December 16, 2012

Can Hit Music Be Manipulated By the Order a Track Appears on an Album?

In the days of analog music (tapes, which were preceded by vinyl albums), getting to a particular track on an album could be a real hassle.  In that regard, vinyl was actually superior to tapes which pretty much replaced vinyl (although no one could play vinyl records in their cars, hence the evolution of music formats away from vinyl to tapes) because someone could clearly see the breaks between songs, whereas tape listeners had to rely on counters built-into their cassette players, and those were not standardized so the listener had to find the start and end points for whichever tracks they wanted.  Using counters often required writing the counts down on the packages, combined with a time-consuming rewind or fast forward process.  Clearly, digital music had solved the problem of immediate access to only the tracks we wanted to listen to far better than any preceding technology.

But, as American Public Media's Marketplace reported on Monday, December 10, 2012, that a recent article published in Billboard magazine (see for the Billboard article) suggests that the spot in which a track appears on an album seems to play a HUGE role in how many downloads of a given song will achieve and Billboard's Gary Trust wrote that the earlier a song appears on an album, the more likely it is to be listened to.  Have a listen to Marketplace interview below, or by visiting Marketplace at

Contrary to what Marketplace suggests, Apple's iPod was NOT the invention to disrupt the idea that the order songs appear on an album has no significance on sales.  For the record, that distinction really belongs to the non-Apple software engineers from Fraunhofer IIS, University of Hannover, AT&T-Bell Labs, Thomson-Brandt, CCETT, and the others who actually invented the MP3 format which Apple was merely the first to successfully commercialize (well, Apple followed the lead of Napster which was merely filesharing which has since been displaced by Torrents and others, but convinced the music industry that this was their best way to sell music in the future).  Today, Apple's dominance in music faces growing competition (often based on much lower prices) from, Google and others who also sell digital music.

Billboard reports that the record labels (and artists, although how much influence the artists have remains to be seen) might want to revisit the importance of songs' locations on albums.

Billboard wrote "... Mumford & Sons' sophomore set 'Babel' which debuted atop the Billboard 200 (with 600,000 copies sold, according to Nielsen  SoundScan), 11 of the 12 cuts on its standard edition roared onto On-Demand Songs. More noticeably, the order of the songs on the album almost mirrors that in which they bowed on the subscription streaming tally that week.  Such data suggests that the earlier a song appears on an album, the more likely a listener is to stream it. At the same time, a music consumer's attention span may be even shorter than any artist wants to believe."

Record Label Beancounters Could Soon Dictate Track Order of Albums

Historically, as Billboard reported, "an album's track order has often been based on what has caught an artist's fancy, shaped by such elements as feel and flow, quoting country singer Taylor Swift who explained in the cover story of the October 27, 2012 issue of Billboard 'I never like to put two happy songs in a row or two of the same kind of sadness in a row'  explaining how she decided the order of cuts on her recent Billboard 200 chart-topper 'Red.'"

But we all know short consumer attention spans seem more prevalent today, and new technology has actually enabled consumers to utilize media in ways that better suit their needs, rather than the needs and wants of musicians or record label executives.

The concept that better-selling tracks tend to appear near the top of the list means that record labels (and artists) might (potentially) be able manipulate which songs become big hits and which ones become the throw-aways by virtue of WHERE a track is placed on an album.

Money Talks

Will the artists, divas and others allow this?

That may depend on who the artist is, but we all know when it comes to the entertainment business, money usually talks loudest and has the most influence.

Madonna Live Nation Contract As Precedent?

In 2007, Madonna dumped her long-time record label (Warner Music Group Corp's Sire Records) which helped make her a star for a plum deal worth about $120 million over 10 years according to a person who told Associated Press on condition of anonymity.  Key in the decision was that Warner Music refused to match the Live Nation deal, which encompassed future music and music-related businesses (Madonna was under contract to release one more album with Warner Music which she delivered), including the Madonna brand, albums, touring, merchandising, fanclub and Web site, DVDs, music-related television and film projects, and associated sponsorship agreements, the official statement said.

At the time, Madonna said in a statement that she was drawn to the deal with Live Nation because of the changes the music business has undergone in recent years.

"The paradigm in the music business has shifted and as an artist and a businesswoman, I have to move with that shift," Madonna said. "For the first time in my career, the way that my music can reach my fans is unlimited. I've never wanted to think in a limited way and with this new partnership, the possibilities are endless."

Madonna's business savvy aside, the good news is that albums aren't necessarily dead.

"The best lesson to take from studying albums' track sequences may be that even in an era of streaming, in which listener behavior seemingly reflects a tendency to sample only portions of releases, the album format appears to have a bright future," writes Billboard's Gary Trust.  He advises bands to put their best material up front -- where a public with an ever-shortening attention span might hear it.

Which songs become the biggest hits have potential to be manipulated in the future by factors like statistical modeling which could potentially dictate WHERE songs should be placed on a given album in order to maximize sales.  Just how much influence traditional radio responds remains to be seen, which had long effectively dominated music popularity, but today faces competition from nimble startups like Pandora radio.  Much of broadcast radio is increasingly corporatized anyway, with giants like Clear Channel snapping up local affiliates across the country, so they may be more than willing to play along.

The mere fact that radio remains in existence (in spite of its now old technology) proves that the radio industry has managed to evolve to stay relevant over time.  But, exactly WHAT radio plays may soon be dictated by things other than popular opinion (or maybe it has already?).

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