“The rise of Spotify and Apple music had changed everything,” a pensive John Legend told CNBC, and as listeners on both streaming sites soar for the fifth year running, he seems to be right. Amidst a music climate as turbulent as its social counterpart, Tolulope Sangowawa asks whether the humble album has met its timely demise.
It’s no secret that streaming platforms are ruling the music industry in 2020. With over three-hundred and twenty million active users, Spotify is undoubtedly the go-to source of music for our generation. Whilst it’s clear that the growth of such platforms has impacted the way music is being consumed, it is perhaps more fascinating to take a look at the impact this is having on the way it is being created.
The correlation between the decline of physical album sales and the rapid rise of streaming platforms is hardly a coincidence. In 2018, whilst album sales fell by 18% from the previous year, total on-demand music streams rose by a staggering 35%. It wouldn’t be unfair to suggest that more people in our generation listen to Spotify’s ‘Discover Weekly’ playlist than their favourite artist’s best album. On the surface though, this may not seem too strange, and it doesn’t necessarily indicate a problem.
A survey by French streaming service Deezer showed that 40% of modern listeners prefer playlists to albums
Most artists would agree that the success of streaming corporations such as Spotify and Deezer saved the music industry. That’s not to say that the industry needed saving, but there’s no denying that music has become more accessible and less exclusive for the general public. With millions of songs at our disposable, and every genre you can possibly think of, it has never been easier for listeners to access their music portfolio. It’s also never been easier for listeners to flick between different songs and artists, and thus between genres, often without even realising it.
Naturally, this was always going to lead to the decline of albums. Whereas thirty years ago it was very much the norm to put on a record of a specific genre and listen to all forty-five minutes of it, our current generation are probably the first where it’s normal to find forty-five minutes’ worth of individual songs and nonchalantly throw them into playlists. A survey by French streaming service Deezer showed that 40% of modern listeners prefer playlists to albums.
It was inevitable that the changing trends of music listeners was going to influence the way music is being composed. In any industry, the trends of the current generation of consumers will be the main dictator of what is being produced, and the music industry is no different. After all, music is a tangible reflection of the current culture. Pop artists such as Camilla Cabello and Justin Bieber are releasing record numbers of singles before albums, reflecting the drastic change in demand from albums to singles.
Even credible artists that are focusing on albums rather than singles are being influenced by the changing listening trends. Is it harsh to say that modern albums are slowly just becoming playlists? Again, this is probably most obvious in the pop industry where commercialism is always going to be a dictating factor. While each song of the record had its own appeal, Ed Sheeran’s 2017 album included sixteen independent songs with very little attachment to each other. The incorporation of such drastically different genres (from Irish folk-pop to slow acoustic ballads to dance-pop) is a sign of the times, and a potent example of an artist caught up in the shuffle/playlist era we currently live in.
For the artists that genuinely do care about creating great bodies of work, their job is getting more and more difficult
While it was much more common in the past for artists to create bodies of work with a distinct genre at the heart of it, it’s definitely not a new thing for albums to incorporate multiple different genres. Critically acclaimed artists such as The Beatles were so ahead of their time in producing bodies of work incorporating different genres from around the world, whilst still managing to keep their credibility as musicians by blending it all into unique works of art. The neo-soul album Voodoo, released by D’Angelo in 2000, is another example of an incredible piece of work that was ahead of its time for similar reasons. The fluid combination of hip-hop and traditional soul and jazz create an authentic sound that still evokes a surreal emotion twenty years after its release.
These iconic artists show that it has been done before. The fact that this is something that has slipped into the mainstream is a result of our generation’s new, more convenient way of consuming music. Artists are very much aware of these trends; Canadian rapper Drake even described his 2017 project More Life as a playlist rather than an album, indicating his awareness of the lack of demand for albums.
For the artists that genuinely do care about creating great bodies of work, their job is getting more and more difficult as fewer people are listening to full bodies of work. However, a more optimistic slant is that artists growing up in the current shuffle generation will have a unique perspective on composing music, and will be able to effortlessly incorporate different genres and bring back some much needed credibility to the industry.
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