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
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
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.
’Palo Santo’ by Years & Years.