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Has the playlist killed off the album?

The power of the playlist is changing the way people write music

Has the playlist killed off the album?
12 November 2015

The unveiling of Adele's comeback single Hello sent the music world into overdrive a few weeks ago with its parent album 25 immediately rocketing to number one on the iTunes and Amazon preorder charts.

The music industry breathed a sigh of relief. With Christmas around the corner, this album is going to be the one that brings customers into physical shops - what's left of them - and onto download platforms, to boost those all-important Q4 profit margins.

But this sort of marquee album release could soon be a rarity, due to the increasing popularity of the arch-enemy of the artist album: the playlist.

The whole recorded music world is currently in a state of flux: CD sales are declining, so are digital album downloads, so even are individual track downloads. Meanwhile, streaming - while far from universally adopted - is on the rise. It's clearly the future, even though Apple Music doesn't seem to have got it right and the less said about Tidal the better. As more people adjust to the concept of access, not ownership, streaming will only increase and, sooner or later, it will surely become the dominant method of consumption.

But what's fascinating about this platform is the huge power that playlists now wield: so much so that it's affecting the way artists are discovered, how they break through and - ultimately - what they actually create in the first place.

The walkman is still cooler than anything and you know it

We've always had playlists: they began with the humble mixtape, it went official with the Now That's What I Call Music series and then, of course, all those iTunes playlists you lovingly put together. But with streaming, those playlists were suddenly public, and capable of regular updates - and you could follow those people with good taste. As Spotify grew, so did the big playlists and, unsurprisingly, Spotify and major labels started getting in on the act, taking over popular ones and curating and promoting their own, such as the hugely popular Autumn Acoustics and Topsify UK New Music Fridays playlists.

Faced with the overwhelming choice of 'everything that's ever been recorded' when looking for new music, listeners are reverting to having people choose it for them - these popular playlists are now effectively the new radio stations - and they're incredibly effective.

We spoke to the team at streaming service Google Play Music to discover how they create and select songs for their in-house playlists. Their chosen method is to use a combination of expert knowledge and data - so not just some unfeeling algorithm, but a team of music lovers put their playlists together; whilst not ignoring what the statistics tell them about whether users are engaging and enjoying what they've done.

Tweaks are constantly made, songs removed and added; new themes put forward and discussed - it's a serious business. And it's not even just about new music - the aim is to create a playlist that's exactly what you want, whenever you want it - for the time of day, the mood you're in, the kind of place you're occupying, the goal you currently have - eventually, there will be a full range of perfect playlists that you didn't even know you needed. There will be no need for you to actively forage for new stuff - it'll be handed to you on a plate, daily.

And it's changing everything.

Now, as a new act, gone are the days where you're angling for a spot play on a late night radio show, or a good review in a broadsheet. Now, the aim is to get onto one of the big playlists. A friend's band woke up one day to discover that they had been added to the aforementioned Autumn Acoustics - before they knew it, they had over a million plays. For a self-release, this means serious money going straight to the artist. It was far more powerful than any other single pickup - such as a radio play, or a good review - as it translated directly into plays, which translated directly into money.

Moreover, the higher your play count on the streaming services, the more ammunition you have to persuade said 'normal' radio stations, or media outlets to feature you - or that major label to sign you. Playlists are the primary goal. A single track on the right playlists can make a fortune.

But playlists don't playlist entire albums. They pick single songs. So what's the point of writing an album?

Oh, sure, some people will hear that killer tune and investigate further, they might listen to your long-playing masterpiece. But they probably won't. They'll probably just check up on their favourite playlists each week to hear the next killer new tunes instead; after all, when playlists are satisfying all of your musical needs, why bother with risking time on an album that could be patchy?

And this could affect the way artists make music. It's been going on in dance music for years; Calvin Harris' last two albums were effectively just collections of all of his singles - and it's no coincidence that he was the first British solo artist to pass 1bn streams on Spotify. He deals exclusively in hits.

It's worked a treat for him and other artists are bound to take notice sooner rather than later. You're better off spending the time you would on an album just writing one big smash - you'll make a lot more money. Never mind the big artistic statement - just write a hit.

The hit single has always been crucial to any album's success, but the rise of the playlists mean that one song alone can do the damage - the album could soon be completely irrelevant. You've got a few seconds to grab the listener, and then you'd better be out within four minutes.

Will this actually happen? We don't know for sure - and it's not like hits being important is a new development - but it will be fascinating to watch.

(Images: Rex/Shutterstock)