It’s mid-November and until this week, the year’s biggest-selling album – not counting streaming and individual track sales converted to equivalent album units – was Ed Sheeran’s eight-month-old Divide (➗), which has totaled just over 918,000 digital and physical copies as of November 10.
But November 10 was also the day that Taylor Swift released Reputation, the much talked about album that in its first four days sold over a million copies, instantly making it this year’s biggest seller and a lock to début at No. 1 on the next Billboard 200 album chart (dated December 2), which will be announced this Sunday.
Taylor’s feat has dominated music news stories all week, with journalists and music critics dissecting the album every which way to Sunday and heralding her latest achievement as the only artist in the post-1991 Nielsen SoundScan era to have four different albums sell at least a million copies in a single week.
It marked the latest of many victories – small and large – for Taylor Swift in 2017, from her legal win against that creepy butt-grabber fan to her No. 1-peaking lead-off single from Reputation, “Look What You Made Me Do,” which topped the chart despite its near-unanimous initial panning from critics of her apparent new emo-direction in musical style.
But few stories I’ve read have flipped the story to its more depressing side…that we were in the eleventh month of the year and NOT ONE album had sold a million copies – physical or digital – for the entirety of 2017.
To be clear, I’m not talking sales for a single week, I’m talking sales for an entire year. No other album has sold a million copies in all of 2017!
That is a sad state of affairs for an industry that once sported as many as 100 albums a year that moved a million copies or more. In 2001, for instance, there were exactly 100 such albums, with the top ten best-selling albums that year averaging four million copies apiece.
To further emphasize the point, the No. 100 best-selling album of 2001, Indie Arie’s million-selling Acoustic Soul, has outsold all of 2017’s albums, with the new exception of Taylor’s Reputation of course.
Boy, what a difference a new millennium makes!
Of course, 2001 marked the first year of sales declines for albums, particularly CDs, which for the previous decade had enjoyed steady gains. For that initial downturn, illegal downloads and CD-burning were blamed as potential consumers negatively responded to the industry’s intentional destruction of the single format, which forced fans to have to buy entire albums just to get the one or two tracks they really desired.
As the 2000s progressed, the advent of paid (legal) downloads through the iTunes Store and other services injected new life into the industry but further accelerated the demise of the CD and other physical forms of albums. Later, streaming services through Spotify and others continued the decline of physical forms of music, but also cut into digital downloads of full-length albums, making it necessary for industry sales tracking services like Nielsen Music and the RIAA to revise how they track and certify sales milestones.
That explains why there are still platinum-certified albums (which the RIAA certifies at the 1-million sales plateau) for albums that don’t actually have a million copies sitting on living room shelves or in iTunes libraries across America. Using the industry-defined conversion factor of 1500 streams = one album sales unit, an album’s tracks can be streamed 1.5 billion times and the album be certified platinum for a million sales, without having any downloads or CD sales added in.
But Taylor Swift’s Reputation did it the old-fashioned way. Swift, who has always had a dubious relationship with music streaming services, withheld her new album from Spotify and Apple Music for the album’s first week of commercial availability, clearly to maximize the more preferred digital download and CD sales her rabid fans would no-doubt be contributing to…and it worked.
Artists benefit more from actual album sales and, to a lesser extent, digital downloads of entire albums than they do streaming numbers. The ever business savvy Swift has parlayed her superstardom into a shot-calling status that allows her to release albums on her own terms and that clearly has benefitted her. And let’s face it, any artist who can sell one million albums in a year, much less four days, certainly deserves some news coverage.
But it’s equally compelling and newsworthy that no other album managed to sell a million for the year’s first eleven months. That Reputation is already the year’s biggest selling album is certainly a bragging right for Taylor and her Swifties. But it still speaks to the sad state of affairs for albums in general.
There’s actually a chance that another album could join Swift’s at the million mark this year. Eminem’s new album is slated for release in December and will clearly benefit from holiday sales. Likewise, Ed Sheeran’s Divide is only 80,000 copies shy of a million, something he could conceivably achieve in the year’s six remaining weeks, particularly as sales of the year’s biggest albums pick up during gift-giving season.
But the fact that it took an artist of Swift’s stature to prevent 2017 from being the first year since the early years of modern recorded music to not have a million-seller speaks volumes.
It also doesn’t bode well for 2018, a year in which the shine will have already left Swift’s (and potentially Eminem’s) by-then months-old album sales.
In other words, don’t be surprised if a year from now we’re discussing 2018 as the first year in which no albums sell a million copies.
Or maybe a by-then 30-year-old Adele will release a new album called 28 and watch it sell a cool three million copies in a single week, just as she did in 2015.
She will be due you know.