Is popular music killing the album? The latest project from Toronto rap artist Drake, entitled ‘More Life’, which dropped this week, is not an album or mixtape, but a self-described ‘playlist’. Is Drake’s adoption of the term a trendy technicality, the indication of a side project, or the signal of a wider shift in the music industry?
In the New York Times, Jon Caramanica writes that “the playlist suggests an aesthetic shift from the album, which in its platonic ideal form is narratively structured and contained, a creator’s complete thought expressed in parts. A playlist in the streaming era, by contrast, is a collection of moods, impressions, influences and references; it’s a river that flows in one direction, ending somewhere far from the beginning (if it ends at all).”
The idea that an album ‘ends’ is one that is being challenged. As the commercial focus of music shifts from selling physical vinyl and CDs to digital streaming services, the musical content of an album can become more fluid. After releasing ‘The Life of Pablo’, Kanye West continued to update the work, adding lyrics and tweaking the mix of what he described as a “living breathing changing creative expression”.
There’s also a business imperative to artists working with the idea of a loose collection of ‘moods’, which can be mixed, matched and tailored to a listener’s location, activity and preferences. Spotify is increasingly transparent about the importance of listening data to its advertising-heavy business model. In Quartz, Amy X. Wang describes Spotify’s “financial incentive to pry more deeply into users’ listening habits and sell ads aligned with their specific lifestyles”. It’s not unrealistic to imagine record labels prioritising the idea of an artist providing the ‘ingredients’ of a user-created playlist, over the complete artistic vision of an album’s narrative.
Do you agree? Would the reconciliatory ‘All Night’ from Beyonce’s album ‘Lemonade’ work without the burning anger of ‘Pray You Catch Me’? When was the last time you listened to an album in full? Let us know on Twitter.
Words by Erica Smith and Jed Carter.
This originally appeared in Moving World Wednesday 20170322.
Subscribe to Moving World Wednesday here.