Going Main… Stream

May 6, 2017

ARIA has just announced that song streams will finally count towards the ARIA album charts, starting with next week’s top 50.

Why is this change important? It’s great because only counting physical purchases and (legal) digital downloads changes the shape of the ARIA album charts. Especially now that streaming has won the hearts of Aussie music consumers, evidenced by the fact that it’s a key income source for the Australian recorded music industry. (Here’s some info from ABC News and Music Feeds if you don’t believe me.)

Before CD burning was a thing, when you could only buy a CD, tape or vinyl from a physical retailer, everyone had to purchase music this way. It was a fair way to judge music consumption. (Except for enthusiastically hovering over your tape deck, ready to press record on the weekly countdown radio charts, except the presenter would invariably talk over the intro and do a back announce over the last chorus. Worst.) This meant that album charts pretty much represented all album sales across the board except for artists with fans prone to shoplifting (I’ll save those stories for another time).

Fast forward to 2017. CDs normally bear a price tag of $20 and vinyl records go for at least $40. And hell, the average iTunes album comes in at $16.99. You might as well splash out an extra gold coin to get a fucking CD for the liner notes. Counting only digital and physical purchases mean that you’re not looking at music consumption realistically.

Here’s why:

  1. It changes the demographic we’re looking at. So acts with an older, less tech-savvy following (ahem, AndrĂ© Rieu) or have fans with more disposable income (a.k.a. the valuable teen fan girl dollar) get a leg up. Or bands with listeners who like to collect expensive things. Radiohead fans, I’m looking at you.
  2. It changes the kind of releases we’re covering too. The releases on the charts all tend to be from well-established artists. Debut albums that crack the charts usually belong to major label acts with impressive marketing budgets or winning contestants from game shows. It doesn’t reflect hype acts that may actually get way more streams in week one compared to physical-heavy bands.
  3. The charts are skewed towards labels that take physical distribution risks. This is completely anecdotal, but I’d wager that some indie bands have fans that would stream an album but would only hand over money for a physical product if it was special (e.g. beautiful packaging, extra songs, collectible liner notes). The problem with this is that physical distribution is incredibly expensive if you misjudge how many units will be sold (regardless of whether the distributor purchases a small quantity of stock from overseas, or manufactures a larger amount locally). If you get too much stock on hand and the album doesn’t sell-through, then it’s an expensive estimate. If you underestimate and the band blows up out of nowhere, then fans can’t buy the album and you’ve potentially missed out on a lot of ARIA-counted would-be sales. (Psst – here’s are my thoughts on record labels.)

It’s wonderful that the ARIA charts will now reflect streams in their counts. While it took us a while to get here, it’s useful that we have real-life case studies from European countries that have adopted a streaming conversion model for a while now. (Here’s how ARIA are calculating it. Hell yeah, math.)

It’ll be interesting to see how this changes Adele and Ed Sheeran’s long domination of the charts, and whether newer albums with a strong streaming presence will push them down ever so slightly. Have a look at what The Music had to say about it all.

(P.S. If you are a fabulous person who still purchases physical product, I’m selling a very decent CD and cassette micro hi-fi for $50. This is a serious thing. Please buy it off me.)


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