Streaming Services and the Art of the Album

People like to use modern pop music as a punching bag.  Critics and discerning listeners love to lament that music isn't what it used to be or that the internet has destroyed the industry or that there's no way to make a living as a musician anymore.  A surefire way to pick up a little critical credibility is to wax apocalyptic about the state contemporary music, but I'm not sure that's the way to go.

The music industry, like other forms of media, has been in the throes of a sort of revolution for some time.  Since vinyl went out of style, the means by which people listen to music has been in a constant state of flux.  I’m a musician and, therefore, am acutely aware of the damage wrought by some of these changes.  As a listener, however, I find the “good ole days” grumblings of cantankerous critics to be a little short-sighted.

Putting aside the enormous impact of streaming services on the financial viability of making music, Spotify and its ilk have done some really interesting things for listeners.  I hear this, at least in part, in the way it has revitalized the art of making an album.  

Tape cassettes and CDs weren’t fundamentally different from vinyl, in that artists wrote album-length projects, attempted to include a couple potential “singles” with radio appeal, and then recorded the thing.  People bought the album or listened for their favorites on the radio.  Digital downloads changed that dynamic by, not just allowing people to listen to one song over and over without the accompanying album, but encouraging it by charging per track.  In the last five years, however, the way that people listen has settled into a sort of equilibrium with the advent of streaming services.

Spotify and similar services allow people to make playlists and listen to the music they want without the accompanying album, but there were mixtapes and burned CDs for decades before digital Media shook things up.  For the large chunk of my formative years (middle and high school, a bit of college) during which music was purchased by the track and downloaded, however, I don’t really recall many of my friends buying entire albums regularly.  Those of my friends who, like me, actually purchased entire albums were almost always collecting discographies of artists we really liked.  In other words, buying albums that were released, not recently, but ten or twenty or forty years prior.  There was no need to.  We found songs we liked, bought them and only them, and listened to them and only them. 

If anything Spotify and other streaming services have disrupted that trend and made popular music less dependent on single tracks and individual viral singles, and in so doing, revitalized the art of the album.

Something that grumblers tend to forget about the music industry's heyday is that music with serious artistic value and massive popular appeal is extraordinarily rare.  The Beatles.  Michael Jackson.  That might be it.  Elvis was pretty much pop all the way through (still awesome), Marvin Gaye was an artistic genius, but one whose appeal was somewhat more underground than we like to remember.  Jimi Hendrix changed the way that fifty years (and counting) of guitar players approached their instruments, but his enormous appeal was counter-cultural and his pop success was little more than incidental.

The beauty of the golden age of pop music was not that everything on 1960s radio was brilliant (let’s not forget that this is the era that produced The Monkees) or that musicians could go out and achieve astronomical pop success.  It was, rather, that there was space for artists with the subversive appeal of Jimi Hendrix or artistic and political sensibility of Marvin Gaye to find wide audiences and lasting success as well.  The rapidity with which changes hit media might make me a fool for saying this, but there’s a little bit of that same space now where there hadn’t really been for years prior.

The viral singles and radio hits are still out there of course, but, like in the 1960s, for every collection of pop drivel, there is a real performer.  For every handful of one-hit wonders and incomprehensibly vapid pop sensations, there’s a Bruno Mars.  For every collection of belters, there’s an Adele.  More important, however, is the space for more ambitious sorts of art.  Many of the popular artists that have demonstrated their staying power have made a shift from recording collections of hopeful singles, to producing expansive, coherent, musical projects.

Beyoncé and Lemonade.  Kendrick Lamar and To Pimp a Butterfly, or to a lesser extent Good Kid M.A.A.D. City or Damn.  Janelle Monae and Electric Lady (or really any of her studio albums).  Jason Isbell and Nashville Sound.  

It’s okay to not like Beyoncé (I guess … ) but denying the value of what she creates is a different thing entirely.  It’s okay to lament the “destructive” half of the creative destruction wrought by changes in the way we consume music and to recognize its shortcomings, but ignoring the democratizing force and the platform for creativity that’s risen from the rubble is a different thing entirely.  At some point, we started confusing an environment that wasn’t conducive to creativity for an absence of creativity itself.  So much so that we missed when the context shifted and became much more fertile.  At some point, it’s worth taking the time to appreciate what’s out there and the role that the current listening environment has in making it possible, otherwise, we might not be able to preserve it when the earth starts moving again.