Is the greatest hits album dead?

From BBC - February 2, 2018

Something odd is happening to the music industry in the era of streaming.

Age-old commercial strategies are being overturned as record companies big and small fight to adjust to the new technological reality.

Nowadays, physical albums that might previously have shifted hundreds of thousands of units are not even being released because no-one thinks they will sell.

Take, for instance, the case of Despacito, Luis Fonsi's Latin pop hit that was one of the biggest songs of 2017. It topped the charts for weeks in the UK, but strangely, there was no hit album to go with it.

It was not for lack of material. Fonsi may be a newcomer to British music fans, but in Latin music circles, his career stretches back 20 years, so it would have been child's play to cobble together a greatest hits CD and rush it to the shops.

In fact, that's what happened in France, where the album Despacito and My Greatest Hits made the top three and has spent more than 30 weeks on the charts.

Fonsi's record company, Polydor, said it was "not prepared to discuss the matter" with the BBC and would not give any reasons for not releasing the CD in the UK. But if label bosses thought it was commercially viable, they would presumably have put it out.

So why are albums that would once have been considered sure-fire sales winners no longer being marketed?

Tipping point

In the UK, 2017 was the year in which streaming rose to account for more than half of music consumption - 50.4%, to be exact - up from just 36.4% the year before.

Physical albums on CD and vinyl now make up just over one-third of the market, with the rest coming from digital downloads.

In France, streaming's share of the market has not yet reached that magic tipping point, accounting for 46%, while physical sales still make up 45% of the market.

For the time being, that makes it more worthwhile to put out physical CDs in France that would not make it to the release schedule in the UK.

But increasingly, the decline of physical product means the end of compilations that span an artist's career and cherry-pick the best tunes: the "greatest hits" albums that used to be a reliable cash-cow for record companies.

Online music magazine Pitchfork saw this trend coming a couple of years back.

"In the digital era, once a catalogue enters a streaming service or an MP3 store, there's no need for a reissue and, therefore, there's no reason for a label to mine the vaults," according to contributor Stephen Thomas Erlewine.

"Users can assemble their own personalised greatest hits playlists or just scan through an act's most accessed songs."

Curated collections

So does this mean that the music reissue market is dead? Well, not exactly.

Different world


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