It was during the dot-com boom of the 2000s that music pundits began to proclaim the end of the album as an artwork. With the emergence of Napster and the growth in popularity of the iPod, the listening experience of mp3s significantly improved, and the single made a resurgence; so much so that many listeners believed that the album as an artistic entity was marking its final days.
The album, however, continued to remain intact as an artwork. Perhaps it was the massive quatities of downloads of albums made available on Piratebay and other peer-to-peer services, where listeners could and still can illegally download albums and even discographies within minutes, or iTunes offering albums digitally, but the rumors were put to rest.
But now, 13 years later, the prophecies finally appear to be coming to fruition. And a large cause of this is a result of the the well-known music streaming service, Spotify.
Spotify, which has a growing base of 24 million users, has created a business model with a peripheral aim of ending music piracy by offering its users access to unlimited music free of charge. Using the money it makes through user subscriptions and advertising, Spotify compensates artists for their work.
However, Spotify’s playlist- heavy model is what is causing these predictions to become true. Listeners can pick and choose songs from the collection of 20 million that Spotify offers, and assemble these songs into playlists, instead of giving albums a complete listen.
That’s not to say that Spotify doesn’t necessarily offer full albums for users to listen through—just that almost everything about the design and organizational structure of the application promotes songs to be hand-selected by users and listened to in isolation. Users drag songs of their liking to their playlist, star songs on Spotify radio to add it to their playlist, can sync music to an MP3 player only in the form of a playlist and share it—guess how?— through a playlist.
What is lost when music is listened to as a playlist instead of an album? What’s so essential about maintaining the album as an artwork?
The album is synonymous with music itself, and to not listen to music in an album-like format is perhaps to not even listen to music at all. Forming our own individual tastes, listening in the way the artist presented and revisiting music are all traits integral to music that are lost when we choose to splice together a set of disparate songs.
Artists meticulously work for their music to be listened to in a designated way. Hip hop artist Kanye West spent 5000 hours composing “Power” for the album, “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy.” The Avalanches spent two years compiling songs to sample, and another year and a half recording “Since I Left You.” These artists and innumerable others work to integrate songs with one another seamlessly; it’s not uncommon for artists to end songs with the beginning of the next like in “Since I Left You,” to create the effect that the album is one single song.
Integration isn’t always just sonical; in a concept album, by definition, artists extend narratives from one song to the next, to create a broader discussion of themes and ideas. What the use of Spotify’s playlist model does is, in essence, disregard the countless hours of effort that artists put into the design of their albums.
The best albums are the ones that we leave alone to accumulate dust before revisiting them. Yes, there are the albums that strike us with immediacy, but those which are even better are those whose perceptions have shifted and changed with the course of time. This too is lost in the playlist experience: when we dislike a song on Spotify, we disregard the album altogether if not the artist. However, with the album, the artist offers reason for why a song exists, and eases into the song with the previous; we can rediscover the album and be pleasantly surprised.
The thing is, we as listeners don’t realize that the most enjoyment comes not when we assemble music how we want to, but when we listen to an album in the way the artist presented. The best songs are oftentimes not those with the greatest number of bars on Spotify; they are quite often the opposite.
The album is necessary to developing our own musical tastes. It serves to help us define our own understanding of music—one that Spotify’s playlist-oriented model inhibits.