Why this Q4 is more important than ever to the music industry

Sam Smith

It’s the most wonderful time of the year.

No, not Christmas – although that’ll be along soon enough. I’m talking of course about Q4; the final quarter of the year, which traditionally represents make or break for the music biz.

In recent times, Q4 has become even more important than usual, as labels pin everything on a few blockbuster releases to try and resuscitate a sales graph that, since the advent of Napster, has only ever been heading downwards. But this year, the UK industry heads into Q4 – which actually began on Friday – with a spring in its step and that graph showing All Albums AES up more than 5% versus this time last year.

That, along with what will surely be the year’s biggest-selling album (Ed Sheeran’s ÷) and biggest-selling debut (Rag’N’Bone Man’s Human) being released way back in Q1, means you might have expected the biz to take its foot off the gas and enjoy the festivities for once. But that would have been a mistake and thankfully – as you can see from the release schedule, laid out in all its glory in this week’s 100-page special Q4 edition of Music Week – that’s not what the industry has done.

Instead, there’s as strong a slate of Q4 releases as we’ve seen for a long time. Much will rest upon the two true blockbusters – Sam Smith’s as-yet-untitled sophomore album and Taylor Swift’s hotly-anticipated Reputation – smashing the albums market as comprehensively as they have the singles streaming one in the last few weeks.

But the rest of the line-up offers something for pretty much everyone. There are legendary returning indie heroes (Morrissey, both Gallagher brothers) and potential pop superstars both established (Pink, Shania Twain, Kelly Clarkson) and new (Rita Ora, Niall Horan, Miley Cyrus). There are new albums from huge rock acts (U2, Foo Fighters, Stereophonics), big Greatest Hits sets (Elton John, Black Sabbath, Bryan Adams) and lavish reissues (George Michael, The Smiths).

Last year’s surprise Q4 champs, Michael Ball & Alfie Boe – also to be found on this week's cover – are back for more, trailed by an army of other household names touting albums aimed at their market – the older, physical-buying consumer who doesn’t yet know their Spotifys from their Apple Musics. At the other end of the market, streaming subscriptions are likely to play an ever-bigger role as a stocking filler. And if the rumours about a new Eminem album dropping in time for Christmas are true, that will be literally all bases covered.

All good news for labels and still hard-pressed music retailers. But a blockbusting Q4 will do more than shore up a few bonuses. It will show that music can still compete with other sectors when it comes to compelling gifting season content and encourage further investment into everything from A&R budgets to streaming companies. 2016’s modest full-year rise (AES up 1.5% on 2015) set things up nicely for a big year this year, but last year’s Q4 actually under-performed. Reversing that trend will send a loud and clear message: Music is back in business, and business is good.

So let’s get out there, sell (or stream) some records and once more make Q4 the happiest season of all...

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