To claim that Mumford & Sons sophomore LP Babel has been warmly received would be the understatement of the year.
Trumping teen sensation Justin Bieber’s Believe, with 374,000 units shifted in its initial week of sales, England’s most popular purveyors of the resurging folk movement sold a mammoth 600,000 albums within their debut week.
Coupled with the 442,000 digital sales, Mumford & Sons have established themselves as major players on the worldwide stage.
Not only that but the UK quartet have just cracked six hits concurrently in the US Billboard Hot 100 pop charts, a feat not achieved since The Beatles managed it over 50 years ago.
In short, Babel’s success is monstrous.
However, what strikes as the most interesting aspect of the album’s success, is the recently revealed streaming stats.
With over 8 million streams on Spotify within its first week of release, Mumford & Sons’ Babel has surpassed expectations and smashed records as they triple previous titleholders (though Spotify won’t divulge who) to claim the highest trafficked debut album in the service’s history.
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With 10% of Spotify users in both Australia and the US streaming the album throughout the week of release, the service has facilitated the distribution of the album in ways incomprehensible to those preaching a traditional business model.
With such a widespread network of users granted free access to the much hyped album, one must wonder whether streaming services such as Spotify are contributing to the promotion of an artist through increased exposure, or conversely discouraging album sales and taking out of the pockets of musicians through an increasingly effortless interface, delivering free music directly to users.
While the strong sales of Babel – eclipsing releases from high-profile artists such as Green Day and No Doubt within the same week – indicate the band is doing just fine, and perhaps even benefitting from the exposure.
With the massive gap between the 600,000 albums sold and the 8 million streams, are we to assume streaming has become the preferred method of listening for consumers?
Even taking into account that many users will have streamed the album multiple times, the divide between the two figures is enormous.
Having been available in Europe for nearly five years, Spotify has gained momentum at a frightening pace over the course of the last two years.
Integration with social networking goliath Facebook and expanded availability into regions such as America, New Zealand, and in Australia has seen the service boom over the past twelve months, peaking with 15 million users at time of writing.Spotify’s Chief content officer Ken Parks, hit back however, arguing the service is complementary to album sales, rather than cannibalistic
While a premium service is offered at $10 a month, negating ads and giving unlimited access to the extensive catalogue of over 16 million songs, only 4 million of Spotify users have subscribed to the paid service.
With a limited percentage of their consumer contributing financially, criticisms have arisen over whether the artists themselves are being paid fairly.
Despite reports that the service has paid $150 million to music labels and publishers, split amongst the expansive list of artists in their catalogue, there’s not a lot of cash to go around.
In one case late last year, Mercury Music Prize nominated artist, Jon Hopkins, claims to have been paid a measly £8 (roughly $12.50) for 90,000 plays of his music.
Spotify’s Chief content officer, Ken Parks, hit back however, arguing the service is complementary to album sales, rather than cannibalistic.
“Our streaming numbers sit alongside a very healthy sales volume,” said Parks when speaking to the LA Times, “We’re living in a new age. There isn’t a single model of consumption for recorded music.”
Despite this, many big players in the industry refuse to comply with the service and disallow access to their releases until many months after initial availability both on physical formats and on competing digital services such as iTunes.
Three of last year’s biggest releases; Coldplay’s Mylo Xyloto, The Black Key’s El Camino and Adele’s 21, were absent from the service during their all-important debut week, in fear of losing physical sales to the increasingly popular service.
Speaking to The Guardian, Coldplay cited a preference for their record to be heard as “one cohesive work” in defence of their decision, despite complying to iTunes’ pricing model where individual songs are available and promoted for purchase.
However, band manager Dave Holmes, may have revealed the truth behind the matter when he protested to the Sydney Morning Herald, “Spotify competes with download stores.”Daniel Glass of Glassnote records, the distributor of Babel, defended it: “Spotify is a huge form of exposure, and they’re not stealing.”
Losing album sales seems to be the biggest concern for most musicians, and many big names are yet to join the service, including heavyweights such as Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, AC/DC, and The Beatles.
However, as artists with a consolidated legacy, they seem to transcend such models – AC/DC in particular are notorious for denying their music from many burgeoning technologies such as hip-hop and DJ sampling, use in video games and still being unavailable on iTunes.
Despite this, the founder of Glassnote records and distributor of Babel, Daniel Glass, recently defended the service, telling the Los Angeles Times “Spotify is a huge form of exposure, and they’re not stealing.”
Commenting on the prevalence of piracy in the current music model he went on to claim “it’s re-training people to buy music through streaming services. Could we be getting better compensation? Yes, but I’m not going to hold it back from them. That’s old thinking.”
Not an overwhelmingly positive response, yet it is recognition of the services’ sturdiest argument; that it is a legitimate alternative to physical albums sales, which have been losing relevance as the internet revolution takes hold of our music consuming habits.
Presenting the ease of access and affordability touted by illegal file-sharing websites in a model that recognises artists both financially and statistically, Spotify is converting the waves of Internet users flocking to the convenience of torrents.
In an age where tracking the success of an album is near impossible due to the multitude of distribution channels utilised by bands and illegal downloaders alike, being able to quantify an album’s success is becoming a difficult task.
“Users are going to stream, you’re not going to put the genie back into the bottle,” maintains Parks. “But if we can take people who weren’t paying anything and get them to pay £120 (almost $190) a year – which is twice the amount of the average downloader or CD buyer – this industry can grow bigger than it ever was.”
As the legality of online music distribution has taken to a shaky start, we’ve watched file sharing grow from simple peer-to-peer systems, to complex distribution networks using torrents.
Throughout this, the once goliath-sized record companies have slowly lost their tight grip on the consumer. Despite the commercialisation of mp3s by companies such as Apple and Amazon, piracy still reigns supreme, with 95% of music downloaded online found to be in breach copyright law.
Curbing the rampant online piracy has been an enormous point of interest for major records labels. So far, the most public campaigns have been massive lawsuits aimed at easy targets, such as American mother of four, Jammie Thomas Rasset, slapped with $US222,000 fine for sharing 24 songs over p2p website Kazaa.
One of many cases headed by massive corporations like the Recording Industry Association of America, most tend to be highly publicised flexing of muscle, intended to show the public who’s got the power.
While initially dismissive of the p2p model and potential of digital downloads, the industry is finally beginning to find its legs again. After the success of iTunes major music labels and big business alike have begun flocking to the web, despite continuing to attack supposed pirates and copyright infringers.“Users are going to stream, you’re not going to put the genie back into the bottle…”
These cases seem more of a stall tactic than anything, as the major labels desperately try to catch up to the sophistication of illegal file sharing services and programs such as BitTorrent.
However it seems as though legitimate streaming services such as Spotify, as well as competitors including Rhapsody and Rdio, are doing more to combat piracy by providing innovative new services than the RIAA is through lengthy court battles.
After all, by now online distribution is well established and no one is attacking the idea itself, rather the individual methods, and streaming services are helping advance those methods.
While Spotify’s system is less than ideal for many musicians, 15 million users is nothing to gawk at, and with such a wide reaching and intuitive network, music is being delivered more efficiently than ever.
Unfortunately, it is impossible to justify any direct correlation between album sales and streams, and whether the effects are positive or negative.
However, as Babel’s unique success demonstrates, with the strongest debut sales of 2012 while appearing on Spotify the same day as physical release, it’s hard to argue that it is in fact significantly detrimental.
Streaming services don’t even necessarily have to compete against album sales, but rather present the potential to complement them as users ‘try before they buy.’
Consumers now have the opportunity to test the waters on a new album through streaming, before purchasing the album proper to play through their stereo, in the car or upload onto their iPod.
Either way, there’s no denying that we are hurtling towards an endgame where physical sales are the minority, eventually the transition to digital distribution will be all consuming.
As legitimate streaming services continue to build upon their initial successes, the breakout success of popularity of Spotify underscores the demand for these services.
As ARIA and Billboard charts and album sales have become increasingly unreliable in the unaccountable world of online distribution (legal or otherwise), Spotify stats can be considered just as relevant as any sales chart, as we step towards a consistent way to gauge the digital success of a new release.As Babel‘s unique success demonstrates… it’s hard to argue that streaming services are in fact siginifcantly detrimental.
Despite the fact record companies may still deny it, e-commerce is the way of the future for music distribution. For now they are lucky an album can debut with 600,000 sales at all.
As the dust settles around the legitimacy of music distribution via the web and the lawless Wild West of the Internet is paved for an increasingly commercialised landscape; services such as Spotify are re-training consumers to pay for their music, despite the controversial costs to the very people on which it thrives – the musicians.
Ultimately the industry must learn to assess and use all the various modes of distribution to measure a band’s success.
Due to the infancy of stable, accountable and widely accessed streaming services no definitive answer can be given as to whether they eat into albums sales or rather act as a promotional tool.
However, the massive success of Babel has flown in the face of naysayers, proving that streaming is not necessarily cannibalising the traditional sales format, but instead in fact can be a complementary mode of distribution.
Rather than struggling against the wave of change, it is now time for record labels and distributors to embrace innovation, before being left behind for good.
They got lucky with the universal success of Babel; it may be a long time before it happens again.