“The rise of Spotify and Apple music had changed everything.” – John Legend
John Legend’s quote from his interview with CNBC talks about a crucial change. A change which was revolutionised by the advent of the internet and a change which the music industry is still adjusting to. Though this remodelling deals with various aspects, the two major factors focuse on the transformation of the music distribution process and the evolution of albums to singles. These two are intrinsically weaved, which means to understand or critise the latter would need a prior discussion of the former.
If we look back in time, we will note that music was distributed in a physical form be it vinyl, cassette, CD or pen drive. Purchasing or collecting these physical copies though very lucrative for artists and record companies had their own limitations. Music was circulated within a close intellectual circle of music enthusiasts. People preserved, conserved and curated music according to their taste. Simply put, it was more of a hobby. Josh Hommes, the founder of the rock band Queen of the Stone Age, once said: “Vinyl has gotten to the point where it’s exclusively for the collector, I guess.” Moreover, it established the monopoly of recording companies who were solely responsible for the production, PR and marketing of music. As a result, the freedom of the artists was compromised many times. There are numerous stories about how companies forced musicians to change the lyrics of songs or to produce more commercial music or how they were expected to churn out songs like a machine under a strict deadline. Often crucial decisions were taken by the company without even consulting the artists such as the album cover of Hendrix’s Axis: Bold As Love which he admitted he had nothing to do with and expressed strong disapproval.
The transformation from hard copy to soft copy distribution happened in many steps. Initially, soft copies were also under the ownership of companies such as Sony but, gradually, it evolved into a no ownership, direct streaming format. The benefits of direct music streaming are mainly easy accessibility and circulation with a widening circle of listeners. It became easier to conserve music and had the bonus of longevity. But most importantly, it diversified the music industry by removing the middle-man or the recording companies and establishing direct contact between the artists and the audience.
However, easy accessibility has its own disadvantages. Piracy became rampant due to which artists suffered economically a great deal but, on the flipside, piracy further broke the monopoly and made recorded music more democratic. With all that considered, it has to be said that the lack of any filter also tampered with the quality of the art form. Besides, the parameters of judging a work got blurred. Very frequently we notice some basic works gaining popularity over quality projects and, most of the time, this depends upon one’s social media presence and social connections rather than talent or musical intelligence. An artist’s chances of income and profit margins from streaming platforms became slimmer than before. Though it offers individuals a fair chance to establish themselves, it is not easy for them to capture the market. In short, there is no formula to be successful as the conditions are prone to fluctuation.
Coming to the second category of transformation, that is, from the chunky music albums to extravagant singles. With the easy availability and greater number of audience, singles became a more viable option to stay afloat and relevant than the album due to time-related issues. Internet speeded up the entire search and found process creating a demand for more materials and singles were the only means to satisfy this demand. Moreover, it gave the artists a golden opportunity to experiment, a quick trial and error method that wouldn’t affect their career majorly.
The beauty of albums was, in the fact, that one could lay back and enjoy music by their favourite artists as one song played after the other; but is that even what the modern listener even wants today? One may argue that the modern-day playlist also does exactly the same. That’s not true. An album was unified by a theme in which the artist dictates, compiling the contents according to their taste and perspective. A playlist, on the other hand, is compiled by the listener according to their taste, skipping to their favourites without exploring all the other material that arrives chronologically leaving it impossible to truly understand any artist. Besides, albums marked the range and growth of artists.
The shift from albums to singles also shifted the focus from the musical aspect to the performative aspect. Music videos came into vogue hand in hand with the single format, a meaningful yet glamourous visual representation of the song became a crucial factor. It was at this moment that music began to be judged by the standard of the video, altering the contemporary view on success.
On the other hand, decreasing attention span resulted in increasingly shorter soundtracks. Artists now face a crazy competition, vying to capture the attention of the an in the first few seconds of sonic creation. Music appreciation is all about views, likes, comments and shares and yet it still can’t be said to be all negative.
It might appear a bit confusing for an opinion piece, but it is how things are. There’s no point whining about the golden days of vinyl and CDs or albums because change is the only constant. But change comes with its own perks and it is our duty to figure them out and use them to our own advantage. The internet is still developing and artists are still finding ways to adapt better to this new environment. It might take some time, but the industry will reach there for sure. The one remaining factor amid the debate, however, is that within the streaming world and its unrealistic monetary value, the album format will continue to slip out of the hands of new artists who simply can not invest in the output given its miserly rewards. To put it simply, the album is just not financially viable for the vast majority.