Is the playlist killing the album?
Album sales have been rapidly decreasing for the past decade or so. Initially, this was attributed to the fact that it was becoming possible (and increasingly popular) to buy singles for 99p on iTunes. However, as Spotify has seen an unprecedentedly enormous rise in the past decade, we should question whether it is the single that is killing the album – or the playlist.
In the modern day, there is a pre-created Spotify playlist for virtually any occasion – morning coffee, Friday night, even (famously) 4am comedown. This curated format allows the listener to experience the focused mood or vibe brought by an album, but without having to leaf through the filler and dud tracks. Spotify has cherry-picked the best bits of each album for you, ready in a convenient format.
Music, then, has become available to the common listener in a more streamlined format, without the limitations of an LP. The traditional album, probably originating from the 1950s, suits the format of a vinyl: two sides, eight to ten tracks, one concept. But as the album became less popular and was replaced by the CD, record companies exploited the larger capacity of a CD to make albums longer and longer, until seemingly every album boasted 5 ‘bonus tracks’ – not to mention the limited editions. Inevitably, the increased length led to more fillers; the tracks that, in the days of vinyl, would have been left out. The album, previously desirable in the simplicity of its A-side and B-side, was becoming more difficult to navigate. But even as CDs were still selling, the musical world was changing. In 1999, Napster was born, and in 2001, Apple sold their first iPod. Music was becoming digital.
“Being able to pick and choose songs at will (without the added effort of navigating a turntable) - why would anyone choose to sit down for an hour and listen to one thing? Why settle for less when you could have more?”
And so in came the playlist. Music lovers were able to choose their favourite songs from their favourite albums and have them all in one place. To play music at a party, all you had to do was make a playlist and dock in your iPod.
Although the playlist was initially a personal creation, in the past decade it has exploded as a pre-made format. Not only Spotify but other online services like Soundcloud, 8tracks and Noisetrade (to name a few) allow people to listen to playlists which have been created to build a particular mood. On 8tracks, for example, you can search for playlists either with a mood (‘relaxed’) or a genre (‘slacker rock’) or even a more abstract concept (‘spring’) – meaning you will likely find something perfectly tailored to your situation. Especially as most of these services (at least at one level) are free, spending a tenner on an album increasingly seems like a ludicrous waste of money. The ready availability of digital music like this makes the album seem less and less desirable.
The past decade has seen an unexpected resurgence in vinyl sales amongst young people – Urban Outfitters is now the biggest seller of vinyl – but is this resuscitating the album? We should remember that the vast majority of music listeners are not listening to vinyl but instead get most of their music from Spotify, YouTube, etc. This regression in listening habits is having an effect. Whilst 15 years ago, vinyl (in terms of new releases) was reserved exclusively for the indies, now more and more pop music – Ed Sheeran, Beyoncé – is being released on vinyl, encouraging people to engage with the album format. But the majority of vinyl collectors also use streaming services. So vinyl, rather than being the primary means of listening, has become a collectable commodity, having an appeal in its materiality and uniqueness. And if you search ‘vinyl’ on Spotify, you’ll find hundreds of playlists with names like ‘Classic Rock Vinyl’, ‘12” classics’ and ‘Dusted Vinyl’. The legendary “album collection” is being transformed into a playlist.
A playlist allows its listener to listen to only the catchiest, most desirable songs from albums, perhaps boasting an ‘easier’ listening experience. On the other hand, the album requires commitment, both in making the choice to buy (or even to actually choose to listen to) and then to sit down and absorb it in full. But whilst the playlist is becoming a dominant force in today’s music world, Spotify also allows us to appreciate an album, old or new and so long as albums are being created, their capacity for creativity is being fulfilled. The musical landscape is evolving into a world of choice – including the choice to listen to an album (on Spotify).