How do you diagnose a dead artistic medium? The novelist and semi-professional walker, Will Self, in one of his many proclamations has described the novel as dead. People take that as meaning at some point there will come a time that there will be no more novels. But what he is really articulating is that the novel has lost its ability to define a cultural period – it can no longer occupy a ‘watercooler’ moment. People compose symphonies, write poetry or paint portraits but beyond a conclave of obsessives nobody really cares.
Has the album reached this point? The idea of somebody queuing up outside of a record shop to buy the latest release is long gone, and describing such behaviour feels like an alien past. The album certainly seems to be swimming against the virtual tides of history as the music industry pivots towards algorithmic music distribution. Tides change of course, with the ‘vinyl revival’ offering proof that listening habits are not solely defined by new technologies.
The imperial rise of streaming is clearly a major factor in the changing cultural perceptions of the album as a medium. Spotify has 286 million active users who spend an average 25 hours each month listening online. Users also spend on average a third of their time listening to the hugely influential Spotify playlists and another on user generated playlists. The average user spends 16 out of their 25 hours of Spotify listening time listening to music chosen for them by the Spotify algorithm or the musical whims of a random user.
A ‘listen’ on Spotify is defined as the user listening to the first 30 seconds of the song This, combined with the focus on playlists, is inevitably creating changes in the composition of music. Despite remaining the best-selling physical format, CD sales have plummeted faster than the critical acclaim for IDLES. In 2019, approximately 22 million CDs were sold in the UK compared to over 100 million sold in 2008, whereas there were 114 billion streams across all platforms.
If a musician gets paid as long as the first 30 seconds of their song is listened to, and the likelihood is that this song will have been put on playlist by somebody other than them, it is going to do two things. Firstly, it will create a dynamic that means the first 30 seconds need to be disproportionately captivating because, ultimately, it’s all too simple for people to skip a song. Secondly, if you are creating music that people will be listening to on playlists increasingly compiled around moods and times of day, we will find that music is created to fit a very narrow market.
I still believe the album is the pinnacle for which the majority of artists strive. An album can still define a cultural moment – that very brief period where a piece of art seems to vibrate throughout society, becoming the third person in every conversation. It is becoming progressively rare though; Beyoncé’s Lemonade is a recent example, and from this year, Fiona Apple’s Fetch the Bolt Cutters captured an excitement that resembled, in a very small way, the pre-digital hysteria a new album could generate.
The album is not dead yet, but neither is its demise without question; musicians still cling to the notion that a classic record is the path to artistic greatness. But the day they think the pinnacle of success is getting a song in the Spotify Top 100 is when the album will be confined to the same lonely cultural corner as the sonnet.