RIAA Platinum The Life of Pablo Album Cover

What’s an Album Sale to the RIAA in the Digital Era?

The “Living, Breathing Album”

On February 1st of 2016, the RIAA announced that streaming would contribute to Gold and Platinum certifications for albums. Since 2013, on-demand streaming had already counted towards the Gold and Platinum status of tracks released as singles, but the addition of streaming to “album sales” meant a new chance for artists to achieve the most coveted RIAA awards.

13 days later after the RIAA updated their stance on stream-equivalent sales, Kanye West released The Life of Pablo as a streaming-only, Tidal-exclusive album. Aside from the fact that Kanye had never released an album without physical copies, The Life of Pablo was peculiar for another reason: it received numerous updates weeks after its initial release.

As noted by XXL, Kanye was still updating and changing aspects of The Life of Pablo as late as June 17th 2016, 4 months after the album’s original release date. Some changes were as minor as different EQing. Other changes, like including Vic Mensa and Sia on “Wolves,” were more drastic. Kanye had stated that the project would be a “a living breathing changing creative expression [of] #contemporaryart,” and The Life of Pablo certainly lived up to his claim.

A year after its release, the album would become the first streaming-only album to go platinum (if you ignore the .07% of sales that came from the brief download option offered on Kanye’s site). However, the effect of what a “living, breathing album” would have on RIAA certification going forward was perhaps an even bigger deal for the music industry.

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YouTube Music: Streaming Around The Law

YouTube Music

In November, Google became an even more formidable player in the music streaming market by launching two new services: YouTube Red—an ad-free subscription service—and YouTube Music, an audio-focused version of the YouTube app. With Google’s global audience, YouTube’s movement into the streaming industry is bad news for other giants like SoundCloud, Spotify, and Apple Music. While services like Apple Music and Spotify boast huge catalogs of songs, these industry-focused platforms lack the mixtapes, remixes, and user-submitted tracks that make SoundCloud and YouTube popular. Relying on user-submitted content since the start, YouTube has evolved into a unique position that gives Google far more flexibility with copyright laws than other services. Google blatantly has an advantage –especially when comparing YouTube’s success with the downfall of SoundCloud. YouTube’s massive market share has created a situation where Google is practically immune from the dangers posed by copyright infringement, giving Google an advantage over competing music services. Furthermore, as a video and music platform, YouTube’s ad-free subscription provides value beyond music alone, offering customers an irreplaceable, commercial-free experience on the world’s most popular video platform as well. If YouTube is going to enter the music streaming space legitimately, Google needs to follow the same rules as its competitors.

For $9.99 a month, YouTube Red lets customers enjoy an ad-free YouTube experience while also giving users access to the Google Play Music catalog. In a one-two punch, Google launched YouTube Music shortly after Red, allowing users to stream audio-only versions of videos and explore music more intuitively. With a subscription to YouTube Red (there’s a 14-day free trial for users who download YouTube Music), listeners can use the YouTube Music app to save songs for offline listening, play content in the background on mobile, and stream audio-only versions of videos. For users who already rely on YouTube to fit their streaming needs, audio-only mode is a crucial development. Reducing unnecessary data consumption is essential for customers with expensive cellphone plans, and removing video from streams will save heavy YouTube users GBs of data per a month. Users can still use YouTube Music without YouTube Red, but a free plan prevents mobile listeners from playing audio in the background, limiting the usefulness of the service.

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A Pay-Optional Culture

Napster Logo

The introduction of the internet to mainstream culture changed content distribution fundamentally. Napster’s notoriety made the public aware that the web could be a tool for sharing audio, video and text files across the world, but slow internet connections prevented P2P sharing from becoming an efficient replacement for purchasing content.

The print industry was hit hard by this change. The online news space became crowded with free options, and print publications –especially local ones– were too slow to adjust. Web advertisements grew in importance as the overall revenue from print ads declined with decreased circulation and subscriptions. A 2015 Pew report graphs the sad state of affairs in terms of annual revenue generated by newspapers both online and in print. Total revenue is down, and online advertisements are not generating enough profit to offset the money lost from print advertisements.

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Amateur DJs Are Keeping Music Alive

Photo from http://cdn.slashgear.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/07/numark_idj_live_2-580x426.jpg

Photo from http://cdn.slashgear.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/07/numark_idj_live_2-580×426.jpg

Since the introduction of programs like Serato and Traktor, the profession of DJing has changed significantly. The expense of records, mixers, and turntables prevented most people from trying the craft, but digital solutions completely destroyed this barrier. Instead of spending thousands on records and equipment, DJs could digitally purchase the tracks they wanted and mix these songs with a cheap MIDI controller. The accessibility of digital mixing tools has created a surge of amateurs, and existing DJs have  seen their profession saturated with beginners willing to perform for less. However, while this situation is not ideal for professional DJs, the rise in amateur DJs is great for the music industry.

As streaming solutions continue to increase in popularity, music sales will keep declining. Music sales still have one key advantage though: the customer receives the file. While this difference does not mean a lot to the average consumer, it does mean something for DJs. Maintaining an up-to-date and extensive library is essential for professional DJs, and streaming solutions cannot replace an organized collection of .wav and MP3 files. Services like Pulselocker have attempted to bridge the gap between streaming and offline music collections, but limitations –such Pulselocker’s size constraints for offline libraries– still hinder streaming’s viability for DJs.

In order to reduce bandwidth expenses for both the consumer and service provider, streaming services also enlist compression algorithms  A Time’s article from March of 2014 (pre-Apple Music and Tidal) broke down the various bitrates across different streaming platforms. Looking at the charts, not a single service streams with lossless compression, meaning that consumers, at the most, are listening to MP3-quality files. Once again, this compression does not mean much for the average consumer, who might bot even be able to tell the difference between different quality streams. For DJs, however, high quality files are integral for maintaining the upmost sound quality on large systems. Hoping to capitalize on the lack of lossless streaming services, Jay-Z’s Tidal entered the music space earlier this year, boasting uncompressed, 1411 KBPS streaming. Tidal does not integrate with any digital DJ programs though, making it an unlikely solution for DJs maintaining a large song collection. Pulselocker has software integration tools, but the quality is only 320 KBPS, leaving room for improvement. Pulselocker is on the right track with offline song use and DJ software integrations, but the service’s limited catalog and lossy streaming will limit widespread adoption for the foreseeable future.

Professional DJs have witnessed their craft flooded with amateurs, but hopefully these same amateurs can help the music industry as a whole. Amateurs have undoubtedly saturated the profession of DJing to a point where many music fans no longer appreciate the skill that goes into mixing tracks, but amateurs might also prove to be the only music listeners who actually buy music. Record labels would be wise to cater to the aspiring DJ demographic –especially younger DJs who’s music-purchasing habits are still very impressionable. If labels can convince young DJs that purchasing music is better than streaming or pirating, the music industry might be able to maintain a small, but active group of listeners who consistently purchase music. While it is easy to empathize with professionals who are constantly undercut by amateur DJs, these amateurs have the potential to help record sales in a culture where people don’t buy albums.