In a streaming and playlist first world, albums have become less of a critical component of success for the industry. There is, however, opportunity to revive what is a dying format. And the blueprint comes from video games.
In 2020, Grand Theft Auto V, the last installment in the Grand Theft Auto series released in September 2013, generated $1 billion in revenue. In contrast, recorded music revenues for 2020 totalled $12.2 billion. Impressive but troubling when you consider that one video game — more than seven years post-release — generated more than 8% of the total recorded music revenue. On the whole, revenues from the video game industry were nearly $180 billion in 2020.
The fundamental difference between the video game industry and the music industry is that that the video game industry knows that its success and ultimately its excitement is wrapped up in its customer base . Whereas the music industry most often dictates success and excitement to its customers. Looking at it differently, the video game industry is a two-way street paved with gold, where the music industry is most often a one-way street filled with potholes.
One of the most critical drivers of success in the video game industry is user-generated content. UGC has fueled the success of such gaming properties as Fortnite, Roblox, and countless others. A couple of years ago, Netflix called Fornite a “bigger rival than HBO,” with the open-world platform said to have made more than $9 billion in revenue in its first two years. The whole premise of Fortnite is genius. Create an addictive game powered by microtransactions but one that ultimately extends beyond the game itself, from Fortnite dance challenges on YouTube and Facebook to online memes to user-generated skins, and more. The game is never over, and, unlike the music industry, the game’s release date signals the beginning rather than the end.
If we look at the typical lifecycle of an album when it is released, it follows a pretty linear path. A single — or singles — may be released in advance of the album to generate some advance buzz for a project. Once the album is released, if it’s marketed correctly and there’s luck, it gets its first-week sales bump and then more often than not it begins its descent down the charts. There are exceptions to the rule. Pop Smoke’s posthumous debut album Shoot for the Stars, Aim for the Moon remained at the top R&B/Hip-Hop album charts for 19 weeks, bolstered significantly by a number of the album’s tracks going viral on TikTok.
TikTok is one of the only current levers the music industry has to pull around user-generated content. So how does the music business leverage learnings from the gaming industry and apply them in a streaming first world?
The music business first must change the way it looks at albums. In a streaming and playlist first world, albums have become less of a critical component of success for the industry. There is, however, opportunity to revive what, with few exceptions, is a dying format. And the first step is the music industry looking at the release of an album as the start, rather than the end. Using Pop Smoke’s debut as the example, imagine if everyday music creators, bedroom producers, and wannabe producers could have legally put their spin on the project, allowing for the uploading of their versions and remixes to streaming services, and even being given the legal right to promote their releases. Any revenue from the streaming of these projects and remixes would be payable only to the rights holders; this would give aspiring producers and remixers the opportunity to put their own take on the project. This is precisely how the video game industry has been able to extend the life of gaming titles by empowering gamers to play their way and bring their creativity to the game. Take a game like Minecraft as an example. Released in November 2011, the game has sold over 200 million copies to date,, and the love affair is still going on the back of user-generated content powering a community of gamers. If Minecraft were an album, it would have likely been old news by early 2012. The game developers have empowered its users by providing the tools, and code, to build and create but not dictating the final direction or endpoints.
And while we haven’t seen anything quite this extreme yet coming from the music business, Kanye West nudged the industry forward ahead of the release of his latest no. 1 album DONDA. Before the surprise release of the album in late August, Kanye unveiled the Donda Stem Player, a handheld device where users can customize and remix any song, including vocals, drums, and samples. In essence, Kanye permitted his fanbase to rework and reimagine the DONDA album, or any album for that matter. In theory, despite their stewing beef, Kanye fans can use the Stem Player to remix Drake’s new album, Certified Lover Boy. While the Player stops short of allowing people to upload their work to streaming services, it’s a step in the right direction to freeing up creativity and creating the aforementioned two-way street for the music business.
But maybe the most obvious opportunity to be taken from gaming is how the industry extends the life of gaming releases. Every week Grand Theft Auto releases a new update for GTA Online, ensuring players have fresh experiences, new cars, and clothing, that fuel micro transactions and allow players to shape the virtual world they live in. The music industry works much differently. While listeners can revisit albums like Jay-Z’s classic Blueprint, the album is the same as it was when it was released on September 11, 2001. Why couldn’t Jay-Z revisit the Blueprint album and add new songs from outtakes of those sessions? Or as an artist, who is to say that the soulful, introspective lyrics of Blueprint don’t spark moments of creativity for Jay where he creates music most suited for that project?
Artists and labels invest a significant amount of time in marketing and creating the music however the defined lifespan of a project is most often confined to weeks. And while the gaming industry no doubt seeks to drive its biggest sales on launch, it looks at most video games as multi-year products.
The music industry is at a crossroads. While overall revenues are strong coming in at $23.1 billion for 2020, it’s only scratching the surface of what could be. The actual product of music has never held less tangible and long-term value for people as physical music sales have waned. Music fans have been conditioned to the fact that another project is right around the corner and attention — except for a very few high profile artists — fades quickly once an album is released. The video game industry is providing the perfect long-term model for the music industry to follow. Starting now, the music industry must create more open content creation models and begin looking at key new album releases and key catalog music as revitalization opportunities and not only relying on teenagers on TikTok to give life to the songs of yesterday.
Adam Aziz is a music consultant and writer living in Toronto, Canada. He has worked with the likes of Dave Chappelle, T.I., Xzibit, to name a few, and has written for ESPN, Complex, VIBE, and others. Connect with him on Twitter @brokencool