Over on Music Industry Blog, Mark Mulligan argues that today’s streaming platforms have created a just-in-time economy for popular music, with algorithms pushing artists and labels to release a song once a month to maintain relevancy.
Mulligan’s thesis is that this is bad for creators, and in turn the industry, and it’s going to hurt musicians who need to crank out songs and feed the beast.
I have a countervailing opinion to this, which is that while Mark may be right, the shift is also fantastic—for fans.
The phenomenon of musical acts taking years to craft an album is not consistent through the history of recorded music. Indeed, it only dates back to 1983, when Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” was such a phenomenon that Epic released seven of its nine tracks as singles, drastically extending the active shelf life of the most popular album in Top 40 history.
Before that, albums were thought to have a six- or eight-month sell window in record stores. So artists made a lot more music. Pick any artist from before the disco era and the volume is amazing.
- Jimi Hendrix released four albums of new music in the three short years he was a solo artist.
- Kiss famously recorded eight albums (including two live double LPs) in less than four years; when Pearl Jam followed up “Vs.” with “Vitalogy” after a little more than a year in the ’90s, the band went on record as saying they wished they could keep up Kiss’s pace.
- The Supremes released or appeared on so many albums from 1965 to 1970 that my web browser choked on the Allmusic page.
- Even Steely Dan, who were famous for their perfectionism in the studio, put out an album a year from 1972 to 1977.
The Red Hot Chili Peppers taking four years to perfect an album is not a “normal” music routine. It is the result of record labels manipulating album release cycles to maximize the return on investment of expensive studio recordings. The Chili Peppers are proof: their fourth album came out just five years after their debut, and after they got popular and major-label marketing kicked in, it took another thirteen years for the next four to come out.
Now the pendulum has swung the other way, with release cycles condensing for the same reason they expanded—maximize ROI, this time of the artist’s visibility—and artists adapting accordingly. And as a music listener, this is great news.
Most fans will be thrilled to hear a new song from their favorite artists every month or so. This harks all the way back to the 1960s, when people couldn’t get enough of the Beatles, and they locked up the top five slots of the pop chart (and twelve of the Hot 100) at the same time. Perhaps things will get further contorted, and we’ll go back to the pre-rock era, when an artist’s albums were often compilations of songs people already largely knew. This may further antiquate the concept of an album as a cohesive artistic statement, but then, MP3s started that process decades ago.
So yeah, maybe the Spotify effect is changing music release cycles, the same way it’s shortening song lengths. But hey, bring it on! More music sooner is a good thing.