The Music Industry’s Playlist Culture And Our Attention Spans

In addition to delivering big profits to labels and publishers, playlists are helping new and unknown artists succeed in some profound ways. From popular independent playlists curated in dorm rooms to Spotify’s insanely successful Discover Weekly feature, playlists are becoming a major way for listeners to learn about new music. The music industry has a lot to gain from this new trend, but is there a downside to our ever-increasing penchant for playlists?

Where do albums fit inside playlist culture?

Playlists are a little like all-you-can-eat buffets in the way that you’re encouraged to try a little bit of everything without putting too much on your plate. They’re the perfect way for audiences to listen to new music without committing to the experience of listening to an entire album. But when new artists write music intent on finding an audience in today’s single-driven atmosphere, it begs the question––why write albums anymore? Blame it on a culture of convenience, our collective diminishing spans of attention or some combination of the two, but artists are getting almost the same amount of mileage from having a single being featured on prominent playlists as they used to get from releasing an entire album.

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Songwriting in the playlist era

The music industry has hailed 2017 as the year its long awaited comeback, and streaming revenue borne gleaned playlists is a major driver behind the turnaround. But is music really better off in a single-driven culture? The Guardian certainly doesn’t seem to think so.

In a recent article, the British daily newspaper warned readers that songwriting and music in general suffers when music is made with the specific intention of getting placed on popular playlists. “Inevitably, there is a darker side to all this. First, at the extreme end, songwriting is now starting to contort to fit the aesthetic and audience of certain playlists; trying to second-guess what will connect best.”

The idea of artists making music with the intention to fit within certain commercial molds isn’t anything new, but it’s taken on an entirely new and troubling place in music in the age of Spotify. The article goes on to profile major artists who’ve begun experimenting with releasing music outside the album format.

“Artists are even starting to pull apart the album format and create evolving playlists in their place. Drake’s much-vaunted “playlist”, More Life, was essentially an album given a zeitgeisty rebrand, but in 2016, David Gray released a “dynamic” greatest hits on Spotify where tracks were switched around depending on how popular they were, while there were industry rumours, subsequently scotched, that Calvin Harris was going to abandon the album entirely and instead release singles and EPs on a rolling basis. Playlisting now means the album no longer has to remain a fixed entity.”

Some music industry veterans have gone as far as saying that playlists will most likely replace the album entirely within a few years. But no matter what happens to the album, the challenge for artists will be the same as it’s been for decades: Create meaningful music and find an audience in a world of tastes, trends, and methods of consuming music that’s constantly evolving.

Patrick McGuire is a musician, writer, and educator currently residing in the great city of Philadelphia. He creates music under the name Straight White Teeth, and has a great affinity for dogs and putting his hands in his pockets.

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