Published on July 28th, 2014 | by Ben Lynch0
Album vs. Playlist
Head of Music for BBC Radio 1 and 1Xtra, George Ergatoudis, has recently caused quite a stir. In a Tweet dated July 2nd, he stated ‘Make no mistake. With very few exceptions, albums are edging closer to extinction. Playlists are the future.’ Attached was a link to a New York Times piece about Songza, an American playlist service, which was recently acquired by Google for a fee reported to be around $39m (£23m). As one of the most powerful people in the music industry, Ergatoudis’ comment is not to be taken lightly, and works to draw attention to the vast increase in the use of playlists, largely via sites such as Spotify, and the potential issues this could surface for the existence of the album. It poses important questions about the way a modern audience perceives music, and more so, how it wishes to engage with it.
The existence of ‘playlists’ and the desire to create a series of tracks, which share some sort of theme is not something totally new. Ergatoudis himself noted how ‘ultimately it’s not that different to what radio’s been doing for years in a way,’ with DJ’s compiling music based on elements such as the charts or the specific show’s genre. The popular series Now That’s What I Call Music!, which was launched in the UK in 1983, was conceived as a way of attracting a wide range of audiences to a CD which existed in a playlist-like format. Spin-offs such as Now Dance and Now 25 Years have been added to the collection as a means of catering for more specific occasions or audiences, but the ideology was still the same; engage the audience with a theme and provide them with a selection of various artists in order to keep it both consistent and refreshing, as well as the added incentive of introducing listeners to artists they were previously unaware of. The series has been and is a success; 1999’s Now That’s What I Call Music! 44 is the biggest selling compilation series ever with 2.3million copies sold, with the Now… franchise selling over 100 million copies overall worldwide. All this proves that playlist-style formats have been existing for quite some time, and with a degree of large success.
However, what has changed, and what adds substance to Ergatoudis’ argument, is the growing ease of accessing playlists, as well as the growing strength of such playlist sites. Forbes noted how in May of this year Spotify had announced a 66% increase in both paying and non-paying users worldwide, with 10 million people dipping into their wallets and more than 40 million active users. Spotify isn’t exclusively for playlists, with many, such as myself, using Spotify to listen to albums in full. However, not only are companies, from NME to Reddit, compiling their own Spotify playlists, but the Spotify homepage instantly throws you into a world of compilation opportunities. Whether you are looking to ‘Party,’ ‘Rock,’ or even ‘Sleep,’ there is something there no matter the occasion.
Why is all this seen to encroach on the strength of the album? Well, the viewpoint held among some is that the applicable nature, as well as the ease of access, of the playlist will eventually drive the album into the ground. Artists will begin looking more towards compilations due to their popularity, and the age-old practice of sitting down for 45 minutes or so and actually listening to a record will die out. Unfortunately, aspects of this can be seen in other forms of art. The decrease of book sales is often put down to the use of the tablet, and the surge in purchases of digital movies was earlier this year put down to those ‘who would have rented a movie but now, unwilling to wait, are buying it instead.’ What we are seeing is an increase in people becoming used to expecting to get what they want, when they want it and via the easiest possible format. So why bother having to try out an album when you can just put on a playlist catered to your needs?
The problem with Ergatoudis’ position on playlists begins when we evaluate exactly that; his position. In May this year, The Observer/Guardian ran an article on the meetings Radio 1 holds when they decide the playlists the station will be playing from. The author highlighted the consistent references to stats those involved were making, and perhaps more disconcertingly, the repeated description of the ‘brands’ of bands by Ergatoudis in a subsequent interview. Ergatoudis did later explain how the final decision is indeed made by gut feeling, but the notion remains the same; his role is as someone who is trying to cater towards a demographic and to attract new listeners. There is no doubt that playlists and compilations draw the crowds; the BPI website notes how the most downloaded album of 2013 was Now That’s What I Call Music! 85, with the most popular digital album by an artist Bastille’s Bad Blood. Unfortunately, Ergatoudis is looking at the music world through the wrong end of the telescope in terms of his comments, restricting his line of sight to those who concern his agenda as head of BBC Radio 1 and 1Xtra. He isn’t accounting for the whole package.
If we look again at the BPI’s 2013 round-up, we do indeed see a 12.8% drop in CD album sales, though the website describes the ‘physically-packaged media’ as ‘resilient,’ and that it still accounts for ‘64% of the total music units sold…in the High Street and online.’ However, perhaps the most interesting statistic is that of the Vinyl revival, which went up ‘101% on 2012 and over 270% on five years ago.’ The website puts this down to the following; ‘The vinyl format, whilst still popular with some baby-boomers, increasingly also appeals to an engaged audience of younger artists and consumers alike, who appreciate its iconic heritage as part of Rock and Pop culture. The format’s profile and sales have also been driven by the success of annual events such as Record Store Day.’ I find this enlightening, not only because Vinyls were the primary source of music until the late 20th century, but because of the fact an ‘engaged audience’ is still hungry to appreciate music in such a format. I believe this same is what will ensure the album will refuse to bow down to its supposedly imminent ‘extinction.’
The ‘engaged audience’ BPI speaks of is the sort of audience Ergatoudis was not accounting for in his comments on the rise of the playlist. It is comprised of those who spend their leisure time, as well as perhaps their work time, with the format of the album in mind. Such an audience includes people such as reviewers or collectors, both of whom are able to find in an album far superior and something a playlist would never offer. Those who work within the music industry itself also seem to continue to value the artistic format of the album. Among the responses to Ergatoudis’ Tweet, several of those opposing his stance included sound engineers, who stated how they had worked with far more albums than singles and indeed limited, if any, playlists. It seems that, generally speaking, album consumers are those who wish to fully engage with music, and playlist consumers are your average punter who wishes to listen on a more casual level. However, I believe it goes further afield than this. An album offers a sense of identity and growth, which can never be truly reflected in a playlist. Playlists are background noise, whereas albums are a window into the world of an artist or band. Albums play out as the theme tune to memories and events, whereas playlists are merely a nice accompaniment in the distance. There is a sense of companionship, which can be formed with albums that playlists can never replace.
Now that may all have sounded like over-sentimental gibberish, but I believe it can be backed up with a degree of observation. If you type ‘playlist’ into Google, the top six results at the time of writing are links to Spotify, BBC Radio 1 Playlist, BBC Presenter Playlists, 8tracks internet radio, MTV Music Playlists, and Youtube Playlists. All of these are sites, which are attempting to reach a large demographic, to try and cover music needs across the board. This is obviously far from conclusive, but I feel is indicative of the nature and uses of the playlist. The aforementioned titles of the playlists on the Spotify homepage furthermore indicate where a playlists intentions lie. They are created as an accompaniment, something to filter in with your current environment as opposed to properly engage with. I feel that with a playlist entitled ‘Sleep,’ my point is all the more vividly clarified.
Before I conclude, I’d like to state explicitly that my point here is not to slam Ergatoudis’ comments as such, nor to devaluate the role of the playlist. Ergatoudis is to an extent right; the vast majority of the people, for the majority of the time, would prefer to use one of the many playlist sites and choose one to cater for the occasion. Whenever my parents had friends over when we were younger, they would load five or six CD’s into the CD player, and it would shuffle tracks between the CD’s. It was a way of ensuring you got the tone right, with a degree of intrigue and without having to keep changing discs. The same applies to modern Spotify playlists. My aim here is rather to try and draw attention to the roles of the two media forms, and to briefly juggle them side by side as opposed to in outright opposition.
Playlists have become a thing of vastly increasing popularity, a feat not surprising considering their use and ease of access. Cafes, pubs, restaurants, parties; all are becoming increasingly catered for by the playlist, where they are able to cover a wide audience, but based around a certain theme. This is a body which is totally at odds in this respect to the album, a form which is to be engaged with and allowing artists to produce a piece of work which reflects their own, individual identity. It’s ironic really that Ergatoudis himself qualified the continuing existence of the album best. In the article published in The Observer, he speaks on the continuing relevance of radio by explaining how ‘if you are a medium which offers something unique and powerful, then you’ll survive.’ The album, as well as the playlist, does offer ‘something unique and powerful,’ and despite its sharing of the baton with the playlist, the survival of the album is not something which should ever become a reality. Where there’s a niche, there’s a market. And for the all-powerful state Ergatoudis seemingly grants the playlist, the album will always find a place.