A shock decision by Spotify has fundamentally shaped the concept of the album in the digital age. Adele’s new album, 30, can no longer be shuffled as the streaming giant followed the artist’s conviction for her album to be heard as a cohesive, narrative whole. Whilst the loss of a small button may seem inconsequential to many, it alters how we conceptualise the album in an increasingly disparate musical age.
Arguably many of the 20th and 21st century’s finest albums act as a muscial entity, rather than a collection of disparate songs. Adele’s 30 follows an explanatory narrative as she follows her divorce. The singer says her album, amongst others, “tells a story and our stories should be listened to as we intended.” Yet Adele is not the first to use her album to express a narrative. Bruno Mars’ and Silk Sonic’s recent album, An Evening With Silk Sonic, uses funk inspiration which is novel in comparison to the poppy tone of Mars’ oeuvre. The funk-king Bootsy Collins announces the work in “Silk Sonic Intro” which makes the album appear as a recording of a live performance, conceptualised as a narrative whole, situated in time,.
The structure of An Evening With Silk Sonic and 30 hark back to an age of analogue listening. Music was heard on vinyl, with the needle cutting through tracks in the artist’s intended order. Connections across an album would be recognised by the attentive listener. The Beach Boys’ seminal work, Pet Sounds, translates melodic musical material from “I Know There’s An Answer” into “Hang On To Your Ego” which provides reflective threads on the previous angst within the album’s narrative and compliments the contemporaneous technology it would be played on.
Music-playing technology fundamentally has changed our concept of the album and its narrative. Streaming allows us to drag-and-drop our preferred tracks into curatable playlists based on mood or the music’s association in a display of listener agency. Listenership has moved from passively appreciating an artist’s work to reforming it to fit our taste. It is almost as if the album has become a box of chocolates; we pick our favourites and discard the rest. However, the album is not a disposable commodity and is, in most cases, a piece of art with personal to its creator and cultural value to its listener. Do you read a chapter of a novel at random, only to put it down again, or select your favourite objects in a painting? Alas, I thought not.
The album, like a painting or a book, should be considered as a whole work. Music-disseminating technology devalued the album to pander to listener preferences in a seismic shift of musical authority. Music listening is now based upon it reception rather than artist intention. Artists release their albums into the public realm and express their innermost artistic creativity through such mediums. Surely we would be doing them a disservice to reorder and cherry-pick the fruits of their labours?
Image Credit: Florencia Viadana