What Kind of Advantage Do Longer Albums Have in the Streaming Age?
Morgan Wallen’s new album, One Thing at a Time, didn’t need 36 songs to reach No. 1 on the Billboard 200 chart (dated March 18)— but the sprawling tracklist certainly didn’t hurt. The country singer’s third studio album notched 501,000 album equivalent units in its first week of release, according to Luminate, the biggest week of 2023 and one of the largest debuts in recent months.
One Thing at a Time undoubtedly benefited from its stats-padding length, but it still would have dominated the Billboard 200 had Wallen and his label, Big Loud Records, opted for an average length. With the bottom 18 tracks accounting for 36% of the album’s total on-demand streams, if One Thing were a single-CD, 18-track release, Billboard estimates it would have moved about 360,000 units last week — putting it well ahead of the No. 2 album, SOS by SZA. The 10 most popular tracks amounted to 41.8% of the album’s streams, with the track “Last Night” alone accounting for nearly 9% of the 36 tracks’ aggregated streams.
In fact, an 18-track One Thing at a Time would have bested most recent No. 1 albums in their debut weeks, including Lil Baby’s It’s Only Me (216,000 units), SOS (318,000 units), Metro Boomin’s Heroes & Villains (185,000 units) and Tomorrow X Together’s The Name Chapter: TEMPTATION (161,000 units). (That’s assuming One Thing at a Time would have sold the same number of CDs and digital albums with half as many songs.) Only two recent albums, Her Loss by Drake and 21 Savage (404,000 units) and Taylor Swift’s Midnights (1.58 million units), had better debut weeks than the hypothetical, 18-track One Thing at a Time.
One Thing at a Time is part of a curious paradox in current recorded music, as the widespread adoption of streaming services has caused artists to release single tracks more often while releasing increasingly lengthier albums, too. While the album is waning in popularity, it remains a vital artistic statement and commercial event.
The trend of longer albums runs counter to the experimentations of the early days of digital music. When Napster arrived in the late ’90s, many people believed file-sharing marked the death of the album format. In the ’00s, as consumers increasingly purchased individual tracks at online stores like Apple’s iTunes, labels experimented with the new paradigm. In 2005, Warner Music Group and Elektra Records founder Jac Holzman launched a digital-only label, Cordless Music, that released music exclusively in “clusters” of three or more songs instead of albums or singles. In 2010, country star Blake Shelton released two six-song EPs — called “six paks” — rather than a single 10- or 12-track album.
Today, streaming dominates music consumption and impacts how artists and labels package music. Album sales are lower than ever, but album lengths have never been longer. Because fans can stream an unlimited amount of music for a fixed price, artists can add songs knowing that a longer album equals more streams. And because streams tend to account for far more of an album’s chart position than downloads and purchases, artists have an incentive to keep people listening.
The result has been “track creep,” a consistently rising number of songs on popular albums. In 2022, the top 10 albums on the year-end Billboard 200 chart averaged 19.1 tracks and 69.9 minutes. The top album, Bad Bunny’s Un Verano Sin Ti, has 23 tracks and runs 81 minutes. Un Verano Sin Ti is a product of the streaming age: Physical album sales account for just 1.1% of its album equivalent unit sales compared to 97.5% for streaming. Track creep is made easier considering that many albums, such as SOS and Drake’s 21-track Certified Lover Boy, don’t have physical versions.
Changes in how albums are counted for the Billboard 200 can probably help explain some of the track creep: In 2014, the year Billboard began incorporating streams into the Billboard 200 chart, the top 10 albums averaged 13.2 tracks and 51.9 minutes, meaning album lengths have increased by about six tracks and 18 minutes in the last eight years. (Here, Billboard counts only studio albums and excludes soundtracks and Broadway cast recordings, which are filled with score and instrumental tracks.)
In 1992, when CD sales began to dominate recorded music revenues, the top 10 albums averaged 11.9 tracks and 51.1 minutes. Garth Brooks had two of the four 10-track albums in the top 10 — Ropin’ the Wind and No Fences — and the longest, Totally Krossed Out by hip-hop duo Kriss Kross, had just 15 tracks. Albums -- particularly in the country genre -- often topped out at ten tracks, a limit set by record labels for paying mechanical royalties to music publishers.
In 1977, when the vinyl LP ruled the industry, the top 10 albums averaged 10.3 tracks and 45.1 minutes, and half of them had fewer than 10 tracks. The longest, Stevie Wonder’s double album, Songs in the Key of Life, had fewer tracks — 17 — than half of 2022’s top 10 albums. The top album of 1977, Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours, ran only 39 minutes — a full half-hour shorter than the average length of 2022’s top 10 albums. (In the 1977 top 10, Billboard included the soundtrack to A Star Is Born, which had only 11 tracks. That’s compared to 32 tracks for the Frozen soundtrack, the top album of 2014.)
One Thing at a Time might not need 36 tracks to top the Billboard 200, but having more songs means the album gets more streams and generates greater royalties. The least-popular 18 songs amassed 170.3 million on-demand streams in the album’s debut week. If those 18 tracks were released as a separate album -- similar to the way Guns N’ Roses released Use Your Illusion volumes 1 and 2 simultaneously in 1991 -- it would have been the No. 2 album of the week. Additional tracks provide diminishing returns but can contribute meaningfully to a successful record. Wallen’s previous album, the 32-track Dangerous: The Double Album, has received about 22% of its total track consumption -- streams plus downloads -- from its less-popular half. For a label that invests heavily in marketing and promoting an album, track creep can improve the return on each release.
Something the One Thing album has that single tracks and EPs lack is the oomph surrounding their marketing and promotion. In the wake of Napster, people may have underestimated the album’s ability to be an event unto itself. Single tracks get the attention of both fans and streaming services’ algorithms, but neither has the promotional impact of releasing a full album. As long as a label is driving awareness to a new release, why not give fans a few more songs?
Plus, artists don’t release albums as frequently as they used to. In the late ‘70s, artists often put out an album every year. Today, an artist will take two or three years -- and often longer -- between albums. Putting out longer albums could help labels make up for these widening gaps, with the caveat that only superstar releases tend to merit the kind of sprawling length seen in the form of recent releases by Wallen, Drake and others.
This kind of full-court press also serves to prolong -- and boost -- the success of individual tracks that would fade more quickly without an album attached. Eight of the 36 tracks on One Thing at a Time were released prior to the album's street date and putting up strong numbers on their own. Still, their streams increased 89% the week of the album’s release. Four of the 8 tracks ended up in the Billboard Hot 100. In its sixth week on the Hot 100, Wallen’s single “Last Night” shot from No. 5 to No. 1 after a 53.5% jump in streams. Three other previously released tracks — “One Thing at a Time,” “You Proof” and “Thought You Should Know” — broke into the top 10 of the Hot 100.