Is the Album Dead? Not for Taylor Swift, Jason Aldean and the Mumfords

by Chet Flippo, CMT Nashville Skyline

Riddle me this: The record album is supposed to be dead as a doornail, safely laid away in the grave, with the last rites proclaimed by blogger Bob Lefsetz. The opinion that download singles now rule became the new conventional wisdom. The top-selling album on last week’s Billboard 200 chart was Mumford & Sons’ Babel, at 96,000 copies that week. Topping the country albums chart was Little Big Town’s Tornado, which sold 23,000 copies.

But this week is a different story. Taylor Swift’s Red album is on a safely predictable track to sell a million copies this week. Jason Aldean’s Night Train just moved over 400,000 copies in its first week of release. That’s his biggest sales week ever. Red sold more than 262,000 copies the first day alone. And it is not available on Spotify, Rhapsody or other streaming services.

The previous big album noise this year came from the folk music group Mumford & Sons, who recently sold 600,000 Babel albums in their first release week. That was the best first week for any artist this year. Mumford now have sales of over 900,000 albums.

What the hell is going on?

It just proves all over again what has been said about the movie industry for decades: Nobody knows anything about anything.

Maybe it’s just as simple as this: If you give the people what they want, they will buy it. Or, I suspect, if you give the public what they have been unconsciously needing and seeking, they will snap it up.

Taylor Swift: She weaves believable and desirable teen fantasies of romance and love and heartbreak and breakup and revenge. It’s the soundtrack for an imaginary The Real Nashville Chicks TV show.

Jason Aldean: A gritty country image and strong vocals with believable songs and lyrics, backed by a very credible and talented rock band. Like it or not, this sound is and will be the sound of mainstream country music — read mainstream country radio music — for some time to come.

Mumford & Sons: The return of the Kingston Trio and Peter, Paul & Mary and the Limeliters. A throwback to the golden age of modern folk music and the era of the Newport Folk Festival.

Swift’s and Aldean’s and Mumford’s sales numbers, are, admittedly, anomalies in these days of singles downloads. Nonetheless, these numbers exist as genuine.

If you give the Billboard 200 and Country Album and Folk Album charts a close study, you will see some pretty sickly numbers overall.  Remember, it wasn’t all that many years ago those six-figure releases were pretty common. Look at the charts today.

Obviously not everybody lives for disposable singles to download and carry around and listen to until they burn out on them. Do you want three minutes of Katy Perry or 40 minutes or so of Taylor Swift or Miranda Lambert? That’s a clear choice that many people are making. Taylor may be heading down that Katy Perry road with many of the songs on Red, but for the immediate timeline, she is still carrying her country audience.  Which still buys albums. I still buy albums.

And I’ve seen some recent studies that conclude that a lot of people are tiring of DRM and are going back to CDs.

Another riddle is this: Are these three albums seriously considered to be country music albums?

I think they are. You can argue all day that country should only be in the traditional Hank Williams or Patsy Cline mode. But those two were as different as Jason Aldean and Taylor Swift. Hank was traditional honky-tonk and Patsy was smooth country pop. But country audiences loved both of them. And the same goes today for Aldean’s more metallic country rock and Swift’s popish teen commentaries.

And the Mumfords certainly carry on the folk-country traditions. Woody Guthrie — although some powerful country music people don’t agree with me — should be in the Country Music Hall of Fame for such songs as “This Land is Your Land” and “Philadelphia Lawyer.” Folk and country and bluegrass are so intertwined that there really should be no differentiation between them.

I think a lot of people, young as well as old, still like the album format. They like being able to sit down with a favorite or new artist or group and listening through a set of songs and reading the credits and the liner notes and experiencing what the artist hoped they would experience.

I think that there are enough maverick listeners out there who want to hear what they want to hear.

Chet Flippo is Editorial Director for CMT/CMT.com. This NASHVILLE SKYLINE column first appeared on CMT.com.

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Comments

  1. And you can add Adele. All these are artists are ‘traditional’ exponents of a particular type of artist. Adele is The Big Girl With The Big Voice. Mumfords are the Pretty Folkie Boys. They fit a particular mould which happened to be empty, recently, until they appeared to fill it. And they’re very good at it.

    I think people are getting fed up with the games, the short lifespan, the shiny surface of so much ‘content’ that fits what the tech bloggers say is what should be produced, if the content industries wish to save themselves from inevitable doom. Yet Bjork’s app-based approach to her last album appears to have dropped like a lead balloon after all the initial (and expensive…) hype. No one appears to have picked up that particular baton. A brave and pricey step into the new future which appears to be no future at all.

    Recently I commented on a facebook post about how so many artists now pay more attention to clever-clever production techniques, videos, and internet malarkey, and not enough on basic song writing and the communication of emotion. Within minutes my comment was getting more ‘likes’ than any other on the thread.

    People out there are desperate for authenticity, for the real. Where it’s offered – and is truly real – they’ll still pay for it. The apps, the games, the Amanda-Palmer-come-and-paint-me-green(and pay for it) shenanigans … in ten years time I think we’ll all laugh that we thought this was the way forward.

    The way forward is to write some damn good music.

  2. I really don’t think this is surprising. The country audience, overall, continues to buy CDs — and the proliferation of these specific albums at mass retailers like Target, Wal-Mart, and Best Buy is another huge factor in their early sales. Overall, country’s isn’t that high-tech of a consumer base, though I’d be curious as to the breakdown between digital/physical on each. Also, each of these acts crosses over — Swift is country/pop, Aldean is country/rock, and Mumford is country/folk. And I’d bet these CDs are mostly played in cars — I wonder which audience relies the least on public transportation…

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