Analyzing Billboard’s Top Country Albums Of 2020: How Streaming Could Fundamentally Change Albums

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With the end of the year rapidly approaching, the many year-end lists and reviews are beginning to be published across the industry.

Recently, Billboard released their list of the top country albums of 2020 which is based on physical sales, digital sales and streaming performance. While the top 75 albums are listed, the top ten are most worthy of analysis.

They are as follows:

1. Luke Combs – What You See Is What You Get
2. Luke Combs – This One’s for You
3. Morgan Wallen – If I Know Me
4. Blake Shelton – Fully Loaded: God’s Country
5. Chris Stapleton – Traveller
6. Jason Aldean – 9
7. Maren Morris – GIRL
8. Dan + Shay – Dan + Shay
9. Kane Brown – Experiment
10. Sam Hunt – SOUTHSIDE

On first glance, this list has many of the same characteristics (flaws) as country radio currently exhibits: Luke Combs and the major label artists continues to dominate with a glaring lack of female artists present. Unfortunately, this is hardly surprising.

Taking a closer look, it’s extremely impressive that Combs was able to have the top two albums on this list, especially given This One’s For You was released in 2017. It would be one thing to have a second album somewhere in the top ten, but holding both the number one and two spots is just another indication that he is at the very top of country music right now. As compelling as this is, the two albums that I believe most stand out are the number four and five ranked albums.

Blake Shelton’s Fully Loaded: God’s Country and Chris Stapleton’s Traveller could not be more different in structure and history, yet they yielded similar results in total sales for 2020 (as measured by Billboard). Not only were they released 4.5 years apart, Shelton’s “album” was essentially a greatest hits album containing ten radio singles, while Stapleton’s Traveller is considered an artistic masterpiece by many.

In order to further illustrate these differences, I recreated Billboard’s top ten list with further detail on each album to provide context to how and why these projects landed on this list.

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Note: Highlighted figures reflect value relative to other albums, with larger values shaded darker red and lower values closer to white (not shaded).

Specifically, this table features a breakdown of how many songs were on each album, how many of those were official radio singles, and how many Spotify streams those singles and albums cuts have amassed in their lifetime. Spotify streams were used as it is the best metric publicly available to indicate streaming consumption. Additionally, the deluxe / extended version of these albums was included in this table to fully capture the entire project.

The “Singles %” columns indicate the percentage of songs on each album that were sent to radio, and the percentage of total streams for that album that the singles accounted for, respectively.

Finally, the last column contains “Album Balance Ratio” which is a custom metric I’ve created to measure how balanced an album’s streams are in terms of singles versus album cuts. It is based on the following formula: Total Streams / Singles Stream % * % of Singles / 1,000,000. Essentially, this aims to measure an album’s total stream count in relation to the amount of singles on that project and how those singles performed.

This table contains a lot of information and is easiest to understand through the chart below which visualizes the data via unique colors:

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In this chart, the dark blue bars represent streams of radio singles and the lighter blue shows the streams of album cuts. Clearly, some albums have got to their stream totals in different ways than others. Yet overall, the radio singles have accounted for the majority of streams even though there are only a few per album. In fact, singles made up only 29% of the 150 total songs on these albums, but almost 70% of total streams.

Of course, this makes sense as radio singles are usually the most popular tracks on an album which is then heightened by the gain in popularity from the exposure radio provides. While this is nothing new, the continued rise of streaming is drawing more attention to these numbers as less and less full albums are purchased. Instead, individual songs are streamed, and 7 out of 10 times those are the big songs from an album.

In the extreme cases, streams of the singles can account for almost all of the album’s plays. For example, Shelton’s Fully Loaded: God’s Country only had two songs that were not singles, and they accounted for 0.4% of total streams. While this is an unusual case due to the nature of the album, Dan + Shay had three singles out of eleven total songs on that project, but those singles brought in 82% of total streams.

These are in stark comparison to Stapleton’s Traveller which also had 3 out of 11 singles, but those only accounted for 29% of total streams. While this is slightly skewed due to the massive success of “Tennessee Whiskey” which was not an official single, there is no denying this is a much more balanced project. Listeners didn’t just consume the singles and discard the rest. They streamed every track on the album, hence why it has the highest Album Balance Ratio (ABR) of these ten albums. In fact, its ABR of 15,897 is 64% higher than the next best album, Combs’ What You See Ain’t Always What You Get with a score of 9,691. By comparison, Shelton’s album had an ABR of 811, almost 20 times smaller than Traveller – a vast difference.

Why Does This Matter?

This is extremely important because if singles account for 82% of an album’s streams, then those singles have brought in 82% of revenue and render considerably better return on investment than album cuts. Especially in the largely concert-less environment of today due to COVID-19, streaming revenue represents a vital source of income for artists and their labels. With increasing scrutiny on budgets, labels and artists may soon be forced to evaluate the business model of traditional albums.

Muscadine Bloodline is a rapidly ascending duo and provided some insight into the financial considerations of recording an album in a recent tweet:

Not only does this detail Spotify’s compensation system (around half a cent per stream), this gives us an idea of the variables that are factored in when deciding to record and release any musical project. As an independent group, they have the benefit of retaining all of the streaming revenue, however their recording and marketing budgets are much smaller than those of artists with the backing of a major Nashville label.

Ultimately, it is very expensive to write, record, produce and promote a full album on the scale that mainstream artists do. So, all projects must pay for themselves and then some in order to be cost effective and green-lighted. This means there is a chance that labels may look to cut costs by focusing almost exclusively on singles.

Single-Driven Projects

While traditionally singles were chosen from an existing or recently recorded album, more and more singles are now being released in advance of the full album’s release date. Additionally, social media has allowed artists to gauge fan interest and connection with songs before they are officially released. Between clips on YouTube, Instagram, Twitter and now TikTok, unreleased music makes its way around the internet – often aided by mediums such as Whiskey Riff itself – well before the official studio version is recorded and released.

In a recent conversation on Theo Von’s podcast “This Past Weekend”, Morgan Wallen spoke specifically about the ability to preview fan’s reactions to unreleased music by “leaking” demos on Tik Tok. Wallen has garnered a massive following on the music-centric platform which recently catapulted the release of his song “7 Summers” to a record-breaking digital streaming debut. This song was released despite Wallen having an existing single climbing the charts on country radio, which has resulted in him having multiple charting singles – a very rare feat for any artist. Quite simply, Wallen and his label Big Loud could not ignore the sweltering amount of support for a song which was not even finalized yet.

Morgan Wallen is certainly not the only artist to employ this strategy. Luke Combs and Kane Brown are both artists that gained initial followings through social media, and to this day preview new music to their fans via these outlets. Brown has even gone as far as promising to release music if fans achieved a specific number of likes, retweets, etc.

More recently, Justin Moore experienced this phenomena unexpectedly when a clip of his then unreleased song “We Didn’t Have Much” saw a surge of support from excited fans.

As a more tenured artist in the genre and one that is not generally known for his social media presence, Justin Moore’s decision to forego releasing more singles from his previous album Late Nights and Longnecks and push “We Didn’t Have Much” is a huge testament to the power of fan engagement driving decisions.

Examples like these open the door for artists to work on new music but get real time feedback from their fans by releasing demos on social media, ultimately allowing them to make more informed decisions on which tracks to actually record. Theoretically, artists could do this repeatedly in order to identify songs that are most likely to succeed as singles and only record those. This could lead to less albums, and more projects that are a collection of singles accumulated over time – such as Shelton’s Fully Loaded: God’s Country. This could be an especially enticing option to artists such as Shelton who are on the back-half of their careers and less interested in working on full albums, as well as emerging artists who have limited budgetary support from their labels (or independent artists with even smaller budgets).

Alternative Approach – Quantity Over Quality

There is also a chance that well-endowed labels and artists choose to pursue an alternate route to focusing exclusively on singles. Given less and less physical albums are being purchased and music is now predominantly streamed, there is no longer a limit on the number of songs that can be on an album. Therefore, artists may choose to employ quantity over quality by releasing albums with an increasing number of tracks.

We have already seen album lengths increase in the last few years because artists no longer have to choose between songs and are free to include as many tracks as they want. Some of these tracks are not even songs at all. We’ve seen Florida Georgia Line include short “skits” in their last album, Old Dominion re-record their entire album with just “meows”, and countless artists release album commentaries with backstories on each song. While this content is not musical in nature and may even be under a minute in length, they are generally treated the same as normal songs for total stream counts and revenue allotted to said artist.

In effect, labels and artists are aware that non-singles do not perform nearly as well on streaming services. So, they may look to match the stream counts of their singles by loading albums and projects with more album cuts and supplemental tracks that are streamed less individually, but provide significant value as a collective.

Of course, artists must have the proper financial backing to pull this strategy off, but there are already plans in motion to do so. Kelsea Ballerini recently released an acoustic version of her album kelsea, which featured the exact same songs just stripped down. Additionally, Morgan Wallen is set to release a double album with 30 songs in early January. While I am by no means insinuating this is being done strictly for financial manipulation of streaming services, there is no doubt that labels recognize the value in these larger projects to their bottom lines.

Final Thoughts

It’s impossible to predict how labels will choose to react to the new consumption environment, but it is almost certain that there will be a shift one way or the other as country music continues to grow its streaming legs. In its current state, streaming platforms such as Spotify heavily favor singles due to the structure of their playlists and recommendation algorithms. This puts country music in a vulnerable position as artists are no longer incentivized to produce well-rounded, cohesive albums. Instead, it has become more beneficial to pour as much content into the platform as possible, regardless of how it fits into an album’s theme.

Having artists release more music per album will certainly benefit fans, however some may view this as a negative as it has the potential to take away from the artistic merit of these projects in favor of commercial appeal and sales. Much of these albums would be listened to a few times, then passed over for the singles and soon forgotten. The experience of buying an album, whether that be a vinyl, CD or even digital download, then sitting down to listen to the entire project front to back is now happening less and less. This threatens the genre’s strong tradition of masterpiece albums such as Stapleton’s Traveller.

There will always be artists in country music that are committed to the music above all else.

Eric Church is one of those artists, as he has consistently said that awards such as CMA Album of the Year are the most coveted to him because it is a reflection of artistic merit, as opposed to rankings of sales. These artists will make albums that capture an era in their lives and tell a story from song one through the final track. However, if the current system remains in place it will be harder and harder for the industry to resist the financial opportunities that single-heavy compilations with tons of auxiliary album cuts present. If this happens, we may see a seismic shift away from albums as we know it – creating a need for us to alter our consumption methods yet again to restore balance.

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A beer bottle on a dock