Streaming services are booming, music piracy is reportedly down, and the music industry has experienced its first upturn in profits since the launch of Napster in 1999, including here in Australia.

But there’s one crucial victim that’s continued to suffer as the world of music continues its inevitable shift to digital: the album.

In the same week that UK music icon NME revealed a list of the 500 Greatest Albums Of All-Time, fellow British publication The Guardian reports that the album format may be dead already.

Mid-year reports from America, the world’s largest music market, already rang alarm bells with a mid-year report that showed that album sales had plummeted to an all-time low. But what could have previously been written off as an anomaly may in actual fact be a sharp downward trend, according to the latest figures.

Last week, Nielsen Soundscan’s figures showed that sales of albums in the US fell to 4.49 million, sinking from the mid-year figure of 4.68 million to new all-time low, which marks the longest stretch of poor album sales since SoundScan began measuring sales in May 1991.

More alarming is that industry analysts were expecting for the drop-off to slow, or even reverse, given the lead up to the usual holiday season sales boom as major artists issue their latest releases. Prism, the new album from global pop sensation went #1 in America this week, but shifted less than a paltry 300,000 copies, which was still greater than the sales of the next eight titles on the Billboard Albums Chart combined; including albums from Pearl Jam, Drake, Miley Cyrus, Justin Timberlake, and even New Zealand’s chart-smashing sensation Lorde.

Even new LPs from music veterans like Paul McCartney and Elton John, issuing New and The Diving Board, failed to make a huge impression on their older audience of musical loyalists, the latter shifting just 11,116 in its third week of sales – a far cry from the singer-songwriter’s glory days. “The album is dying in front of our very eyes… no one’s got time to sit and hear your hour-plus statement.”

The 4.49 million album sales figure is also a huge dip from just two years ago, with SoundScan tracking 316 million in 2012 (down even from 800 million a decade earlier), with many in the industry saying that the sharp drop-off since 2012 can’t just be attributed to a drop in physical sales.

There are other, untraceable factors at work – like a disinterest in back catalogue, competition from other entertainment media (one need only look at the staggering $1 billion that Grand Theft Auto V raked in during launch for an example), or perhaps music is just not as good anymore – but analysts regularly blame the dearth of CD sales and the correlated rise of streaming services and free access services like YouTube for the sharp drop-off in the album format.

“The album is dying in front of our very eyes,” industry commentator Bob Lefsetz tells The Guardian. “Everybody’s interested in the single, and no one’s got time to sit and hear your hour-plus statement.”

Even then consumers are turning to the glut of streaming services for their singles fix, with paid digital downloads seeing a drop by 4% – the first dip in the 10 yeas since iTunes launched – while Spotify, Deezer, Pandora et al. helped contribute a 16% increase to industry revenues; all which takes away from the album listening experience.

At least enough for the RIAA to introduce a new measure to track the shift to the dominant use of single-track listening on streaming services and other digital platforms with TEA (track equivalent albums), which converts the sale of 10 individual songs as one album, meaning that sales of Pearl Jam’s new single ‘Mind Your Manners’ counts the same as one copy of Lightning Bolt, the album the song is lifted from. But the TEA method obviously doesn’t (and can’t) account for listening habits.

Additionally, droves of listeners are shifting to the digital pastures of streaming services, with Billboard’s Ed Christman noting that it takes 2,000 streams to equal one album by comparison, but that there was no definitive data to show that the likes of Spotify and Pandora were cannibalising traditional album sales.

“Is the album going away? People have been speculating about that forever. There are those that think the album should go away and plenty of artists who still believe in the album,” Christman speculates; “It’s up to the artists to decide what happens to it.” “Is the album going away? People have been speculating about that forever.”

As for the artists, the likes of Thom Yorke and Nigel Godrich of Atoms For Peace/Radiohead fame have led a high-profile chorus of detractors singing foul over streaming services even as they remain a hit for record labels and consumers. Crowdfunding punk cabaret star Amanda PalmerTalking Head David Byrne, and the Swedish Musicians’ Union have all voiced their concerns over the future of musicians and creatives with the streaming music model.

By contrast, the success of opening sales from Justin Timberlake’s The 20/20 Experience and Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories (the biggest selling vinyl release of the year so far) would suggest otherwise, as Spotify’s own CEO Daniel Ek defended. While Mumford & Sons’ sophomore release Babel – which sold 600,000 copies in its first week while racking up 8 million streams – has been used as example of how free streaming model may in fact be contributing to physical sales and paid digital downloads rather than taking away from them.

The head of Mumford & Sons’ independent label Glassnote Records, Daniel Glass, agrees – telling Rolling Stone in August that the disastrous album sales figures shows “we’re in a transition.”

Given the historic low in album sales, there’s a poetic irony in that what is seen as the last bastion of the format – vinyl – is in as healthy a state as it has been for a long time.

While still a niche part of the market numbers-wise, sales of vinyl sales rose by a third this year from last year in America, while doubling here in Australia across the same period. Over in the UK, it’s an even more positive picture, where vinyl sales have helped independent record stores get their groove back, experiencing a 44% boost in sales – helped in large part by the success of this year’s Record Store Day – while Billboard notes they’re at their highest in a decade.

Perhaps the album format isn’t dead after all, but instead, shrinking to a niche concern for the casual music listener. Only time will tell.

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