Does Free Streaming Help Album Sales? It Worked for Daft Punk, At Least.

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Daft Punk Spotified their way to big sales.
  • Daft Punk Spotified their way to big sales.

On Wednesday, May 29, Steve Knopper of rollingstone.com detailed Daft Punk's domination of the Billboard album chart with the release of its eagerly awaited Random Access Memories. The article moves into territory deeper than simple retail numbers, though. Knopper dug into the number of Spotify spins for the album, and how those numbers stack up with previous blockbusters such as Mumford and Sons' Babel and how bands are now using -- appropriately or inappropriately, in his opinion -- streaming services to promote their album sales.

By Kelly Dearmore

During its first full week on the market Random Access Memories sold more than 339,000 copies, which easily makes it one of the year's bestsellers. Interestingly enough, the French EDM-robot-mask-wielding pioneers allowed the album to stream on Spotify for an entire week prior to its May 21 release. Knopper suggests this method was an effective part of the strategy to move physical copies of the electro-disco 1980s time-warp LP.

In the same piece, the RS scribe goes on to second-guess the streaming-as-a-promotional-tool strategy -- or lack thereof -- of Vampire Weekend, who sold enough to hit the No. 1 spot on the albums chart the week before Daft Punk with its new album, Modern Vampires of the City. Vampire Weekend only ran a preview stream of its record on iTunes for a week before its release and then stopped all streaming for the first two weeks of its time on store shelves. The massive drop Vampire Weekend suffered in second-week sales numbers could suggest the group unwittingly opted for a less-effective avenue than Daft Punk had. To a far lesser extent, the National also might have suffered a bit from conducting a similar Spotify debut delay, though the first week sales of its stellar Trouble Will Find Me was the highest of its continually soaring career.

Of course, for some time now, it has been the opinion of many vocal artists and record executives that the Spotifys of the world will steal sales from stores and dollars from pockets from the indie artists who are already working with less-than-profitable margins. As Knopper points out in his piece, that may not be the case as much moving forward. Labels and artists are taking various approaches to see if they can make the streaming thieves work for them, instead of against them.

To sum up the theories presented in the seemingly benign box-office report: If your album is being fawned over for months prior to its release, let the people have a free taste and assume they'll buy it, because it worked for Daft Punk, and that the less-stream-friendly approach of Vampire Weekend didn't work. Or something like that.

In an odd, ironic turn of personal events, my experience with the three aforementioned recent releases were completely the opposite as the article -- sensible as it may be -- rolled things out. As an avowed Spotify lover, I jumped on the chance to hear new Daft Punk material a week early. I gave the album a real shot, but this one put me to sleep quicker than a full belly of Turkey Day dinner during a Dallas Cowboys loss. Thanks to hearing the record early on Spotify, I was not one of the 339,000 folks gobbling up the vinyl that came with a robot helmet or waiting for the tunes to pop up on iTunes for downloading.

I was, however, one of the people to actually to download from iTunes the Vampire Weekend disc in its second week available and to also purchase a physical CD of the National's new one in its debut week.

What was behind this commercial wackiness? As noted in the RS item, neither of these records were available on Spotify a couple of weeks ago, and hell if knew when, or if ever, they would be. I wanted both albums tremendously, and it seemed as though I had two choices: Buy them in one form or another at the time I wanted them, or wait and aimlessly wonder if they would ever show up on Spotify. In this age where digital streaming should satisfy our needs for immediate gratification at a low price, it couldn't help me.

Perhaps the most popular form of marketing for new albums in recent years has been for a band or label to leak a track or two for the public to hear in advance. It's a sensible approach, to be sure. But I hadn't listened to any of the tracks that various media outlets such as Paste, NPR or Spin had offered up from Vampire Weekend or the National. I'm weird like that. I want to hear the albums I'm salivating the most for in their entirety at one time. I don't even shuffle that shit. Crazy, I know.

The point is, streaming audio kept me from buying the album Rolling Stone says was bought by many precisely because of its streaming. The article goes on to say that the lack of streaming prevented people from purchasing two other albums that, conversely, sent me to iTunes and Best Buy. Plus, a lack of streaming availability and personal cheapness led me to purchase the physical CD of Luna's Romantica on Amazon. Before you locavores and indie-retail advocates get your torches out, I do make regular trips from the 'burbs to our various indie record stores for vinyl purchases.

The fact that vinyl sales continue to rise and new vinyl-intensive retailers still manage to pop up and survive proves that consumers still have a need for true ownership. While Spotify is tough to beat in terms of economics and convenience, I often cling to the idea of something being mine.

In the future streaming will benefit all parties, not just the consumer and major record labels. But we're not quite there. Take all of your stats, reports and statements; ultimately, the moves of a music consumer on a mission are a tougher to predict than when Daft Punk will release another album.

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