The Death Of The Greatest-Hits Album: Should We Be Sad?

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There was a time when platinum albums didn't exist. An album might sell a million units, but there was no name for that accomplishment. It wasn't until 1976 that they gave that honor a label. The first album to be awarded platinum status? Their Greatest Hits (1971-1975) by the Eagles.

That ended up being a wise choice by the RIAA. The album would go on to sell 29 times that and become, along with Thriller, one of the two highest-selling albums of all time in the United States.

But Eagles aren't the only band with a compilation album on the list. Greatest-hits and best-of collections from Elton John, Billy Joel, Journey and the Beatles (twice) all make appearances.

But in the post-iTunes era of digital music consumption, do greatest-hits collections even matter anymore?

Think about the last time you saw a greatest-hits collection in a store. It was probably cheaper than buying a regular album from the band's catalogue. It was probably near the front of the store, along with copies of other collections from other artists. It might not have been in a music store, but at a supermarket or pharmacy.

In the year 2012, the greatest-hits collection is the junk food of music retail.

And that logic makes a lot of sense. Gone are the days when a greatest-hits release was an event that record labels spent lots of money advertising. For most people they're impulse buys.

These buys can be triggered by any number of things: A band you hadn't thought about is suddenly in the news again for doing something dumb; you get that hint of nostalgia discussing music with your friends; the artist in question dies.

Since her death in February, Whitney Houston's Whitney: The Greatest Hits has been in the Top 10 of the Billboard 200. Other than Adele's 21 and NOW 41 it's been the only constant in the ever-fluctuating Top 10, peaking at No. 2. That's not bad considering that during its initial release in 2000 it peaked at No. 5.

It's easy to see the thought process there. A person finds out about her death on the television; they hear a couple of her songs on the radio the next day; they talk about her with their coworkers. They remember how great those songs are and when they see her best songs on one CD by the checkout aisle for only $8, making that leap to purchasing the album isn't difficult.

Houston's death, while sad, has been good for her estate and her record company. But most artists aren't megastars like she was at one time.

Consider Journey. They've seen a huge resurgence in popularity over the last few years. "Don't Stop Believin'" is everywhere, from karaoke nights to sporting events to being covered by a band at RodeoHouston. You would think this resurgence might help push out copies of their Greatest Hits collection.

It's an album that has sold more than 15 million copies and continues to sell well enough to stay on the Billboard Top 200. And yet it hasn't sold more than a million copies since 2008. They can thank iTunes for that.

While the CD single might have fallen out of favor in the '90s, the move toward digital music sales has revolutionized the way many people consume music. Single sales are a thing again, one that record labels care about.

So while a lot of people might really enjoy singing "Don't Stop Believin'," that doesn't necessarily mean they'll like "Separate Ways." And if they have the right phone, they can literally buy the song at a moment's notice. Instant gratification for a dollar versus driving to the store? Not much of a contest.

Breaking Benjamin had a best-of release last year. It's exactly what you would expect from a band of their size: The radio singles from their first four albums.

But what is the market there? With two platinum albums out, it's hard to imagine there were a lot of people on the fence about whether or not they are fans of the band. And even if you did like "I Will Not Bow" enough to want a copy of it without taking the full-disc plunge, you could still download it.

And yet the CD exists. Instead of being an event, it was a way to keep the band's name out there while they were on hiatus.

Compilation albums aren't going away, they're just not an event anymore. Gone are the days of Their Greatest Hits or The Immaculate Collection or 1 being released and feeling like it was something important. At best they're an easy way to make a quick buck; at worst they're just a way to get out of a contract quicker.

For some bands their compilation isn't the candy by the checkout; it's the extra merchandise found in the clearance section.

Follow Rocks Off on Facebook and on Twitter at @HPRocksOff.

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