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Why the music industry blow-out era imploded | Music


In the pre-streaming era, no stunt was too absurd for the fourth quarter, AKA Q4, the money-spunking climax of the pop year. Rihanna kidnapped 150 journalists and drip-fed them booze on a plane; Lady Gaga launched a flying dress; Taylor Swift’s face was splashed over your 14-inch Papa John’s pizza. Pop divvies up the year into Q1, Q2, Q3 and Q4, lasting three months apiece, and in the CD era, an album could triple its sales if released during the shopping bonanza of Q4. It led to a bottom-heavy release calendar, as if pop’s golden goose had been fattening up all year to pelt fans with gleaming eggs. Or, in Katy Perry’s case, a big shiny lorry to promote her 2013 opus Prism.

Q4 sales have been in decline since Spotify launched in 2008, but the nail in its coffin came last year, when profits from CD sales were surpassed by streaming revenue. With less now hinging on a year-end push, a grand total of zero albums from pop’s genuine A-list are scheduled for a Q4 release in 2019, leading Popjustice editor Peter Robinson to recently proclaim a partial moratorium on the quarter. As he noted: “The … year-round onslaught of Big Pop in the streaming era means that The Most Wonderful Time Of The Year has lost some of its power to Qs 2, 3 and 1.”

“The day-to-day experience of music has nothing to do with quarters any more,” confirms author and former New York Times music critic Ben Ratliff. “The biggest artists can drop whenever they want: BeyoncĂ©, Rihanna, Taylor Swift.”

Quarters certainly seem irrelevant when it comes to Drake, who has not released an album in Q4 since 2011’s Take Care. The light-footed ability to morph with evolving musical trends (and memes) has made him today’s biggest streaming star, with 8.2bn song plays on Spotify last year – literally more than the world’s population. Ariana Grande released Thank U, Next in February, and it had the largest streaming week ever for a pop album. “If anything, you may not want to release your biggest titles [in Q4],” Republic Records’ president Avery Lipman told Billboard. “Advertising rates are more expensive, generally. You may want to spread it around.”

But, in Q4 2019, that pendulum swing has meant a sad absence of tentpole album releases. Record companies used to bombard fans week-on-week like a six-year-old with a Nerf gun; now the year’s end is a pop desert, with the possible exception of Harry Styles’s indie-leaning Fine Line, due to be released in December.

There is one Q4 evergreen, however: the mum-friendly CD releases that rely on strategic placement next to Tesco mince pies for sales, such as a new record from ex-footballer Chris Kamara, and Robbie Williams’s ludicrous Christmas album featuring Tyson Fury. Save us, Rihanna!


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