Less filler please!
In a desperate attempt to increases sales, record labels are now asking their acts to come up with fewer tracks per CD because most of what they deliver is considered filler and hurting sales dramatically!
Fewer Songs May Improve Labels' Track Record
Executives are prodding acts for shorter albums to boost value of music in fans' minds. Effect on prices, royalties unclear.
In 1975, it took Bruce Springsteen just eight songs to bid farewell to his hot rodding younger days on "Born to Run," an album that marked his arrival as an American rock icon and went on to sell millions of copies.
These days, record executives are looking to The Boss' early brevity to reverse the music industry's three-year sales slump.
Music executives are prodding acts to limit the number of tracks on their CDs in a bid to raise fans' perceptions of the value of albums.
"There's been a tendency to overload CDs because the technology permits it," said Don Ienner, president of Sony Music U.S., which is leading the industry-wide push for shorter albums.
"The final choice will always be the artist's, but I feel and consumer research bears it out, that the public thinks albums have too much filler. We all should be concerned about giving music buyers good value, whether they're getting eight, 10 or 20 songs."
Industry executives and plenty of pop-music critics have called for shorter albums for years, saying the emergence of digital compression two decades ago led to creative excesses that wouldn't have fit in the era of the vinyl record.
A vinyl album could hold about 40 minutes worth of music before sound quality was sacrificed; a CD can hold about 80 minutes. Critics say too many artists are using a CD's capacity to record marginal tunes, diminishing the value of the product in consumers' minds.
The shift to shorter albums could mean a major shake up. For years, every facet of the music business, from artists' record contracts to manufacturing operations, has been structured around sales of albums that wholesale for about $12 and can contain as many as 16 songs.
With the rise of digital music stores and file-swapping networks on the Internet, music fans have seized the power to buy or steal select tracks by an artist instead of purchasing the whole album.
As a result, industry executives say the labels may have to slash full-length album prices, as Universal Music Group did this year, or rewrite the industry's economics around shorter, cheaper CDs. The industry is fighting an estimated 15% decline in album shipments over the last three years.
Sony's view on album length, mentioned by Sony Corp. of America chief Howard Stringer at a corporate presentation in New York two weeks ago, is quickly becoming the buzz among artist representatives and rival labels.
People in the industry say some label executives have been telling artist representatives that a CD should have 10 or fewer tunes.
Many representatives are cautiously backing the idea, though they would be troubled by any cuts in artist royalties, which are tied to album prices, and songwriter royalties, which are paid on a per-song basis.
"People are asking, will artists be releasing one album that contains 16 songs every three years or will they be releasing six songs every year? We're really at this point in time when the whole landscape is shifting," said Simon Renshaw, co-head of the music division at management powerhouse the Firm, which handles such acts as the Dixie Chicks and Korn.
"I don't have a problem with shorter albums, but we all need to be vigilant about what this will mean."
Labels are coming under pressure from retailers that believe consumers will have an appetite for shorter, cheaper albums. Wal-Mart Stores Inc., the world's biggest retailer, has pressed all five major record companies to test albums containing no more than seven songs, a collection the chain can sell for about $8.
Universal sold slimmed-down versions of top-selling albums by such acts as Ashanti and Sum 41 this year in Wal-Mart stores with mixed results. But at least two of the other major record companies - EMI Group and Bertelsmann Music Group - may begin offering such shorter recordings for sale early next year, sources said.
One major label chief who has been nudging acts to release fewer songs per album, and who spoke on condition of anonymity, said consumers' demands for lower prices had increased the pressure on the labels to reduce studio recording costs.
"If people want records for less," he said, "you've got to figure out a way to make them for less."
Although music executives believe consumers are more likely to bet on shorter albums, there are exceptions.
Outkast's "Speakerboxxx/The Love Below," a double CD containing more than three dozen tracks, has sold an estimated 1.5 million copies in seven weeks, one of the hottest sellers of the year.
Record labels have run into trouble when trying to shorten albums without slashing prices. In the mid-1980s, BMG's RCA Nashville division tried to limit all releases to eight songs, part of an effort to reduce studio recording costs and songwriter royalties. But the label continued selling them for about $15, and consumers revolted with a blizzard of angry mail. RCA removed the cap about six months later.
For their part, some artists began experimenting with shorter recordings before the push from label executives. Singer-songwriter Ben Folds, who has sold more than 1.5 million albums for Sony's Epic Records division, has released two five-song "extended play" recordings in recent months. The two recordings have sold about 20,000 copies combined, and Epic executives say they believe the recordings will help develop interest in the singer's full length album due early next year.
For Folds, who has been averse to the glitzy build-up surrounding most album releases, the extended plays mark the start of what he believes will be a cycle of near-constant issuing of short recordings.
"I think things are coming around my way," Folds said. The cycle of releasing longer albums every few years "is just over. The record companies don't exactly know how to sell that [shorter albums], but I think they're going to have to find out."