Evidence Playlists Have Replaced Albums
by Alex Cosper (7/26/18)

It's becoming a reasonable argument in the 21st century that the playlist has replaced the album as the most important type of music packaging or listening experience. This claim probably could have been made as early at 2001 when iTunes came on the scene. There were digital music players in the late 90s, such as Windows Media Player, but it was Apple's iTunes that made the digital playlist a near seamless musical journey.

Now that music streaming services such as Spotify and Apple Music are dominating music industry news, whereas new albums aren't, it's apparent that playlists (and music libraries) are at the center of modern musical culture.

The subscriber wars are heating up in America, as Apple Music has stolen a lot of Spotify's thunder. In July 2018 media outlets such as Digital Music News reported that Apple Music had surpassed Spotify in U.S. subscribers. The same month Consumer Intelligence Research Partners (CIRP) reported that Spotify lost 16% of its U.S. subscribers in the three months following the company's IPO in April. Other streaming services have been eclipsed by the "big two," at least in media coverage.

But at the same time, the album is not completely dead yet. It now exists in multiple forms, as Billboard's methodology has shifted in recent years to emphasize streaming as a major component. Drake's Scorpion album became a chart topper in the summer of 2018, but not because of selling physical albums - more due to "streaming equivalent albums" as well as "track equivalent albums." During the week of July 26, 2018, music industry trade publication Hits Daily Double reported that Drake's album only sold under 13,865 physical units for the week, but when equivalent album streams were added the total was 180,066. By contrast, in the nineties it was common for the top album to sell over 200,000 units in a week.

The movie soundtrack Mama Mia! Here We Go Again sold 33,839 physical albums the same week, which was the most of any album on Hits Daily Double's Top 50 album chart. But that was only enough to make #3 for the week with around 46,068 total "units," since the publication's methodology, like Billboard, has shifted to emphasize streams. Several albums on the list only sold in the hundreds, whereas streaming stats helped lift total points in the thousands.

Clearly, the music industry is no longer banking on album sales to promote artists. Last century if an album was certified gold the first week, it got plenty of media attention, which often helped gain more radio airplayn to push further sales. Album sales still matter as a promotional vehicle and as income for labels and artists, but now several artists release multiple singles before releasing full albums to gauge audience response.

These changes have a lot to do with the decline in physical album sales, which is a trend that started in 1999 in the era of free (illegal) and easy downloading of music files. Both Apple and Spotify had about 20 million paid subscribers in July, with Apple taking a slight lead. But the music industry's campaign to switch a majority of music fans over to either the free ad-based model or the ad-free subscriber model hasn't happened yet. So perhaps music consumption is in a transition period.

One thing the music industry appears to have overlooked in this transition from albums to playlists is that there's been a lack of critcally-acclaimed monumental albums this century. There really hasn't been a landmark album on the level of Sgt. Pepper or Thriller relevant to a large cross-section of society.

The point of the long-playing record originally was to showcase a collection of songs by an artist. Sgt. Pepper and a few earlier Beatles albums added the dimension of consistent themes to albums, creating the impression of a cohesive work of art built on tracks that flow together. But many albums fell short of that concept and consumers began to realize by the nineties that a lot of albums revolved around hit singles packaged with irrelevant or generic filler tracks. This realization led consumers to appreciate their own customized playlists of multiple artists.

So is the album headed for its demise? Not necessarily. The album has a history that goes back to the late forties and many consumers are still happy listening to old albums in their entirety from start to finish, especially on long road trips. An accurate analysis is that the album has been overshadowed by the playlist, but it may still live on. Another careful assessment is that music marketing is merging more with multimedia, which opens to door to many new creative possibilities.

As for local musicians, the album configuration still serves a purpose to distribute copies to music venues as a way to get live gigs. One thing local artists must remember, though, is that it may no longer by viable to spend $20,000 or more on an album, when a 5-song EP for significantly lower costs may make more sense. But regardless of what happens to albums, it appears that the playlist is here to stay.

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