In a year that saw many embrace Spotify, TIDAL and Apple Music, the biggest selling album was completely unavailable for online streaming. ‘25’, the storming comeback from the long absent Adele, was always going to sell well, but its record-breaking success exceeded even the highest expectations. In the US, ‘25’ sold 3.38 million copies in its first week, shattering the previous record, held by *NSYNC’s ‘No Strings Attached’, which sold 2.41 million. Since its release on November 21st, ‘25’ is thought to have sold around 7 million copies worldwide.
Physical vs Digital
Perhaps the most surprising statistic about ‘25’ is the number of physical copies it has sold. It would have been reasonable to assume that even though Adele’s album was not available through streaming channels, the bulk of its sales would still have come from digital distribution of some kind. But this is not the case. Over 50% of Adele’s first week sales were physical CDs. This is the highest number of physical sales in a debut week since the CD’s heyday of the late 1990s/early 2000s.
And this is no coincidence. Looking at the statistics, it is clear that the fastest-selling albums of all time are also some of the biggest physical sellers. Of the top ten fastest-selling albums in US history, 6 of them were released before the launch of iTunes, meaning the bulk of their sales would have been on CD or cassette. The most recent fastest sellers, Taylor Swift’s ‘1989’ at number 7 and Adele’s ‘25’ at number 1 (of course), are both albums that were withheld from streaming services upon release. They were also both big physical sellers.
All of this raises the question:
Do artists need streaming services to be successful?
The answer to this is less straightforward than it seems. Though withholding their albums from streaming services worked for Adele and Taylor Swift, it would not necessarily work for lesser-known artists. Swift famously objects to how little artists earn from Spotify and other such services; Prince, Neil Young and Thom York have also been outspoken on this matter. These are all artists who have seen the money that comes from big physical sales, and who are appalled by the lower royalty rates that come with online streaming.
But if an independent artist makes their music unstreamable, that won’t necessarily drive physical sales. David Elkabas, co-fonder and creative director of MN2S, says physical sales are “dramatically lower than they were 10 years ago,” and that streaming “hasn’t shown benefits for our artists on up and coming level.”
Indie artist John Vanderslice told Newsweek that most artists make very little money from recorded music sales, and that they never have. The real source of income, for artists big or small, is from performing live.
So famous artists like Adele and Swift can promote their high-paying gigs through expensive, well-placed ads, while less well-off artists are left to fend for themselves. How, then, do indie artists promote their music online? The answer is through online sharing platforms like Soundcloud.
Streaming and sharing – Can it help new artists?
Perhaps not a ‘streaming service’ in the traditional sense, SoundCloud’s built-in social aspects make sharing new tracks with friends easier than ever. It even makes it easier for artists to share music with their fans. Established stars may still have an advantage on SoundCloud (the ten most popular profiles include Ed Sheeran and Drake), but the website is also a democratic playground for independent artists and DJs to make names for themselves. Countless young artists, such as Billy Kenny and Harry Judda, rely on their fans sharing tracks online to drive people to buy their albums on Beatport and to their live shows, where they really make money.
It is clear that streaming services are different things to different artists. If someone of Adele’s stature keeps their album from streaming, they will probably sell even more records; if a less famous artist does the same, perhaps no one will hear their music at all. The actions of Taylor Swift and other industry heavyweights may bring down streaming services eventually, leading to a model that is fairer for established artists and newcomers alike. But for now, artists big and small will do whatever they can with streaming services to use them, or not use them, to their advantage.