You know streaming? Of course you do. I mean, you’re on this website, which means that you’re either a relative of one of our writers reading for moral support, or a discerning music lover (yes, of course you can be both, Mum). Well, as the latter, it’s more than likely that you’ll have a monthly subscription to a streaming service run by some unscrupulous corporation offering most of recorded music ever released by paying the artists responsible almost nothing for the pleasure.
For the listener it’s great, of course. With my Spotify subscription for instance, when someone says to me, “you’ll absolutely love the new Loyle Carner album, you should listen”, I can whip out my phone and save it in seconds – rather than paying £9.99 only to find out that this person doesn’t know me at all.
But I’d like to bother you today by complaining about this highly convenient medium for what it’s doing to something I hold dear: the album. Yeah, writers on this site have touched on this before, but I’m going to labour the point here. Streaming is damaging the albums of popular artists. I’ll explain.
Streaming doesn’t necessarily affect the albums of smaller, independent artists, or the ones that are so massive that the financial incentive isn’t all that important. It primarily affects LPs from artists who need the massive cash cows of a record label.
So you know The Weeknd? Canadian guy, kind of sounds like a millenial Michael Jackson. Or Migos? Three guys with dreads who rap over stuttering beats and make silly noises. (You must have seen their Carpool Karaoke where they teamed up with James Corden to terrible, terrible effect?) What about Taylor Swift? Everyone knows Taylor Swift.
After the charts started to incorporate streaming, making a no.1 album started to mean something different. Instead of one ill-advised £9.99 purchase from Woolworths, an album sale now equates to the ‘album-equivalent unit’ – the total number of plays of the 12 most streamed tracks from an album (with less weight given to the first couple of tracks), divided by 1000 and added to the total album sales (don’t ask me about what happens if an album has less than 12 tracks – I’ve done very little research).
This can be manipulated in a number of different ways – mainly by having a massive tracklist. If 12 songs from the new album land in several of Spotify’s popular playlists, those numbers are going to rack up. And if you have lots of songs, well, that means there’s even more for people to play – adding to that end of week total.
You may not like the previously mentioned artists, but I guarantee you’ll like them less now. The Weeknd, who started as an anonymous artist with three critically acclaimed nine-track mixtapes, got signed and started padding his projects with filler. 2016’s Starboy had 18 tracks and was 68 minutes long. Migos, whose first proper album Culture was actually quite good and a forgivable 58 minutes long, followed that up with 2018’s Culture II – a staggering 24-song, 1 hour 46 minute bloat fest. Taylor Swift has just put out Lover, which is 18 tracks long (I will state that I haven’t heard Swift’s latest, it’s just that the length of that tracklist screamed “stream bait” to me).
Long albums aren’t necessarily bad. Kendrick Lamar’s 78-minute long To Pimp a Butterfly came out in the streaming era, but it’s a masterpiece. There’s a clear difference in intention over long albums for artistic reasons and long albums to rack up plays.
A good example of this is provided by my close personal friend, Drake. Take Care, the pinnacle of his weirdly compelling ‘successful and sad’ persona, was 80 minutes long – yet I absolutely loved it. It immersed its listener in this odd world that he’d created, full of late nights, moody beats and well-deployed guests. That was in 2011, before the streaming beast had started to influence the charts.
By 2016, things had taken a turn for the worse. Drake put out his much anticipated Views record this year which was also 80 minutes long, but it captured none of the sparkle of his best work, and aside from some choice singles, it’s padded out with filler – song after song of miserable lyricism and half-baked ideas. And if we hoped he’d learn from this, last year’s Scorpion was billed as a “double album!” 25 tracks. An hour and a half long. Reader, it wasn’t good.
Is there a backlash against this practice? Sort of. The practice may be driven by big stars who know that they can rack up these plays, but the same people are in a financial position to take a stand against it. The much maligned Kanye West executive-produced a series of seven-track albums last summer which can only be seen as a deliberate move to return to a less-is-more style of musical output. It worked to thrilling success on Pusha-T’s Daytona and on Teyana Taylor’s K.T.S.E, but not so much on his own, very much unfinished-sounding album, ye. At 20 minutes long, some of these albums were arguably too short, but the intention was there – and when it worked it showed the value in brevity.
I love the album format. Getting lost in an artist’s body of work for a period of time is one of the real joys of music listening. I feel the streaming numbers game is harmful to the integrity of the album and risks talented artists putting out mediocre, bloated work. Or at the very least, it makes me listen to Ed Sheeran features or Drake’s tribulations on social media while trying to find the good stuff. I hope this trend passes. Sometimes things are left on the cutting-room floor for a reason.
Words by Tom Burrows.