Is streaming good or bad for legacy acts and catalogue sales? [op-ed]
Do you know how many Americans listened to Coolio’s ‘Gangsta’s Paradise’ on streaming services last week? 11 million. That’s roughly one in every thirty Americans, assuming each of those people only listened once, which is a silly assumption I’ll admit. The surface reason this happened was that the song appears in the new Sonic The Hedgehog trailer, but the real reason is that Spotify and the like make it possible to dial up almost any song from history, on a device most humans carry in their pockets.
If Coolio ever imagined his music having this level of impact 25 years after he recorded it, you better believe he was picturing a Discman in your pocket. Also, you’d be wearing cargo pants with big pockets in Coolio’s imagination, and Sonic The Hedgehog would have nothing to do with why you’d be playing his music.
Now, despite what Coolio would have you believe, streaming has forever changed the way old music comes into our lives, and not necessarily for the better. In the days before streaming, there were rare cases of songs re-entering the charts decades after they were first released, but it was due to a coordinated re-release.
‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ re-entered the charts in England in 1991 after the death of Freddie Mercury when the UK released a tribute single to raise money for an AIDS foundation. It then reached #2 in America the following year after it was used in Wayne’s World, and appeared on the film’s soundtrack.
Both instances were sparked by public sentiment, but required a major promotional and distribution effort from the record label in order to capitalise on this: CD singles needed to be pressed, and re-sent to record stores and radio station, while Elektra even spliced scenes from Wayne’s World into the original clip to appeal to a young headbanging MTV audience – a move that horrified Mike Myers, who begged the label to inform Queen that such defacing of their masterpiece wasn’t his idea. Considering Queen have cycled through numerous replacement singers since Freddie’s passing, recorded a single with 5ive, and once released a branded Monopoly game – they weren’t at all fazed by it.
Bohemian Rhapsody entered the charts for a third time last November, following the release of the factually loose biopic of the same name. This time, things were a lot easier for the label. Although the broad, mum-filled audience for the film ensured that a lot of physical CDs of the newly-assembled soundtrack were sold, streaming is where the song itself gained the most traction. In Australia, Bohemian Rhapsody re-entered the ARIA singles chart on November 18 at #26, reached a peak of #18 the following week, and hung around in the Top 50 for a total of 16 weeks. By December, it had already surpassed Smells Like Teen Spirit to become the most-streamed song from the 20th Century, with a whopping 1.6 billion streams. Ever the poet, Queen guitarist Brian May quipped “So the river of rock music has metamorphosed into streams! Very happy that our music is still flowing to the max.”
The first time we saw a catalogue song achieve unprecedented sales in the digital realm without a deliberate reissue was in 2007, when ‘Don’t Stop Believing’ by Journey was used during the final scene of The Sopranos, when they revealed the whole series was just Tony’s racehorse’s colic-inspired fever-dream (although, as with all art, the ending is open to interpretation). The song quickly became the most popular catalogue song on the iTunes platform, selling 7 million downloads in American alone. Performances on Glee and X Factor have pushed sales and streams even further in the subsequent years and the song re-entered the UK singles charts in 2009, then again in 2010, 2011, 2012 and 2013 – all without a lick of promotion or effort from the band or their label. Due to this renewed interest, the group even reformed. The song’s message was a self-fulfilling prophecy, it seems.
Speaking of Glee (and we were), the show’s huge popularity during the first half of this decade resulted in the original versions of songs they covered receiving substantial sales bumps within hours of each week’s episode airing – the likes of Madonna, Billy Joel, Britney Spears, and The Beatles all benefitted from Glee-fever (Gleever?). An entire episode saw the cast cover numerous songs from Fleetwood Mac’s 1977 album Rumours – the following week, the album re-entered the Australian charts at #2.
These are all undoubtedly success stories, with Spotify somewhat flattening time to allow whatever songs or artists happen to be dragged in the spotlight at any given moment to benefit from this attention, financially and chart-wise, without any extra expenditure or effort. It throws oddities and anomalies back into the charts, renews interest in heritage tours that would have required thousands of promotional dollars, and allows for quirky online petitions to catch fire, such as the 2009 campaign urging Brits to download Rage Against The Machine’s Killing In The Name Of in the week before Xmas in order to block the X Factor single from scoring the Christmas #1 for a fifth consecutive year. It worked, RATM was #1, and Christmas was saved.
But these are all fleeting victories. While there are many artists with catalogues that have been reissued due to the magic of technology, some seeing royalties for the first time in years, if ever, the inevitable march of technology has decimated the steady stream of money that record labels make from physical reissues, especially boxsets, and catalogue items that have been perennial sellers. This trend will only continue. Vinyl is back in vogue — as people will always want tangible objects and collecting is etched in our hunter/gatherer DNA — but these sales only make up a tiny amount of the gap left from CD sales of these perennial sellers. The days of the beautifully artful box sets that record labels release as legacy items, anniversary editions, and quick-he-died reissues are almost gone.
As CD sales dwindle, and vinyl remains prohibitively expensive, especially in collections of 10 or so deluxe remastered records spanning an artist’s entire career, the value of a record label’s catalogue goes down. Most Christmases throughout the ‘90s and ‘00s, the same Greatest Hits collections and marquee albums from the same artists would jump back into the charts: ABBA, Fleetwood Mac, Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, Cold Chisel – stuff you buy as presents for parents. The days of CDs under the Christmas tree are gone, which is a big problem for record labels. The days of discounting catalogue albums every time as artist releases a new record are also gone.
The problem with Spotify levelling the playing field is that it levels the playing field. Last year, The Beatles’ White Album (technically their self-titled album if you wanna be a dick about it) turned 50, and EMI released a super deluxe version featuring 107 songs – the double-album’s original 30 songs, plus an additional 77 outtakes and demos. For Beatles fans, this was a treasure trove. Now, there are a lot of Beatles fans. But only the most extreme collector would shell out $175 for a heavily truncated 4LP version featuring a mere 57 of these 107 songs when they can stream the entire thing on Spotify, a service they already subscribe to, for free. This is the most popular band in the history of music, and the label didn’t even have faith that they could sell a lavish 8 disc vinyl boxset containing the entire trove.
Music collectors have long mourned the slow death of physical music purchasing, and as CDs are phased out, and vinyl remains mostly in the realm of the fanatic or the faddish, there doesn’t seem to be anything that will make up this gap for collectors or record labels.
Most alarmingly though, major labels, like book publishers, have traditionally relied upon consistent catalogue sales to mitigate the risks they take when signing, promoting and releasing new music. With these guaranteed sales fast disappearing, the ripples will be felt in ways we cannot yet imagine.