Stuart Dredge writes…
Okay, so Apple has announced its new Complete My Album feature for iTunes, which lets you buy albums that you’ve previously purchased individual tracks from, without having to pay for those songs again. It effectively takes 79p off the price of the full album for every track that you’ve already bought.
Is this enough to Save The Album though? Earlier this week, a feature in the New York Times reported that the album could be on its way out, with digital music buyers purchasing singles over albums by a margin of 19 to 1.
Apple’s new feature is intended to redress that balance, but will it? In a word, no.
See, I don’t think the reason people aren’t buying albums on iTunes is a fear of being charged twice for certain tracks. It might be a minor factor, but only if you assume digital buyers follow traditional habits of buying a single or two to see if they like a band, before buying the album.
Instead, I’d highlight two other reasons for low digital album sales: Duff Tracks and DRM. Let’s start with the first of those. Most albums have duff tracks. You know, the ones you forward past every listen. The experimental eight-minute ones. The novelty ones written by the drummer. The between-track hip-hop skits.
Whether you blame the music labels or lazy artists, the fact remains that we’ve been paying for duff tracks for years. And now, since the launch of iTunes and other digital stores, we don’t have to. We can listen to 30-second clips of every song, we can consult blogs and other online reviews, and we can cherry-pick the good songs off any album, and leave the rubbish ones languishing on the digital shelves.
I just checked on the iTunes Store, and there are 167 albums in my Complete My Album section. Yet why would I want to pay £3.25 for the rubbish tracks on the Lily Allen album? I’ve got the three good songs on The Like’s album, why do I need the rest? And having bought Something Kinda Ooooh and Love Machine, what’s left to tempt me on the Girls Aloud Best Of?
But that’s only one reason why digital album sales are weak in comparison with single song sales. For all my railing about not settling for filler, when it’s a band I’ve got emotional ties to, frankly I’ll put up with any old rubbish. I’ve bought every Charlatans album in recent years, and I can play you Primal Scream album tracks that would make you feel nauseous. Loyalty has a lot to answer for, but it certainly isn’t killing the album.
DRM is the second reason why digital album sales have been slow to take off. How many people still prefer to buy CDs (or, yes, download ripped MP3s) because they’re far more futureproof than iTunes downloads? If I buy a CD, I can rip it, then play those MP3s on my iPod, or my mobile phone, or my PSP, or my car stereo…
And if I decide I want higher-quality versions in the future for playing through a decent hi-fi (if I ever get one), I can just re-rip the CD at a higher rate. Now think of the sinking feeling I have whenever I think about the albums by The Rapture, Breakestra and the Brian Jonestown Massacre that I bought from iTunes last year, and will probably have to rebuy on CD if I ever desert the iPod for another MP3-playing device.
For me, it’s these two reasons that are stopping me buying more digital albums, not the worry that I’ll have to pay twice for individual tracks. That’s not to say Apple is wrong to launch the Complete My Album feature, which is a classic example of trying to upsell consumers something you know they’re already (probably) interested in. Just that it probably won’t be the saviour of the album that some industry types are hoping for.