Credit Brett Jordan via unsplash

Do albums matter anymore?

By Otto Hampden-Woodfall

An exploration of the album format as a fit-for-purpose focal point, in an industry increasingly based around singles and the allure of the algorithm.

Speaking to Triple J, Spotify artist and label manager Jono Harrison says that as far as the masses are concerned, “people want albums just as much as they want singles, they just want to hear more from their favourite artists.” For those in marketing, running labels or managing bands, the album is and always has been a focal point of brand identification. What is often called an “era”, an iconographic and sonic point in time around which eminently marketable feelings, like nostalgia or hype, can be produced. But an album era – dependent on an artist producing a body of work that may be long, complex, thematically involved or personally draining – can take years, and culture simply moves too fast. In one sense, it is tricky because social media makes everything an event. We are watching endless simultaneous events compressed into the size and shape of a phone screen, so save for the perpetually diminishing demographic of a given musician’s dedicated fans, what hope in hell does an album release have in cutting through the noise?

Discourse helps, of course. Kendrick Lamar’s 2022 release Mr Morale & The Big Steppers clung onto relevancy longer than most, partially because Lamar is a uniquely respected name, a Pulitzer Prize-winner and all, and partially because his discussion of transgender people on Auntie Diaries and the striking performances on We Cry Together stirred the kind of long, draining Twitter debates that, if only briefly, can maintain a name, brand or in this work of art in the public consciousness. I don’t think Lamar even intended this; he’s been making challenging music for far longer than social media has been a central marketing engine, while his style is far too rare and difficult to make into a strategy for up-and-comers. But even for Lamar, the debates fizzle into ad hominems, new albums release, and people move on. Instead, musicians might turn to quantity.

For one, your reach will be aided by a steady stream of singles, or short EPs, rather than one album. The more genres or aesthetics you aim at, the more likely you are to strike gold with a particular “vibe” in vogue on TikTok, or a particular meme doing the rounds on Twitter (if you’re especially cynical and aware). The TikTok algorithm, which has mastered the art of funnelling people into obscure bubbles based on their in-the-moment, like-to-like preferences, functions in the same way; when you first download the app, it throws whatever it can think of at you, hoping that one video will match a prefigured interest and trigger the algorithm’s pattern-seeking. A musician can self-select their most popular or marketable style based on the in-depth analytics that streaming services provide, a kind of musical populism shifting from a maximising of reach into exploiting one particular aesthetic that provides the best results. Then that aesthetic will fade, and they’ll have to start again.

It needn’t be said that this is something of a creative black hole. And, more importantly, it’s a cynical look at a cynical strategy; albums are still being made, from pop all the way down to the underground, and for as much as social media may dominate the discussion there is truly no way to defeat an artist’s desire to make a big, loud, unnecessary show of themselves (I’m a musician myself; I would know). However those musicians who do find success from laser-focused singles catching a particular wave, like PinkPantheress, may find themselves struggling to maintain a fanbase; for starters, liquid drum n bass pop is quite a niche sub-genre to keep interest in, but furthermore the music industry still hasn’t totally adapted. You find success, you sign with a label, and they give you money to do what? To make an album. PinkPantheress made an album; it was well-received, but it did not rocket her to stardom. Because albums are no longer the next step, given that we might consider the approach of self-releasing singles to be like old-fashioned demo tapes. The next step for the consumer is someone else. It’s finding a new “vibe”, as fast as possible, and one person can’t keep up with an algorithm.

On the plus side, subcultures are now possibly as big as mainstream culture used to be, and the moment that someone mentions we live in a “singles culture”, there’ll be three people in Ramones t-shirts bemoaning the loss of the album, and buying loads of vinyl. They’re marketable too; so if you’re uninterested in being the next Ed Sheeran, there’s a big enough demographic who, unlike the underground of yesteryear, are all plugged into fundamentally the same machine as the mainstream, and would listen to ‘a proper rock album’ on the basis of it being a proper rock album. Even the shadow of the aesthetic is itself an aesthetic. But you might have to compromise there, too; no-one is immune to a reduction in attention span, and the fact is that making albums is hard work and financially risky. Singer Amaare, speaking to the Financial Times, explains that she had to work to secure a remix from Kali Uchis and hire a London radio plugger to ensure her success. Though the album was enough of a hit to recoup its losses, this was in no small part thanks to the TikTok virality of its lead single. As an unsigned artist who was rejected by a number of major labels, this financial risk was entirely over her own head, and sheer streaming numbers are unlikely to cover the costs. 

There is a solution somewhere, though it has to find a difficult balance. On the one hand, musicians aren’t paid enough for streams and are at the mercy of black box algorithms that provide a lottery chance that they’ll break even; on the other, it is both unrealistic and unfair to demand that consumers direct their long-term attention and merch-buying to a musician who, for whatever reason, isn’t commanding it. We might find that in the absence of structural difficulties there are just too many musicians and too many niches, or that getting people to care about your music to the point that they can sustain a livelihood is just tricky no matter what. Nevertheless, it seems that there are prohibitive factors to making a lengthy or complicated artistic statement such as an album, and that working to remove those factors would at least mean more good music gets made. I think that matters most of all.


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