In September, the singer-songwriter Zach Bryan scored his first No. 1 on the Billboard 200 Albums chart. He chose not to put out any singles to hype up Zach Bryan in the weeks leading up to its release. “We decided we weren’t dropping any singles for this album because it’s a cohesive project, and that’s the way it needs to be viewed,” says Stefan Max, Bryan’s co-manager and a former major-label A&R executive.
Bryan scored a Billboard Hot 100 hit anyway — “I Remember Everything,” his collaboration with Kacey Musgraves, debuted at No. 1 — but that was just the cherry on top of a winning rollout. “I don’t know how many albums I’ve made at major labels over the last 15 years that have gone on to be incredible, but the label would delay its release because they’re like, ‘We need a big single,’ ” Max explains. “Everything was so singles-driven. Now we’re like, ‘Do we have a good album?’ Then we can build our campaign around that.”
For much of the 21st century, the music industry narrative has been that the album is dying. First came the MP3, which allowed fans to cherry-pick their favorite songs to download. Then came the rise of streaming services, which meant that fans didn’t even have to download music to assemble their personal playlists. They were followed by TikTok, which can transform scraps of songs into hits before they are even finished — rendering a whole three-minute track superfluous and making an album feel like an unnecessary extravagance.
Looking around the pop music landscape today, though, it’s hard to find an artist who is having sustained impact solely on the strength of hit singles. Bryan, Rod Wave, Taylor Swift and Peso Pluma have all commanded attention and chart achievements by releasing albums that listeners engage with from start to finish and return to week after week.
“Albums feel really significant right now,” one senior label executive says. “It’s what a lot of people talk about. It’s what is really driving a lot of discovery.”
In truth, the demise-of-albums lament was probably exaggerated in the first place. That conversation “was always overdone,” says Jeff Vaughn, founder and CEO of Signal Records. “The album represents a definitive artistic statement, and I think fans crave it.”
“We are in an era where individual pieces of music get exposed more readily and more easily than an entire body of work, which speaks to why people think of this as a singles era,” adds Jonathan Tanners, who manages production duo Take a Daytrip and rapper TOBi, among others. Despite that perception, Tanners continues, “We, as an audience, still have a deep reverence for boldness of vision. If you are reaching the [Mount] Rushmore of artistic and commercial heights, you’re making great albums.”
Still, few would deny that the industry was extraordinarily singles-minded in the early years of TikTok, which really took hold in 2019 and 2020. Executives now speak about that era as if emerging from a long hangover. “The period we just went through created a bit of an emptiness that allowed fewer true artists to be seen because labels were following the viral hits,” says Scott Cutler, a songwriter and CEO of Pulse Music Group, which operates a publishing company as well as a recently launched label operation. “Kids burn through those viral songs really fast.”
Signing the artists behind a lot of those viral tracks was not a successful long-term business proposition for many labels. “If somebody’s playing basketball and they make an incredible half-court shot, an NBA scout’s not like, ‘You’re the next LeBron James!’ ” says Jeremy Maciak, a manager and former major-label A&R executive. “That’s what was happening.” Few of the artists who got deals from viral singles were able to repeat the feat.
Backlash to viral-single fever isn’t the only factor boosting the album’s status. The return of the vinyl LP as a commercial tool is also helping. Vinyl sales have grown steadily for 17 years, but jumped by a stunning 46% in 2020 and 51% in 2021, according to Luminate. The increased prevalence of vinyl records can’t help but reinforce the idea that an entire collection of songs represents something significant and worth shelling out $20 to $30.
Luminate determined that 50% of LP buyers don’t have a turntable, which underlines this point even further. They see value in owning an album they can’t even play. Travis Scott’s Utopia is one of the year’s top sellers, boosted by more than 340,000 album sales, without an enduring hit single. Lana Del Rey hasn’t had a top 40 hit as an unaccompanied solo artist in nearly a decade, but she has sold over 500,000 vinyl LPs and more than 145,000 CDs this year.
Vinyl releases aren’t necessary to build an audience devoted to albums, though. Rising rapper Yeat has amassed more than 1.8 billion streams this year, according to Luminate; he doesn’t have a single top 40 hit as a soloist, yet his fans press play on his releases and just keep listening.
Another artist with an impressively dedicated following among music streamers is the rapper Rod Wave, who recently eked out a narrow victory over Doja Cat to spend a second week atop the Billboard 200 with Nostalgia — his third straight No. 1 album. That week, Rod Wave’s biggest single was at No. 33 on the Hot 100, while Doja Cat’s “Paint the Town Red” was No. 1, demonstrating that a big hit may not be enough to send an album to the top.
In this environment, a new term is becoming more and more popular: “world-building,” industry jargon meaning that, for an artist to be successful, listeners need to care about something beyond a 15-second snippet of music on social media. “I don’t think the difference is between people who make albums and people who make singles,” Tanners says. “The difference is between people who have the vision to create unified worlds and people who are either not interested in that or not capable of that.”
“People want to invest in artists who are building their own worlds,” says Ashley Calhoun, president of Pulse Music Group. “There is a real appetite for that coming back around.”
And albums are more conducive to that world-building process, Vaughn notes. “It’s very difficult to do that just around a single,” he says. “Around a more complete artistic statement, all of a sudden the cover art is special, there are experiential events you can do, there are partnerships with brands. You can actually telegraph: ‘This is coming, here’s why it’s important,’ and that’s how you take the next step.”
It’s not lost on music executives how old-fashioned this sounds. Much of the industry bent itself out of shape trying to get singles to pop on TikTok because it seemed like a cheat code — overnight virality as a substitute for the yearslong, painstaking work of building a fan base. But after all those contortions, many of the same old principles still apply.
“Great artists always move albums and move tickets,” Vaughn says. “The more things change, the more they stay the same.”
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