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Foregone Formats

I came across an article last week that cited playlists are on the rise. Using the 25th anniversary of Nirvana’s “Nevermind” album, the author then went on to question the necessity of a whole album.

I am unabashedly a Kurt Cobain fan so this reference point certainly grabbed my attention. Released in 1991, the seminal “Nevermind” album forever changed the face of rock music. The music itself remains relevant to this day and has influenced countless artists but the author raises a good point – is the format it was produced in still relevant?

I just can’t imagine that 25 years from now (2041!) we’ll be lauding an album the way we do “Nevermind.” Hell, we won’t even be celebrating a Billboard Chart-topping track. Will we be praising Spotify’s Election 2016 playlist instead?

Playlists aren’t a new format – radio DJs in the 1970s were playing them. When I was a teenager, creating the ultimate mixtape or playlist for your friends was an enviable skill. But they are having an increasingly vital role in today’s music culture. On-demand streaming services such as Spotify, Soundcloud, Tidal, and Apple Music sort through the music options and create lists of curated song choices. A survey conducted by MIDiA Research found that overall, 29% mainly listen to albums and 31% mainly listen to playlists. Among the [younger] generation of free streaming music listeners, 45% listen mostly to playlists and 31% to whole albums. Of the survey respondents who are paid subscribers, 60% listen mainly to albums and 68% to playlists (yes, people could pick more than once choice). The tide is definitely changing.

“If fans are consuming music on streaming services and mostly listening to playlists, does it even make sense to release full albums and build campaigns around their release, instead of simply releasing tracks as they are finished and running on-going campaigns to break artists?” (DJ Skee | INC article)

As I’m sure many music lovers are, I’m conflicted when it comes to the prominence of playlists. I quite like my Discover Weekly playlist via Spotify; I love discovering new music and artists through the weekly list of songs. But do we put our trust in an algorithm that curates music for us? Do we stop investing in albums? Is this the future? Will musicians eventually stop bothering to produce a full album? As playlists continue to move past simply recommending music bases on a listener’s likes and towards tailoring songs to a user’s present moment, no more albums is a possibility. People want to listen to music that fits what they are doing, at any given moment, be it singing in the shower, exercising at the gym, or working at an office all morning. Playlists fit that bill much better than an entire album does.

Albums aren’t the only “dead” format, of course. I prefer to think in terms of evolution and growth, not death. It’s too absolute, particularly in terms of media formats. So when I read about how print is dead or radio is dead or music is dead or digital is dead, I think, “No way. We now have podcasts, e-books, and playlists.” These are the latest repackagings of old formats, the latest iteration.

Because, as we often see with fashion, things have a tendency to come back around. (The sudden resurgence of 90s accessories, anyone?) There will always be a portion of the population who will continue listening to the radio, subscribing to newspapers, and flipping their vinyl over. And for those who have outgrown such formats, there are podcasts, ebooks, and streaming music.

My case is this; nothing dies or completely disappears. Some formats grow or get reformatted while others lay dormant awaiting a kewl kid to come along and bring it back. I promise, I will always keeping on listening to pinnacle albums like Dark Side of the Moon and Nevermind. But I will also embrace playlists, podcasts, and other “new” media formats.


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