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

Last week, on Wednesday, May 29, Steve Knopper of Rolling Stone.com detailed Daft Punk's domination of the Billboard album chart with the release of their eagerly-awaited Random Access Memories. The article moves into territory deeper than simple retail numbers, though. Knopper even 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.

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

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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 number one spot on the albums chart the week before Daft Punk with their new album, Modern Vampires of the City. Vampire Weekend only ran a preview stream of their 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 their stellar Trouble Will Find Me, was the highest of their continually soaring career.

Of course, for some time now, it's 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 that 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 very simply: if you're 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, as I generally celebrate their entire catalog, 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, you ask? 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, in part, due to streaming, and then the lack of streaming the article hints kept people from purchasing two specific albums sent me rather quickly to iTunes and to the nearest Best Buy. Add to that, recently, a lack of streaming availability and personal cheapness led me to purchase the physical CD of Luna's Romantica on Amazon (I was able to get a used copy plus shipping for cheaper than the iTunes price). 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 prideful 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.

It's becoming more clear that, in the future, streaming will somehow be used for the good of all parties, instead of to the benefit for primarily the consumer - and the major record labels -- but not quite yet, obviously. 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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