I’m a musician who doesn’t do Spotify — I buy records. I’ll admit I do YouTube, and therein lies the issue: even for purists of the album format — people who insist on buying records, CDs, and tapes — the lure of streaming music is hard to resist. Not far from every song I listen to, there’s a YouTube “mix” (a playlist curated by YouTube’s astute algorithms). Meanwhile, on Spotify playlists dominate and underground musicians only start making anything close to real money if they get on a playlist.
It’s not hard to picture a world in which the album format has gone the way of the dinosaur and playlists dominate. In such a world, each song is independent of the rest of an artist’s work. A song’s playability is based on where it fits within the world of playlists. Artists release collections of songs, but they only do so as a formality, and physical collections no longer exist because everything’s digital. More than collections, artists release individual songs. This isn’t far from happening, but could it actually become the norm?
The Merits of Playlists
Playlists provide many joys. They cater to our tendency to categorize, curate, and collect. Even more than that, they cater to the listener’s desire for songs that fit a certain mood or occasion.
The DJ in all of us exalts when a song comes on that fits the moment perfectly, as if we’re in a movie with a well-appointed score/soundtrack. When someone skillfully constructs a playlist, it’s an art form. It pops with contrasting feels, it flows with complementary keys, it unearths songs that — were it up to the gatekeepers of commercial success — would never creep out from beneath the rug. The Byrds once sang, “To everything/There is a season/And a time to every purpose under heaven.” An updated version would read, “To everything/There is a playlist/And an occasion to every playlist under heaven.”
Moving to a new city? Here’s a playlist of the best songs about moving away. There are heavy hitters on here, including Tom Petty, Billy Joel, and Johnny Cash. And, of course, you can find it on Spotify.
Studying for finals? Here are some playlists to help you survive finals week. The diversity here is impressive, with Justin Timberlake, Kid Cudi, and M83 — just a few of the artists whose songs satisfy the need for “upbeat pop.” If you want “coffeehouse chill,” check out some tracks from Bon Iver, Tycho, and (shudder) John Mayer. Looking for some old-school hip hop? Look no further than Run D.M.C., A Tribe Called Quest, and a collab from Dr. Dre, Blackstreet, and Queen Pen. That’s right. “No Diggity.”
Playlists put the power in the hands of the listener. Now, instead of letting an artist or a radio station tell you which songs belong where, you make the call. Want someone else to make the call for you? Check out their playlist. No doubt they’ve felt the same as you, they’ve been to a similar party and walked out, after which they made a playlist.
Oh and a final merit of playlists: they eliminate clutter. No more heavy vinyl to move around. No more CDs strewn all over the place. You can play a playlist virtually anywhere and it fits in your pocket.
The Merits of Albums
Conversely, albums leave the power in the hands of the artist. The artist decides which songs belong in a collection. When you listen to a song, you might as well let the album play through and hear the other stuff. The artist gets to transport the listener into her world. While a single song can transport you, it ends quickly (unless it’s an epic jam) and you’re wrenched out of the experience. An album gives you time to explore.
A single song can be a work of art, but an album is a more complex, immersive work of art. An album asks you to pay attention and get to know the artist on a deeper level. A well-done album showcases the artist as an artist, not just a hitmaker. The album allows the artist and listener to forge a relationship.
What Streaming Means to Artists
So far, when it comes to the art, artists are better off releasing albums. Plus, streaming barely pays. Spotify pays you $0.006 to $0.0084 per stream, and that money goes to “rights holders” — if you’re on a label and no one knows about you, you’d better hope to win the streaming lottery and land on one of Spotify’s playlists, which means you’ll get more plays. Hopefully you’ll get enough plays to make the cost of recording and promotion worth it for the label and the band.
In the world of streaming, you’re going to be pretty strapped for cash if you’re not a big pop star. That’s why bands are charging more for concerts now. According to the co-founder of Bandsintown, 90 percent of payout comes from live shows.
If the future of music is streaming, it would help artists immensely if platforms like Spotify and Pandora were to become record labels that charge regular prices for access to songs. Don’t expect that to happen anytime soon.
The Resurgence of Vinyl
There’s good news for artists and labels: 2017 was a record-setting year for vinyl sales. The sales numbers don’t take into account the years before 1991, when Nielsen started keeping electronic records, but this still means there’s a taste for vinyl out there.
So will playlists delete albums in the future? I don’t think the answer is yes. As long as there’s a taste for the full-blown album experience, as long as there are good artists proving albums are important, people will continue to want albums. There’s no telling what will happen to hard copy albums, but I’m willing to bet people’s desire for physical art forms will always exist.