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How the Playlist Finally Usurped the Album

In 2017, Spotify and Apple Music prized curation above all else.That may have not been a great thing for listeners and the music industry at large.

AP Images/Ringer illustration

Just 15 miles separate Cardi B’s childhood home in the Bronx and the Brooklyn Academy of Music, where she donned a floor-length pink feather coat to perform her №1 hit “Bodak Yellow” on Jimmy Kimmel Live! in October. To reach late-night-television levels of cultural ubiquity, though, “Bodak Yellow” had to travel much further than a simple subway ride. The song’s ascent from local banger to nationwide summer anthem was sparked in part in Culver City, California, where an Apple employee named Carl Chery decided to put it on a popular playlist called Breaking Hip-Hop the day the song debuted. “Every now and then someone has a hit where the energy just feels different every time it comes on,” Chery told Billboard. “It doesn’t feel like a hit, it feels like a moment.”

A week later, “Bodak Yellow” made the jump to The A-List: Hip-Hop, the most popular Apple Music playlist. Not long after, it appeared on RapCaviar, the influential Spotify playlist with enough brand recognition to merit its own ad campaign. Only after these placements did the song begin its ascent up the Billboard Hot 100, across the radio airwaves, and into the living rooms of unsuspecting Baby Boomers everywhere. (I did a quick celebrity heat check Tuesday by texting my mom, “Have you heard of Cardi B?”; Mom: “No, what is that?”)

Cardi B has since appeared on two more top-10 hits, an unprecedented early run for a female rapper. Yet her debut album — the anchor point she would have needed stay relevant in a previous era — doesn’t even have a release window. She’s deflected hype around this seemingly essential element of the music star come-up with her typical nonchalance, tweeting in November, “I’m going to take my time till it’s right.”

If Cardi B was the breakout success story of 2017, the fact that her rise happened completely independent of an album promotional cycle says a lot about how fast the music industry is changing. As Chery said, “Bodak Yellow” felt like a moment, and music fans are increasingly choosing to organize their listening around ear-catching moments, in playlists, rather than sifting through hourlong albums to excavate their preferred tracks. The shift may ultimately prove to be what saves the music industry, which is finally enjoying rapid growth after more than a decade in the doldrums. But a revitalized music world powered by playlists might look different from the one that we’re used to. “People don’t treat the album as being the dominant idea of how groups of songs are organized,” says Oliver Wang, a music writer and host of Heat Rocks, a podcast about influential albums. “The playlist has become more dominant, and is now competing for attention.”

Virtually every music listener was exposed to playlists long before Spotify was invented. In the early 1950s, an Omaha radio station manager named Todd Storz decided to ditch traditional scripted radio programming blocks in favor of the songs that were most popular on jukeboxes and 45rpm vinyls, birthing the top-40 format. In the ’80s and ’90s, cassettes turned songs into modular units that anyone with a tape deck could rearrange as they saw fit — master curators like DJ Clue became underground tastemakers whose mixtapes helped mint new rap stars. And the rise of CDs proved a fertile period for compilation albums, serving the RapCaviar generation their first collection of pop hits with Now That’s What I Call Music.

It was Apple, though, that first made the playlist a tool of the average music fan. In the early 2000s, anyone with an iPod and an iTunes account (or a file-sharing program) became their own personal disc jockey, rearranging downloaded songs to match whatever theme fit their fancy. And users could set just enough automated parameters in iTunes to make the experience feel futuristic. I remember meticulously ranking all my music on iTunes’ five-star scale and implementing complex playlist formulas I found on the internet to turn my unwieldy pirated music library into something that felt more curated.

Spotify, at first, simply cribbed the basic iTunes concept, with the primary hook being its free catalog of millions of songs. But as streaming services began to eclipse other forms of music consumption, their focus started to change. Beats Music, a tiny Spotify competitor launched by Jimmy Iovine and Dr. Dre, made playlists curated by music experts the core of its value proposition. It was acquired (along with the glossy headphones) for $3 billion by Apple in 2014. The next year, Spotify hired music industry veteran Tuma Basa to head up its hip-hop programming, in particular the RapCaviar playlist. Just a few months later the company launched Discover Weekly, an automated playlist that uses machine learning to generate a fresh batch of personalized songs for each subscriber every week.

The seeds planted a few years back have blossomed in 2017 to make playlists an inescapable part of the music-listening experience. Beats, now known as Apple Music, has more than 30 million subscribers and played a key role in turning streaming into a truly mainstream activity. Basa’s RapCaviar has grown from around 4 million subscribers last summer to more than 8.4 million today. Discover Weekly has been used by at least 40 million Spotify users, and it’s been joined by other algorithmic playlists like the Daily Mix and the Summer Rewind, a personalized throwback collection that got as much attention on social media as a major album drop. Half of music consumption on Spotify now occurs within playlists.

Record labels have been happy to oblige this shift in user behavior because streaming brought the music industry out of the tailspin Napster kicked off nearly two decades ago. Recorded music revenue was up 17 percent in the first half of the year in the United States, growing at an even faster rate than 2016. And the most bullish prognosticators believe global music revenues could grow to $41 billion by 2030, nearly triple the industry’s current sales. Almost all the growth is expected to come from streaming.

This has turned Spotify from a frenemy of the music industry into its anointed savior (today most vitriol for digital platforms is hurled at YouTube, which pays a pittance in royalties compared to paid streaming services). The jockeying to land on lists like RapCaviar reflects this change in perception.“The major labels in particular are absolutely promoting directly to those curators and allocating resources that used to be exclusively devoted to influencing radio,” says Larry Miller, director of the music business program at the NYU Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development. “The streaming services have become where music is discovered first. There’s no doubt about that.”

It was a great year for Cardi B, and a great year for Spotify, and a great year for record labels. It was also a horrible year for albums. I don’t mean in the by-the-numbers sense — though yes, album sales were down 18 percent in the first half of 2017 — but in the cultural sense. In 2016, streaming services fought viciously over albums as strategic pawns that could help them claim subscribers and mindshare. That was annoying for listeners, but it also helped reinforce that long-form musical projects still mattered in the digital age, and might even have an opportunity to flourish thanks to commercial benefactors. The industry collectively decided that albums like Rihanna’s Anti, Beyoncé’s Lemonade, Chance the Rapper’s Coloring Book, and Frank Ocean’s Blonde were worth fighting over.

2017 has been different. Drake, the most dominant artist of the streaming era, chose to call More Life, his follow-up to 2016’s Views, a playlist instead of an album. Kendrick Lamar’s albums are typically labyrinthine oral histories, but it’s much easier to mine this year’s Damn. for playlist parts. Lil Uzi Vert parlayed his breakout hit “XO Tour Llif3” into a debut album that moved 135,000 units between sales and streams in its first week of release in September — solid for a rookie showing but not great as the third-biggest opening week of the year on streaming platforms to that point. And the results on the pop front were more dire, with artists like Lorde, Miley Cyrus, and Katy Perry releasing albums that underperformed (there was one big exception).

None of this hurt the music industry — again, sales are up. But “sales” now mean something different than they used to. Spotify’s goal isn’t to sell you good music, exactly — it’s to keep you subscribing for $10 per month, and to recruit advertisers to market to non-paying users. The goal of record labels is no longer to sell you anything — it’s to convince Spotify to place their artists’ songs on popular playlists, so that they’ll accrue royalties through passive listens. The music fan is now the music platform user — even if you’re paying, you’re still part of the product. The dynamic feels like an inversion of the economic landscape a decade ago, when the music industry was on its heels and artists as varied as Radiohead and Lil Wayne were offering their music directly to fans, financial feasibility be damned.

This new relationship between fan, artist, and distributor could turn sour. In a piece for The Baffler, Liz Pelly questions whether Spotify is accruing too much power, and whether its extreme reliance on playlists will ultimately hurt independent artists who haven’t cultivated the necessary relationships to land on the platform’s coveted real estate. An independent label owner whose sales are suffering during the streaming era told Pelly Spotify “leaves artists behind” who create challenging music. Pelly envisions an endgame where Spotify’s algorithms have created a modern version of Muzak, the bland music played at retail stores for decades.

But “bland” is definitely not a word that describes Cardi B, and Spotify would likely contend that her rise proves the platform is making music more inclusive, not less so. Basa, the RapCaviar guru, shies away from the term “gatekeeper” to describe his work. There’s still no denying that every week some songs make the cut for Spotify’s most influential playlist, and some songs don’t. “The RapCaviar playlist is just a new iteration of what we would have heard on [Los Angeles radio station] KDAY back in the 1980s,” Wang says.

Spotify isn’t just a replacement for radio, though — it’s replaced the record store, too. The excitement of a new musical discovery isn’t quite as impactful when it’s happening every four minutes on a set of constantly changing playlists. Whether curated by machines or music experts, these lists can never quite match the feeling of thumbing through vinyl, taking a risk on a .zip file of a new artist’s discography, or best of all, having a friend share an album by an artist they’re really excited about.

Perhaps 2017 was just a down year, and pop music’s juggernauts will be reloaded in 2018 with culture-consuming LPs. Maybe the money flowing into streaming will trickle down to the smaller artists, who will have the financial security to produce more ambitious work. But if following the trajectory of fast-growing technology platforms has taught me anything, it’s that there’s definitely such a thing as being too efficient. Let’s celebrate the playlist for the joys it brought us this year, but keep in mind that artists exist outside the screen of the curated list, as well.


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