Music streaming has brought music from every time and every corner of the globe into our homes, but it’s also changing the ways we experience music.
There was a time, not too long ago, when an album of usually between 30-90 minutes was an artists primary output. Singles would accompany the album, often featured on the album, but the release as a whole mattered. It was where you went when you wanted to listen to an artist and often times was created meticulously; the sounds, track selection and ordering, themes and tales all playing into the project as a “whole”.
Slowly times began to change with greatest hits albums, and then compilations. Then the music industry got flipped upside down with the birth of music streaming which made almost every album, EP, and single available wherever you were – and cheaply at that. With this constant, unlimited access it’s transforming the way we listen to music and that’s where playlists come in.
Playlists are the digital equivalent of a Now That’s What I Call Music CD, except being digital there are no limits. Playlisting is now one of the most important tools for influencers and artists with thousands of playlists across services raking in millions of streams every single day. Their power is in their freedom; they can follow any theme, feature any music, and take any shape and listeners love it. In 2016 the Music Business Association found playlists to be more popular than studio albums.
Getting featured in one of Spotify’s top playlists will probably do more for your popularity now than getting a spin on your country’s top radio station. It’s a learned skill now to create a good playlist with a solid theme, appropriate content, flow, originality and diversity. But with the playlist becoming the new way to listen, rather than an artist’s album we’re seeing a priority in tracks and whilst full projects are losing the care and attention that makes them ‘albums’ and not just a collection of their music.
But whilst playlists can create a theme, even conjure up a narrative in the more skillfully made ones, they aren’t the tailor-made package of a singular artist or group that offers a complete experience to them. Albums are a whole, they act as a separate entity to a singular track though they are made up of them. It logs a point in time, an artist’s specific expressions, it might tell a story, each track may work in a harmonial conjuction – whatever it is that makes a good album whole, it can’t be replicated.
But does this mean that playlisting is bad? I think the complete opposite is true. Whilst playlists may be changing how we experience music I don’t think that it will ever replace the album. Playlisting works for a lot of artists, particularly pop acts whose singles represent their popularity more than their collected works. But that will never replace the experience of an album and, I hope, will never fulfil the true album experience for listeners.
I believe we’re moving towards a future where albums and playlists can live side by side, because the beauty of streaming is in it’s versatility. Artists can continue to make incredible albums, other artists can continue to come out with killer singles, and thanks to streaming services they both have a home.