The write-re­lease-tour for­mula of the mu­sic in­dus­try has had its day. Say hello to the ‘playlist era’, as cap­i­talised on by lead­ing hip-hop artists like Drake. By

Sunday Times - - Contents - Andile Ndlovu

Has on-de­mand made al­bums dis­pos­able?

Amu­sic al­bum should be judged, among other things, by how har­mo­nious it makes your time in traf­fic. A good al­bum will make the drive to or from work smoother — es­pe­cially for those who daily have to ma­noeu­vre Jo­han­nes­burg’s streets. Some weeks ago I wearily drove out of a work­shop in Rose­bank and headed to Bordeaux for an evening lec­ture. It was the right time to try rap­per Tierra Whack’s de­but al­bum, Whack World. I thought, even with bad traf­fic, it’s only a 5.7km drive so I’ll have to fin­ish the rest of the al­bum at home.

But half­way through the drive, Whack World was over and I felt cheated — I wanted more of Tierra’s kooky beats and rhymes. Alas, she was done say­ing what she had to say. Had it served its task? Yes — to an ex­tent. The catchy, ec­cen­tric songs en­thralled me, but I wasn’t half­way through traf­fic.

Not so long ago, the phys­i­cal al­bum was a revered cre­ation that artists took years to mould, por­ing over all the minute de­tails and costs, with hopes of de­liv­er­ing a com­plete pack­age that could achieve not only crit­i­cal ac­claim and chart suc­cess, but longevity — at least un­til the next re­lease.

There was a for­mula: write (in­clud­ing liner notes on the CD sleeve), re­lease, tour to sup­port the re­lease, re­cu­per­ate, and write again be­fore a fol­low-up re­lease and tour in sup­port of the fol­low-up re­lease. Cyclic.

But, it seems, that ap­proach has be­come an­ti­quated. Ac­cord­ing to the PwC Me­dia Out­look, to­tal mu­sic rev­enue in South Africa is fore­cast to reach R2.8bn by 2021. Of that, phys­i­cal recorded mu­sic will be worth only R168m — dra­mat­i­cally down from R992m in 2012 — while stream­ing will be worth an es­ti­mated R518m.

These fore­casts are the rea­son be­hind Spo­tify’s en­try into the South African mar­ket, to com­pete along­side Ap­ple Mu­sic, Google Play, Deezer, Simfy and Joox. All of­fer var­i­ous pack­ages, in­clud­ing fam­ily and/or stu­dent plans, stream­ing via desk­top, and even re­duced stream­ing qual­ity to use less data when not stream­ing via wi-fi.

And while mu­sic con­sump­tion pat­terns and trends are ex­cit­ing to wit­ness, they’re also fickle. What we’re see­ing is record la­bels analysing big data and an­a­lyt­ics to see if they can pre­dict mu­sic con­sump­tion trends.

On one end are the res­o­lute artists — like Adele whose 25 only hit stream­ing sites seven months after its re­tail re­lease (she once called stream­ing “a bit dis­pos­able”), and Than­diswa Mazwai, whose two bril­liant al­bums Za­bal­aza and Ibokwe were sep­a­rated by eight years. They don’t work in ac­cor­dance with any sched­ules or ex­pec­ta­tions.

But the fear for some is that spend­ing a great deal of money for an al­bum that could spawn just a hand­ful of hits is high risk (South African mu­sic pro­ducer and con­sul­tant Jonathan G Shaw es­ti­mates the costs of a sin­gle track is R50,000, which would be R750,000 for a 15-track al­bum). It’s re­ported that about 30,000 songs are added on Spo­tify daily, and that hun­dreds of its em­ploy­ees cu­rate and an­a­lyse mu­sic ac­cord­ing to skip rates and com­ple­tion rates. To be a megas­tar is to have a song make Spo­tify’s playlists, ex­pos­ing it to mil­lions around the world. How do you do it? That’s the next ques­tion ev­ery­one apart from Drake, whose lat­est al­bum be­came the first to hit a bil­lion streams in one week, is ask­ing. The buzz around the re­lease of the dou­ble al­bum saw all 25 of its tracks hit the Bill­board Hot 100 chart. He con­tin­ues to achieve strato­spheric num­bers, and no doubt is the king of stream­ing.

Any other artist who re­leased a 90-minute­long al­bum would be ac­cused of in­de­ci­sive­ness, but Drake is cap­i­tal­is­ing on the “playlist era” by leav­ing the fate of each song to the lis­tener — they (along with stream­ing ser­vice cu­ra­tors) de­cide what they like from the al­bum, ex­tract those, and put them on a playlist.

On the pop scene, Years & Years re­cently re­leased Palo Santo with 11 songs in 37 min­utes (deluxe edi­tion is 14 songs at 48 min­utes), Florence + The Ma­chine’s High As Hope is 10 songs in 40 min­utes, the Go­ril­laz’s new one — The Now Now — is 11 songs in 41 min­utes. Zonke Dikana’s L.O.V.E is only nine tracks at un­der 40 min­utes. There doesn’t ap­pear to be a de­fin­i­tive in­dus­try model.

The ex­cep­tion is Kanye West, who’d die to be con­trar­ian. Though many mu­si­cians fiddle around to find the best for­mula, Kanye be­lieves he has the an­swer: shorter al­bums. Each of the five al­bums re­leased from his G.O.O.D Mu­sic la­bel this year is un­der 27 min­utes and fea­ture eight songs each.

Ac­cord­ing to New York Mag­a­zine, Kanye’s ra­tio­nale to Pusha T — whose Day­tona al­bum was the guinea pig of the project — was: “In seven songs, you can get ev­ery­thing you want, and we can have the most con­cise, strong­est project ever”.

To give you an idea of the vast chasm in ap­proaches — you’d have to press re­peat four times on Day­tona be­fore the first play of Scor­pion is through.

Ex­plains Shaw: “The idea of an al­bum is now out­dated and artists fo­cus on best songs as op­posed to fill­ing an al­bum with ‘B-sides’. So more ef­fort is put into less con­tent to max­imise im­pact.”

Langa Mavuso, who’s had to fend off fans de­mand­ing the re­lease of his de­but al­bum (fol­low­ing his cap­ti­vat­ing EP, Lim­i­nal Sketches), sees things dif­fer­ently.

Lim­i­nal Sketches was 21 min­utes and six tracks long. He saw it as a way to not only “heal from the pain” he had ex­pe­ri­enced and writ­ten about, but also “in­tro­duce my­self to the mar­ket and po­ten­tial stake­hold­ers”.

Now that he’s es­tab­lished a de­cent fol­low­ing, in­clud­ing the back­ing of DJ Black Cof­fee and his Soulis­tic Mu­sic la­bel, he’s set to re­lease a fuller body of work. He doesn’t be­lieve in hors d’oeu­vres dis­guised as mains: “I think the case of the shorter al­bum is also in­flu­enced by shorter at­ten­tion spans. Mu­sic has been con­densed into a ‘Twit­ter at­ten­tion span’ size.

“It’s made it quick and easy to con­sume, but, for me, it has less of an im­pact,” he says. LS

Pic­ture: Getty Im­ages/Smith Col­lec­tion

Al­most a thing of the past, a win­dow dis­play at Har­mony Mu­sic Shop, a record store in New York City, pos­si­bly in the Bronx, 1980.

Tierra Whack. Pic­ture: Getty Im­ages/Craig Bar­ritt

’Palo Santo’ by Years & Years.

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