see a sizeable proportion of big albums come out in January and February, but this year, many of the really big names, including all of the above, Taylor Swift and One Direction, have hung on until the pre- Christmas period. But while this may prevent them from racking up decent numbers in the calendar year, it does not explain why annualised sales figures are so awful.

The explanation may lie in more fundamental shifts in consumer behaviour. Have we given up on albums in the same way that we’ve given up on type-writers, wrist watches and black and white TVs? Have we all just found a better ways of listening to the music we want to hear? Dick Doyle doesn’t buy it. He is director general of the Irish Recorded Music Association and he believes the industry’s demise is down to one thing only. Piracy. “The recession didn’t hit until 2008 or so, and these trends started when retail sales were at an all time high in Ireland, when we all thought we were billionaires. It’s not as if it happened because of no money in people’s pockets. Irish people seem to be predominantly involved in illegal activities on the internet.”

Doyle is referring primarily to peer-to-peer file sharing sites, where internet users can make their legally-held music available across the internet to anyone who wants it. The technology allows access to copyrighted material without having to pay for it. While this is a global problem for the industry, Ireland is a particular hotbed of illegal file sharing. According to a report released last year by Musicmetric, a company which analyses online music trends, the US is the biggest offender when it comes to file sharing, but when you adjust the data for population, Ireland is second only to Australia in the table of worst offenders.

The industry has, of course, gone to the law to protect its interests. “As sales have been going through the floor,” says Doyle, “we have to do something to protect our members. How can they continue to trade with people just stealing their products?”

The war against music piracy has two fronts. The first consists in stopping individuals who share and download files illegally. Thanks to a High Court ruling four years ago, Eircom instigated a ‘three- strikes’ regime against file sharers across its network. The ultimate sanction, if offending continues, is the loss of service. While the Eircom arrangement recently survived a legal challenge by the Data Protection Commissioner, the recording industry has so far failed to force any other internet service provider (ISP) to implement this system.

The second front is all about attempting to block access to the sites that facilitate file sharing. Earlier this year, the High Court ordered six Irish ISPs to block access to The Pirate Bay, one of the most notorious file sharing sites.

But while piracy may well have started the rot within the music industry, not everyone is as keen as IRMA to put a stop to it. Kieran McGuinness is a member of the band Delorentos, one of the leading lights on the Irish independent music scene. Earlier this year, the band’s third album, Little Sparks won the Choice Music Prize Irish album of the year. “The reality of it is the genie is out of the bottle,” says McGuinness, “and there’s no getting the genie back in again, so you just have to adapt.”

He isn’t the only artist shrugging his shoulders at the proliferation of pirated material. That Musicmetric analysis also reported that the most illegally downloaded album in the UK last year was Ed Sheeran’s +. Over the course of 2012, it was pirated no less than 55,000 times every month. Yet, in an interview with an online music journal, Sheeran said, “It’s all relative”, and suggested that it was OK as long as people came along to gigs.

Kieran McGuinness agrees. He says that if someone hears the music, they might come to the next gig, or buy a T-shirt, or pre-order the next album. When Radiohead made their seventh album In Rainbows available as a free download, McGuinness downloaded it, but liked it so much, he went out and bought the album. “There’s always going to be people who want the physical product,” he says, “so you have to make sure that you’re reaching out to enough of those people. The days of millions dollar advances are gone, but the days of music being needed and wanted and important are not.”

He points out that throughout the evolution of pop music, as new technologies eclipse what went before, they frequently change how music is heard. Sheet music was big business in the late 1800s, but was more or less destroyed by the emergence of the phonograph and the radio.

The album itself was not invented by someone who believed that the best way to showcase new music was to gather it into succinct, thematically homogenous recordings, it was all about the technology. Up until 1948, recorded music was listened to shellac 78s, which had a playing time of just over three minutes. It wasn’t until vinyl records emerged in the late 1940s that it became possible to sit and listen for 20 minutes before you had to get up and change sides.

The standard didn’t change until CDs came along in the late 1980s and bands found they could fit 80 minutes of material on a recording that no longer had an A or a B side.

When Apple’s digital music platform, iTunes, arrived in 2004, it allowed the unbundling of album tracks, which focused early adopters on songs rather than whole albums. You cherry picked the tracks you wanted and left the filler material to the hardcore fans. Albums can be downloaded of course, but they tend not to be — only about 12% of album sales in Ireland are digital. The result was a reversal of fortune for albums and singles. In the past 10 years, single sales have risen six-fold in the UK, while more than 99% of those sales are downloads.

The problem for the industry, of course, is that single sales aren’t half as lucrative as albums.

The curious thing about it, however, is that despite the fact that no one is selling huge numbers of albums anymore, very few bands have actually abandoned the format. In fact the only one of any size who’s gone this route is northern Irish rockers, Ash. In 2009, two years after the release of the album Twilight of the Innocents, the band announced that their new material would be released as a series of 26 singles. No other band of size has broken out of the traditional cycle of album, tour, album, tour. And last year, proving that the album is a hard habit to break, Ash’s lead singer Tim Wheeler collaborated on a Christmas album.

Dick Doyle also points out that, while no one is still making as much money out of albums as they once did, they’re still making more out of albums than any other format.

“Despite the downloads and everything, albums are still a dominant part of the market, they’re not dead,” says Doyle. Of the €52m recorded music sales in Ireland this year, €43m went on albums.

The reality now is that downloading, and even piracy is being supplanted by the next big thing. Last year, for the first time, Apple’s iTunes saw a 4% drop in downloads, the first since the service began 10 years ago. And in the first half of this year, recorded music revenues rose in Norway and Sweden by 17% and 12% respectively.

The reason is Spotify, the largest of a growing number of commercial music streaming services, hailed by the industry as its possible saviour. You don’t download the music, you don’t own anything, you just click and listen. You can create playlists, swap them with other listeners, or just listen to albums in the conventional way. Crucially, the streaming model involves the payment of royalties and as such is supported, with some exceptions, by the industry.

Niall Byrne runs the influential music blog, Nialller9. From where he’s standing, piracy is a diminishing issue. “When we can increasingly access music anywhere via 3G or Wifi, why would we need to own a copy of it? Spotify and other streaming platforms are changing people’s behaviour, making listening to something an easier task, an easier choice than downloading something illegally from some dodgy site.

“The customer values choice, ease of use and availability. If you give them these things, they’ll be less likely to seek for it elsewhere.”

Byrne also notes that, despite the fact that these technologies are pushing us towards a more playlist based way of listening to music, that doesn’t necessarily preclude the album. When CDs first came out, the ‘shuffle’ button allowed you to wreck whatever sequencing the artist had intended without necessarily diminishing the experience. Is unbundling and parcelling songs into playlists any more damaging? Maybe not.

Kieran McGuinness of Delorentos says, while the commercial imperative to release an album may be less, the artistic imperative is as strong as ever. “It’s very important to release a collection. Painters exhibit collections of paintings, short story writers release a book of so many short stories, and there’s always going to be connections between those things.”


IT’S a telling fact that not one of the best selling albums of all time was produced in the last decade.

The most recent is Shania Twain’s 1997, Come On Over, which barely makes the top ten. Will anyone ever crack the 40 million sales mark required to take Shania’s place, let alone the 65m units shifted by Michael Jackson’s Thriller?

The best- selling album of the current decade, Adele’s 21, has sold less than 11m copies, while the second biggest selling, Eminem’s Recovery, has shifted less than half that number.

10. Shania Twain — Come On Over

Born Eilleen Regina Edwards in Canada in 1965, and with a maternal grandmother from Newbridge, Co Kildare, Shania Twain released Come On Over in 1997. It was a collaboration with her then partner, the producer Mutt Lange, and the follow-up to her breakthrough album, The Woman in Me. The album generated 12 singles, including the huge No. 1 hit, ‘You’re Still the One’. ‘Come on Over’ stayed in the US charts for two years and sold over 40m copies.

9. Fleetwood Mac — Rumours

Fleetwood Mac is one of those bands whose endurance owes everything to personnel changes. Back in 1977, they were already on their tenth incarnation, while the album was their eleventh. Mick Fleetwood is reputed to have invited guitarist Lindsey Buckingham into the group, but Buckingham refused to come without his then partner, Stevie Nicks. The rest, as they say, is history. It won the Grammy for Album of the Year in 1978 and went on to sell 45m copies. It features the singles ‘Go Your Own Way’, ‘Don’t Stop’, and ‘Dreams’.

8. Bee Gees — Saturday Night Fever

The cover featured John Travolta in that three-piece suit striking that iconic if oft-parodied pose: finger in the air, legs splayed upon the dancefloor. Here was one of the earliest examples of cross-media marketing. The combination of soundtrack and film carried each other to huge commercial success; Saturday Night Fever became the signature release of the disco era. While the best-known songs were the Bee Gees’ ‘Stayin’ Alive’, ‘How Deep is Your Love’, ‘Night Fever’ and ‘More than a Woman’, nine other artists performed on the album.

7. The Eagles — Their Greatest Hits (1971-75)

Featuring nine best-selling singles, the tracklist includes ‘Take it Easy’, ‘Lyin’ Eyes’, ‘Desperado’ and ‘Tequila Sunrise’. The album sold more copies than any other in the 20th century, and in the US alone it tied for all-time top spot with Michael Jackson’s Thriller. When The Eagles eventually broke up, highly acrimoniously, in 1980, drummer Don Henley was supposed to have said that they would only get back together when hell freezes over. Which is why they called their 1994 comeback album Hell Freezes Over.

6. Meat Loaf — Bat out of Hell

Growing up in rural Wexford in the 80s, no glove box was complete without a cassette copy of Bat out of Hell.

Overblown doesn’t really capture it. Featuring 9 minute-long tracks, lengthy guitar solos and apocalyptic lyrics, it goes so far over the top that beside it Lady Gaga’s recent work seems subtle and understated. The album was all about the song-writing of Jim Steinman, who also collaborated with Meat Loaf on Bat Out of Hell 2 (Back into Hell) 16 years later. There was also Bat out of Hell 3 (The Monster is Loose) though neither was anywhere near as successful as the first.

5. Bad - Michael Jackson

The joke put about by Meat Loaf fans at the time was that he called it Bad because he couldn’t spell Terrible. This was the follow up to most successful album ever, and while Bad didn’t quite reach those heights, five of the nine singles released from it got to No. 1 in the US. The biggest songs were ‘Smooth Criminal’, ‘Bad’, ‘The Way You Make Me Feel’ and ‘Man in the Mirror’.

4. Whitney Houston — The Bodyguard

Another winner of the Grammy for Album of the Year, this is the best selling soundtrack of all time. Side A is nothing but Whitney, while side B features among others Kenny G, Lisa Stansfield and Curtis Stigers. In the film, Kevin Costner plays the title role, assigned to protect Whitney’s character who is being pursued by a stalker. The central track on the album, also the opening song, is the Dolly Parton penned, ‘I Will Always Love You’, which topped singles charts throughout the world when it was released in 1993. The song also featured heavily in tributes to Houston when she died in 2007.

3. Pink Floyd — The Dark Side of the Moon

This is prog rock at its most accessible. Dark Side of the Moon was Pink Floyd’s eighth studio album, recorded over a number of sessions in the early 70s at Abbey Road Studios in London. It featured a range of innovative recording techniques and, unlike many of the other albums on the list, it only generated two singles, ‘Money’ and ‘Time’.

2. AC/DC — Back in Black

The band’s original lead singer, Bon Scott died in Feb 1980. The band thought about splitting up, but ultimately decided to find a replacement. Brian Johnson took over and the album was recorded later that year in the Bahamas and New York, produced by none other than Mutt Lange, the same man who can take a lot of the credit for Shania Twain’s success 17 years later. The record was an instant success. AC/DC became the first band since The Beatles to have four albums in the UK top 100 at the same time.

1. Michael Jackson — Thriller

Produced by the legendary Quincy Jones, Thriller was Jackson’s sixth album, the follow up to Off the Wall. Jackson was one of the first ever artists to recognise the incipient power of the music video, building the album’s release and promotion around it. The video for the single ‘Thriller’ garnered huge coverage, despite running to 13 minutes. Thriller has so far sold 65m units worldwide, and still sells around 130,000 copies in the US ever year.


IN February of this year iTunes, the world’s leading online music retailer, sold its 10 billionth song.

To mark the occasion, the site published its list of the most downloaded songs ‘of all time’. If the list of top selling albums is a little long in the tooth, the list of single downloads is barely out of nappies.

Comparison is a tricky business. These are singles, not albums, and from iTunes only. It does however give some idea of how the sands have shifted.

10. Tik Tok by Ke$ha

Debut single from the American singer/songwriter/rapper was the lead single from her 2010 album Animal. Ke$ha sings about getting drunk a lot, which obviously never goes out of fashion, and takes a lot of flak for it, which never goes out of fashion either.

9. Bleeding Love by Leona Lewis

RnB ballad by X Factor winner Lewis was another lead single from another debut album. Best- selling single of 2008, hitting No.1 in more than 33 countries, including Ireland. Official music video has in excess of 100m hits on YouTube.

8. Love Story by Taylor Swift

Swift started out as a country singer, but made a highly successful transition to mainstream pop, thanks largely to this single, which she wrote herself. It’s a retelling of Romeo and Juliet, only in the end, instead of the double suicide, Romeo talks the da around and they get married.

7. Low (feat. T-Pain) by Flo Rida

Huge worldwide hit, and longest running No 1 in the US in 2008, ‘Low’ is another debut single from another debut album. Flo Rida scored a second long-running No.1 Right Round, which he released in collaboration with Ke$ha a year later.

6. Just Dance by Lady Gaga & Colby O’Donis

Another song about the joys of booze. This is Gaga’s first single, the lead from her debut album The Fame. The single features Colby O’Donis, an R’n’B singer who, at the time, shared Gaga’s record label, Interscope. The song is what they call a ‘sleeper hit’. It was five months in the US charts before hitting the top in Jan 2009

5. Viva la Vida by Coldplay

The first song in the chart by a mature artist, this was the second single from Coldplay’s fourth album. The bands first No.1 in both UK and US charts, it won the Grammy for Song of the Year in 2009. Like many successful songs, it’s been plagued by accusations of plagiarism by a variety of disgruntled songwriters. Of those that made it to court, no case was ever proven.

4. I’m Yours by Jason Mraz

This is the first single from the American singer-songwriter’s third album We Sing, We Dance, We Steal Things. Mraz cut his teeth in the San Diego coffee house scene of the early 2000s. This single catapulted him to worldwide fame, to the point where he was invited to perform a version of the song on Sesame Street.

3. Boom Boom Pow by Black Eyed Peas

In the same way that Michael Jackson owns the top 10 album charts, The Black Eyed Peas own the download charts. In 2009, the only single to outsell ‘Boom Boom Pow’ was ‘I Gotta Feeling’. Here ‘s another band at the peak of their powers; both singles came from their fifth studio album, The E.N.D.

2. Poker Face by Lady Gaga

The follow up to ‘Just Dance’ at No.6 was the song that established Gaga as a pop force to be reckoned with. Topped the charts in more than 20 countries. Rolling Stone put it at No .96 in their list of best songs of the 2000s.

1. I Gotta Feeling by Black Eyed Peas

Produced by French pop supremo, David Guetta, this was the follow-up release to ‘Boom Boom Pow’ at No.3. The song went straight to No 2 on the US charts, giving the band the rare distinction of owning the top two spots on the singles charts at the same time. It reached No 1 in a long list of countries.


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