“More Variants Than Covid” – The Death Of The Album Chart?

Has the Album Chart now lost its relevance due to the plethora of alternative versions of an album being released?

“Re-issue! Re-package! Re-package! Re-evaluate the songs Double-pack with a photograph. Extra track (and a tacky badge)“ sang Morrissey on The Smiths’ farewell album Strangeways Here We Come at the shenanigans of the music business to sell the same product to the same people multiple times. Roll forward thirty-four years and the music business seems to have given up of finding innovative ways of attracting new customers to their product and focused on selling more of the same to a diminishing group of hardcore fans.

“In love with these beautiful picture discs we’ve made. Available on our store now xxx” tweeted Wolf Alice about the admittedly gorgeous looking version of their forthcoming album Blue Weekend. The album has already had its release date moved to avoid clashing with Noel Gallagher’s retrospective compilation in a blatant move to try and secure the easiest route to top the charts, but this latest variant is the 14th (FOURTEEN) physical version of the album to be put on sale.

Adding to the standard CD, there are four different colour cassettes and nine vinyl. There’s the picture disc, standard black and a series of seven exclusives. They start with their own store, Blood Records, Assai Records (with an OBI strip being tagged on), Rough Trade (with a bonus CD), HMV and an indie store exclusive. There’s also a RSD 2021 version being released the following week. We fully expect, if the new industry trend is followed, a deluxe download on the way too. This is given extra impetus by discontinuing the practice of providing a download to purchasers of vinyl. The take up on these has dropped is the excuse. The reason is because if you’ve bought five vinyl, you only need one download.

The hardcore fan is looking at an outlay of around £250 including postage to get them all. The industry know it, the bands know it. The fan base might baulk at it, but their desire to collect everything and the competitive nature of fan culture will push some of them to do it.

It’s a method that was used to great effect by The Snuts to get their recent number one debut album W.L., allied to one of the most effective and well thought-out PR campaigns of recent times.

Sixteen physical variants of the album were released across CD, vinyl and cassettes as well as two download options and bundles including gig tickets. Cassette variants, which included a standard version and four alternative sleeves for each band member, accounted for 2,848 sales out of 15,966 week one sales. These are destined in most cases to sit in a box and never be played. They were involved in a two-way fight for the top spot with Demi Lovato, who played these games of her own with unique cover variants of her record via her official store and who has the benefit of a heavy streaming audience.

History will only show that The Snuts sold more records than anyone else that week. That is an achievement to be celebrated. It’d be difficult to criticise any band that would turn down such an opportunity given the publicity it gives and the doors it would open as we come out of over a year of no gigs, which are their bread and butter.

This is filtering down into the independent sector too. The Lottery Winners last week announced their second album Something To Leave The House For on Modern Sky including a thirteen-piece Complete Collector Bundle (with an indie exclusive vinyl edition – with possibly more to come – that isn’t in the bundle). Meanwhile The Reytons’ debut Kids Off The Estate on Scruff Of The Neck includes a “Super Bundle” with 2 coloured vinyl, 4 band member CDs and 4 cassettes and a t-shirt. Three other standard physical formats are available separately to make a total of thirteen. The only mitigation versus The Snuts and Wolf Alice’s approach is at least they are available in one place which cuts down a little on excessive shipping.

So why has there been this move towards multiple formatting over the past few years? The answer lies in the formula used to determine charts. This had led to the focus on physical sales and variants becoming more important for independent artists in securing chart positions given the growth and weighting of streaming where they are traditionally weaker. For example, last year, Ist Ist released their debut album Architecture and secured number 4 on the vinyl charts and 5 in the physical. However they charted outside the top 100 once streams and downloads were considered.

It can also be attributed to lazy (or genius, depending on your view on this) marketing. Variants are bundled together in packages in the bands’ stores to generate multiple purchases. New variants are introduced during the campaign, often the most visually appealing ones, to capture those who thought they’d got everything in the initial pre-sale.

This multitude of physical formats is no longer restricted to new releases either. Turin Brakes’ reissue of their debut The Optimist will appear on four different vinyl formats each featuring the same tracks, whilst Frank Turner has announced five colour schemes for his England Keep My Bones reissue. This one is even more worrying for the fanbase as it has geographic restrictions on some of them that brings international postage and customs and duty charges into play for those desperate to have all the combinations made available.

What does this mean for the album? Firstly, the focus is now all about release week and little on any longevity of a record. Take for instance Idles’ Ultra Mono from last year. It entered the charts, on the back of five vinyl variants, at number one, comfortably outselling its competitors. By week two, it had dropped to 28, week three 64 and then it was gone, never to trouble the scorers again. The Coral’s Coral Island, with five vinyl variants, entered the charts at number 2 and dropped to 99. Black Honey’s Written And Directed By, again with five vinyl variants, entered at number 7 and disappeared the following week.

It’s a pattern that’s repeated across the board – the top ten is frequently a mix of more than half new entries, the odd big hitter hanging around in week two and whichever greatest hits compilation by the likes of Fleetwood Mac, Queen and Oasis is on special offer at HMV or Amazon.

The more worrying aspect of this though is the opportunities for chart position that are being denied to bands that do not have access to funds to tie up to front a campaign that requires a significant cash outlay upfront or simply cannot take the risk. Vinyl plants more often than not can demand upfront payment given the significant excess demand over supply and can push up minimum order quantities to a point that independent bands, or even those on small labels, simply cannot afford it. The bands fortunate enough to have a label with deep pockets are the ones that will win always in this scenario, creating further barriers to entry for the industry.

Release schedules are also thrown into chaos by the mix of multiple variants and the obsession with celebrating every five year or less anniversary of a record with a new colour vinyl (hello Suede) or slightly different packaging in the knowledge that the completist nature of fans will have them buy it. New bands are being quoted lead times of over six months for an album to be pressed, too long for an effective and exciting pre-sale campaign – causing damage to the independent sector that is least likely to be able to buy their way to the front of the queue.

What is the solution to this? We have been here before of course, albeit with lower cost to the music fan. We remember well the days of multiple formatting of singles in the 1990s. The world was overrun with triple packs and 99p offers in the race to get the post-album singles up the charts to extend the life of the album from which they came. The chart companies ended up creating rules to prevent this type of chicanery. Short of music fans or artists refusing to play the game, it appears to be the only solution.

However, as it stands, there seems to be little appetite within the industry for this. Blind eyes turned to the increasing scale of it because everyone is at it. The bands have to do it to compete. Stores get their exclusives which often end up in the hands of Ebay flippers. Labels hoover up most of the profit. The music fan ends up footing the bill and the bands themselves see little of the revenue.

Not everyone is on board. The Lucid Dream, who recently released their The Deep End album on vinyl as the only physical format responded vigorously to this issue on Twitter so we asked them for further comment – “We chose to do a sole black vinyl edition of The Deep End as we wanted to get back to releasing an album in the truest form. We are all vinyl collectors and have paid the price of the huge increase of prices/special editions. We worry people buy into these things with the music at the back of the list of priorities. It’s all good and well it being transparent and with postcards included etc, however very few people in 2021 have £28.99 spare for one album. So, we insisted on ours being £14-£18. This situation won’t change until bands take back control where possible. We hope that more can follow our method. If the music is good enough people will still buy it, regardless. And then they can go buy another 4-5 artists that month instead of dedicating a sole months disposable record allowance on one artist.”

They very much seem to be in a minority though. What it means though is that the album chart will simply become a competition as to who can fund and churn out the most different versions of a record and sell them to people – rather than a more equitable contest of how many individuals buy the record.

All words by David Brown, you can find his author profile here.

 

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Having cut his teeth writing for Louder Than War, Dave set up his own blog Even The Stars and continues to make occasional contributions to Louder Than War. He also run Tim Booth from James' official website as well as the James fansite One Of The Three.

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