Is the greatest hits album dying?

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Luis Fonsi (Credit: Artists Facebook page)

Luis Fonsi (Credit: Artists Facebook page)

The greatest hits album seems to be heading towards the dustbin of music history as Getintothis’ Rick Leach discovers.

Having one of these stuck in your record collection was always a tad embarrassing; something that signposted you as not being a “real” music fan.

The Greatest Hits collection.

Something to be if not exactly ashamed about, then something to hide away a little bit.

Your friends would run their fingers along the spines of your carefully collated record collection, then furrow their brows somewhat when they’d stumble across, for example, the only Steely Dan album you possessed – the Greatest Hits.

“So you’re not a big Steely Dan fan then?” they’d ask somewhat disdainfully, as if you’d committed some awful trainspottering faux pas. “You’ve not got Aja or Pretzel Logic or….” And they’d reel off a long list of albums you’d only half heard of and weren’t really arsed about anyway.

One Steely Dan album was good enough and if it contained all you ever wanted to hear then that was good enough for you.

However, that implied accusation of dilettantism did hurt a tad and you were always careful thereafter to stick such compilations where they wouldn’t easily be seen.

And God help you if you, like this writer had for a very long time, only one Velvet Underground album and that being one in a truly awful sleeve despite having quite a good track listing. It was a mark of someone who only bought records at HMV or Virgin rather than Probe! (I may have actually got it from Boots The Chemists; ironically quite appropriate bearing in mind the subject matter of a lot of Uncle Lou’s ditties.)

That Velvets album

That Velvets album

But as we know the world of music ever changes and something quite odd -and we can suppose, something that would kill off those music snobs- is now happening.

It’s all to do with streaming.

It’s a brave new world out there and what seemed a sure-fire way of coining it in is being overturned as record companies both big and small fight to adjust to a new technological reality.

For what was a way of shipping and selling hundreds of thousands of records in the past seems to be falling by the wayside because in a nutshell, no-one wants to buy a Greatest Hits album any more. Not even half-arsed music fans. The Gravy Train has come to a crashing halt.

We hold up as the prime example one of the biggest hits of last year, the catchy-as-flu Despacito by Luis Fonsi. It topped the charts for weeks in the UK, but oddly no Greatest Hits album followed in its wake.

You could understand it if Fonsi was straight off the blocks with no back catalogue to his name yet he’s got 20 years of a Latin music career behind him. How difficult would it have been to come back form a long Friday lunch session and throw a greatest hits compilation together? Piece of piss really.

In France that’s exactly what happened. Well, maybe not the long Friday lunch/piece of piss scenario, but Fonsi’s album Despacito and My Greatest Hits made the top three over the Channel and has spent more than 30 weeks on the charts.

But the CD’s weren’t released in the UK.

This is the thing.

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.

Yet in France, streaming’s share of the market has not yet reached that magic tipping point, still only hitting 46%, while physical sales still make up 45% of the market.

So for big record companies, such as Fonsi’s Polydor it still (just) seems to make it worthwhile to put out physical CDs in France that aren’t released over here.

However, the decline of a physical product probably means the end of compilations that span an artist’s career. Easy pickings by record companies for the best and most well-known tunes and the age of the greatest hits albums seems to be over.

And you don’t really need to be that insightful to realise that once an artists catalogue enters a streaming service then why should the record companies even bother mining the vaults to come up with the greatest hits, especially as now the consumers do that themselves? Why should and why would the listening public go out and buy that embarrassing CD when they can compile their own playlist?

But.

There’s always a but, isn’t there?

While the reissue market for the casual listener is dead (yours truly and the Velvets etc), there is always another side to the coin, one that speaks to the dedicated, specialist and well, completeist market.

Multi-disc box sets that are not so much compiled as “curated”, with weighty books attached containing archive photos and a mini-history lesson of the artist’s career. The main thing is context, which is something that streaming services can never provide.

Recent releases by Cherry Red point a way forward.

They’ve recently released two sumptuously packaged CD collections of both the Manchester and Liverpool music scenes of the late 1970’s and early 1980’s. These are not just plain CD’s, single of double albums in cheap jewel cases but something that looks good as well, something that’s more fittingly placed on your bookshelf than hidden away with your CDs.

Revolutionary Spirit-a trip through Liverpool’s music history

The music might be special and difficult to pull together but the packaging looks special as well.

The possible jewel in Cherry Red’s reissue crown at the moment is their massive seven-CD box set featuring the A-side and B-side of every single released by The Fall from 1978 to 2016.

For Cherry Red compiling this collection together involved rounding up tracks released by eight other record companies, including one of the majors, Universal.

And while it would be too much faffing for the majors to do something like this and they probably wouldn’t profit from it financially, for a label like Cherry Red it’s worthwhile as they can break even on 2,000 copies or so.

In this strange new world, it kind of works for everyone. Majors are quite happy to license some old obscure tracks that they’re not overly interested in while they’re searching for the next Ed Sheeran, indie labels such as Cherry Red can still turn a bit of cash out of it and there’s something for the music fans as well.

So the Greatest Hits album has died. Long live the Greatest Hits album. It’s just different.

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