What makes a number one album these days – and does it even matter?

Streaming and social media have made a chart-topping album a truly unique beast. How does an album get to the top – and does it still count?

The album era was a period in English-language popular music from “the mid-1960s to the mid-2000s in which the album was the dominant form of recorded music expression and consumption,” notes Wikipedia.

It seems, in 2021, even the internet’s ultimate fount of knowledge has given up on the album format.

Music fans who’ve grown up with streaming platforms such as Spotify and Apple Music, where music is played online rather than downloaded or purchased physically, are often more attuned to the industry’s ever-increasing focus on singles and playlists.

But for fans who recall the magical experience of listening to, say, Radiohead’s The Bends or Jay-Z’s Reasonable Doubt from beginning to end (and then all over again), the album remains a cherished form. And for musicians themselves, a number one album still carries significant weight.

The Jungle Giants’ Love Signs hit number one on the ARIA albums chart in July.

Sam Hales of Brisbane indie-rockers the Jungle Giants, whose fourth album Love Signs topped ARIA’s album chart in July, calls the achievement a “dream come true”. “We’ve always been completely independent in order to make the music we want to make, and we’ve always backed and funded ourselves,” he says. “So to reach a milestone like this is so self-affirming.”

But with streaming completely upending the way we’ve long consumed music, and with social media increasingly defining who and what gets to the top of the charts, what even makes a number one album in 2021?

How is a number one album decided, anyway?

In Australia, the industry body in charge of collating the albums chart is the Australian Recording Industry Association, or ARIA, with more than a hundred members, including record labels, manufacturers and distributors. Along with statistical information provided by its members, ARIA collects data from more than 500 retailers and digital music services.

But because music is more complicated than ever, so is the maths. ARIA’s albums chart is decided by a complex formula that takes in physical sales, digital sales and “converted streams”.

Physical sales (a CD, cassette or vinyl LP) and digital sales (a download) are valued as one unit each, but to assign an equal value to streams (that is, when a song is played online but not downloaded) ARIA uses conversion factors based on the relative earnings a record label gains from a stream. They are calculated separately for subscription or premium streams (where the user is paying for the streaming service, and a stream has greater value to a record label) and ad-supported or free streams (where the user isn’t paying for the streaming service).

Currently, 490 ad-supported or free streams equal one sales unit (490:1) while 170 subscription or premium streams equal one sales unit (170:1). These values are reviewed each quarter and updated regularly.

ARIA also has three “accreditation levels” for album sales: gold is 35,000 units, platinum is 70,000 units and diamond is 500,000 units. There are currently just three diamond albums on ARIA’s top 50 albums chart and they’ve been sitting there for a while: Ed Sheeran’s Divide (2017), Taylor Swift’s 1989 (2014) and INXS’s The Very Best (2011).

How many albums does an artist need to sell to go to number one?

The quick answer is, probably not as many as you think. It was only six years ago that Adele’s 25 debuted at number one in Australia with more than 126,000 copies sold in its first week, but even that was an anomaly described in industry trades at the time as “heyday figures”.

This year’s biggest album so far, Olivia Rodrigo’s Sour, debuted at number one with the equivalent of 9300 units sold in its first week – enough to score the largest “consumption” week for an album in 2021. Three months since its release it’s been accredited as gold, marking more than 35,000 units sold.

The Rubens’ fourth album 0202 debuted at #1 in February.

If you reckon such numbers appear to signal the death of the album as a rallying point for listeners, you’d be correct. When Sydney alt-rock band The Rubens’ fourth album 0202 debuted at number one on the ARIA albums chart in February, it sold fewer than 4000 units. “Which may not sound like a lot,” says Chris Maund, chief operating officer of Mushroom Labels and Mushroom Music Publishing, “but on the same day the lead single from the album, Live in Life, had racked up 40 million streams. That demonstrates the huge change in consumption from albums to individual track streaming.”

In the era of the single, what even is an album?

Streaming has completely warped the traditional view of what an album is. Take the eye-opening journey of Sydney rapper the Kid Laroi’s debut mixtape F— Love, for example.

The then-16-year-old originally released the mixtape in July 2020, where it debuted at number two on the ARIA albums chart. In November 2020, he re-released it as F— Love (Savage) with seven new songs. In February 2021, the album sold 1395 units in a week and finally went to number one in Australia. In July, he again re-released the album as F— Love 3: Over You, with another seven songs, including his smash Stay with Justin Bieber. He has since re-released it again as F— Love 3+: Over You Deluxe Edition with another six songs, which last month sent the album to number one on the US Billboard 200.

The Kid Laroi’s F— Love has gone from 15 songs to 35 over several iterations of the album.Credit:Sony

The album, initially released more than a year ago with 15 songs, now has a total of more than 35. And those songs have accumulated more than 265 million streams in Australia and three billion streams globally.

For a band like The Rubens, who released their self-titled first album in September 2012, it means the business of releasing an album has altered drastically.

“We released five tracks from the album before the album was released; the first one went out 18 months before the album’s release.”

“Back then, it was all about album sales. We would have released only two songs three or four months before the album and the whole strategy was about setting things up to maximise, mainly, CD sales,” says Maund. “Now, due to streaming, it’s much more about individual tracks and much less about album sales.

“For 0202, we released five tracks from the album before the album was released; the first one went out 18 months before the album’s release,” he says. “As much, if not more, of our marketing and promotion was spent on those individual tracks as the album.”

Maund says that while albums remain important to artists’ creative vision, “the advent of streaming has completely flipped the emphasis to tracks at the expense of albums”.

“The strategy for maximising the success of those tracks is quite complex,” he adds. “There is a huge focus on streaming playlisting and digital marketing, which increasingly includes the likes of TikTok, combined with traditional avenues such as radio.”

Byron Bay punk trio Skegss, whose album Rehearsal topped the ARIA chart in March.

So, I need to go viral on TikTok to get a number one album?

Much has been made of the impact of social media on musical fortunes: the way a conveniently placed track in an influencer’s TikTok video can send streams soaring and get album anticipation peaking. It worked for Olivia Rodrigo’s Drivers License, after all, or even for Sydney rapper Masked Wolf.

Aaron Girgis, manager of Byron Bay punk trio Skegss, calls such strategising a “lottery”. “How many artists do that a year? One in every five million that release music? Nah, I wouldn’t put that in the release strategy,” he laughs. Skegss’ second album, Rehearsal, debuted at number one on ARIA’s albums chart in March with first-week sales of “4000-5000 units”.

Skegss’ chart-topping success instead relied on tried and tested touring (“They do regional tours every summer, playing all the weird little towns and their bowlos”), vinyl sales (“Vinyl is what makes it a level playing field – how else can a band with Skegss’ streaming size compete with a massive artist?” ), a fortuitous release window (“You can do as much planning as you like but if Kanye or Taylor Swift drop their new record the same Friday as you, how do you beat that?” ) and great songs (“Isn’t that the basic thing? Ultimately, the band wrote good songs and the kids connected to them”).

“So, like, that was our way to get a number one album,” says Girgis. “I guess the other way is to sign a whole lot of people to your label and hope one of them goes viral on TikTok.”

Taylor Swift: Coinciding with her album release dates is not great for a local artist’s sales. Credit:Getty Images

What’s an album ‘bundle’?

Maund says the “pre-order” – albums that are pre-purchased and sent to the fan on release day – have also become increasingly significant to landing a big album debut. “Because people are much more inclined to stream tracks rather than buy albums, labels will provide a range of ‘add-ons’ to the pre-order of an album – you get some merch or a ticket to a special gig – to drive up sales,” he says. “Ten years ago, pre-orders would have made up only 10 per cent of first week sales, now it’s often upward of 50 per cent.”

Taylor Swift’s 2017 Reputation was bundled with hoodies priced at $US65 and even a smartphone stand for $US20.

With so-called “bundle” sales, artists package their album with items ranging from concert tickets to exclusive clothing (Taylor Swift’s 2017 Reputation, for example, was bundled with hoodies priced at $US65 and even a smartphone stand for $US20.)

But the prevalence of bundles to game the charts caused such controversy in the US last year that Billboard was forced to issue a range of new rules that effectively discounted them from figuring in album sales numbers. In Australia, ARIA has specific rules governing the issue of bundles, so that such album sales will only be counted in chart calculations if the “(a) consumer has a genuine choice between bundles with or without the music product, and (b) there is differentiated pricing (combined bundle is at a premium).”

Can a number one album still change a band’s life?

Considering the limited numbers at play, a chart-topping album may not mean as much commercially as it once did. But for artists, it still matters.

“Back in the day, I was always told if you got a number one then you went straight to commercial radio. That doesn’t happen any more,” says Girgis. “But, ultimately, it’s cool, right? [Skegss] never, ever thought they’d get a number one; they were over the moon.”

Elliott Margin of The Rubens says he’d long convinced himself a chart-topping album didn’t mean much. “Then 0202 debuted at number one and I quickly changed my tune,” he says.

“I don’t think getting a number one necessarily translates to a bigger tour or bigger crowds but it’s a confidence boost and a feather in the cap. Achieving that after the previous year of no touring and no fan interaction was special.”

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