Music Fans Favor Single Tracks Over Albums

It used to be that you could tell a lot about a person by the size and makeup of their record album collection. That is, if that person was a Baby Boomer. The more records they owned, and the more eclectic the selection—as well as their choice of turntable, amplifier and speakers—signaled that they were really “into music.”

The album format, which replaced vinyl singles that played at 45 RPM with larger 33⅓ RPM discs that contained multiple songs, was introduced in the 1950s and remained the dominant music format even when CDs hit the market in the 1980s. Musicians and producers not only used the longer format to sequence tracks creatively, but many created long-form compositions that took full advantage of the possibilities of the medium.

But the rise of streaming music services and the renewed emphasis on single tracks has steadily eroded the album market. “The rise of on-demand music streaming services such as Spotify and Apple Music has not only changed the way we pay for music but also the way we consume it,” Statista data journalist Felix Richter points out in his article, “The End of the Album Era?”. “With their curated playlists and endless opportunities to individualize the listening experience, streaming services promote a more track-based consumption as opposed to the album model that dominated the industry before the dawn of the digital age. What Apple started by selling single tracks for 99 cents on the iTunes Store appears to be accelerated by the rise of streaming services: the decline of the album format.”

Richter cites Nielsen’s latest year-end music report, which shows that album sales (both physical and digital) in the U.S. dropped to 113 million units in 2019, down from 501 million in 2007. He observes, “At the same time, overall music consumption is rising, which means that people aren’t listening to music any less than they used to, they just listen differently. Mega hits such as Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road” are streamed billions of times, as they are featured prominently in curated and personal playlists.”

With the demise of the album format, both listeners and musicians have rediscovered the appeal of single tracks. As Richter notes, “Interestingly, the streaming model isn’t only changing the way music is listened to but also the way it’s made. Since streaming services typically pay artists a certain fee per individual stream, songs are getting shorter on average and, catering to skip-happy listeners with limited attention spans, they are also getting to the first chorus quicker than they used to.”