What's in Store For the Album Format as Streaming Keeps Breaking All the Rules? Experts Weigh In

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Drake performs at Capital One Arena in Washington, D.C. as part of his Aubrey and the Three Migos Tour on Sept. 13, 2018.

A year from now, when the 2010s officially wrap and we consider all the stamps this industry-morphing decade has left on popular music, one effect should be obvious — the 2010s has transmuted the traditional album format, from a once-fixed block of songs into something more fluid and bound to an artist’s creative whims, as well as their audience’s craving for new content.

In case you hadn’t heard, streaming is now king, and 2018 was a case study in how abandoning old-school recording cycles if favor of experimental, fan-favoring workflows can yield tremendous success, even when physical music sales continue to plunge.

Album lengths were accordingly malleable this year, where outliers seemed to become the new norm: Drake, Migos, Post Malone and Lil Wayne all went long on their new LPs -- eyebrows raised highest when Drake’s Scorpion topped out at a titanic 25 songs and 89 minutes  while The Weeknd released his first-ever EP (six songs, 21 minutes) and Kanye West’s highly publicized “Wyoming Sessions” yielded four seven-track albums (Pusha T’s Daytona, Nas’s Nasir, West’s own Ye, and Kid Cudi’s Kids See Ghosts) plus Teyana Taylor’s eight-track K.T.S.E.

Then there were the lone-wolf singles. Childish Gambino’s “This Is America,” Cardi B’s “Money,” Halsey’s “Without Me,” and Ariana Grande’s “Thank U, Next” (currently No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100) all exploded on streaming and social media without the anchor of a larger project to boost publicity -- or even the promise that they would belong to any sort of full album in the future.

Executives from both the recording and streaming industries agree that it is no longer the restraints of a physical medium (vinyl, CD, etc) or shelf space that dictate the impact or capacity of an artist’s work; the real battle is now fought against fan distractions.  

“You’re fighting for people’s hours in the day,” says John Fleckenstein, Co-president of RCA Records. “It becomes an attention economy.”

Fleckenstein, who oversees an artist roster that includes tradition-shirking acts Brockhampton, Khalid and Mark Ronson, notes that pop artists’ shift to releasing their music at will is part and parcel of how their work bleeds into the lives of an audience that is constantly bombarded by media.

"The general consumption behavior you’re seeing with kids now is they’re growing up in this profound, playlist-driven world… I think there’s an explosion of half-listening going on,” Fleckenstein says. “You’ve got kids watching YouTube videos and playing a video game and listening to their favorite songs at the same time. It’s no longer this notion of ‘I’ve just bought this precious album and I’m going to listen to it in its entirety.’”

Mike Biggane, Head of Pop and Global Curation Groups at Spotify, views the year’s boom-or-bust album length model as a product of artists simply understanding their fans’ appetites for new music. He calls on Drake’s wildly successful last six months as the work of “a master chef.”  

“Just look at the timeline, from Scorpion, to ‘In My Feelings’ blowing up, to the ‘In My Feelings’ video, to ‘Sicko Mode’ [with Travis Scott], to the ‘Sicko Mode’ remix with Skrillex,” he says. “Every single time Drake puts out a piece of music, he’s either directing his audience somewhere or he’s reacting to his audience telling him something. And he’s able to do that with streaming because there aren’t any rules there.

“When he [and Scott] released “Sicko Mode” with Skrillex on it, he was almost telling his hip-hop audience, ‘This isn’t for you anymore, this is for them, but I got this Meek Mill track and that’s for you,’” Biggane adds. “It allows him to always stay relevant and keep himself in the conversation.”

Surprising to no one, Drake was Spotify’s most-played artist of the year — the 25 tracks from Scorpion alone have been played more than 4.3 billion times, another year-end high, and was second only to Taylor Swift’s 2017 holdover, Reputation, on Billboard’s year-end ranking of best-selling albums. Still, isn’t it ironic that in a world of constant digital noise and wafer-thin attention spans that an album of such size would be the year’s biggest winner? Is there no over-saturation point?

“It’s a never-ending discussion [at RCA], because every time you think it’s too much, the fans want more,” Fleckenstein says. “If you have 25 amazing songs and you put them out, you’re going to be a hero. If you have eight amazing songs and put them out, you’re going to be just as much of a hero because they are all great. It really is a balance of quality and quantity.”

Legacy acts are playing the album length-versus-streaming game, too. After releasing the first two installments of what was supposed to be a three-EP trilogy in 2016 and ‘17, Nine Inch Nails decided to drop its 2018 set, Bad Witch, as a slightly longer full album.

“EPs show up with singles in Spotify and other streaming services = they get lost easier,” Trent Reznor wrote on a NIN fan forum in May. “EPs feel less important in today’s music-isn’t-as-important-as-it-once-was world. Why make it easier to ignore?”

Yet a project of any size does not live in a vacuum on streaming sites. Real-life marketing and promotion still play a major role, and things get tricky when more traditional media is stirred into the mix.

“There’s definitely a conversation about how much you can market and promote on a particular artist at a certain time,” Fleckenstein says. “Certainly from a radio perspective, it’s very hard to work more than one record from an artist at a time. If you try to work multiple songs to a single radio station, they’re probably going to only pick one by that artist, unless it’s someone like Drake.”

Further, an album is ultimately -- in most cases -- still an irreplaceable piece of an artist’s repertoire; it is the product around which concert tours, sponsorships and merchandising are often built. It can be a world-builder; consider the literal roller coaster Travis Scott has fit into his recent arena shows, in support of Astroworld’s theme park aesthetic. Exceedingly lengthy or abbreviated albums aren’t exactly a new concept, either: The Beatles, The Who, Pink Floyd, Bruce Springsteen and a long list of venerable acts have all released highly acclaimed double albums, while The Ramones’ seminal debut and Aretha Franklin’s career-defining Lady Soul both clocked in under 30 minutes a piece.

The difference now, Fleckenstein and Biggane agree, is the bevy of options allotted to artists to unleash their projects -- a trend that will almost certainly continue. Biggane mentions star DJ duo The Chainsmokers as a prime example of an act who is “building their album” online, releasing a few songs at a time.

“The Chainsmokers are feeding courses as their audience is telling them that they’re hungry,” he says. “But if they maybe put out 10 songs two months ago, some of that music may have gone unlistened to.”

And Biggane is frank when discussing fan habits with regard to album length: “I don’t think an audience really cares,” he says. “They’re not going to not listen to your record because it has eight songs instead of 12.”

Fleckenstein adds: “I think you will see more people doing projects of very different lengths. I think it’s going to get continuously more murky to explain what’s the difference between a project, an album, an EP — I think it’s going to become more about the art and less about the format.”

Billboard Year in Music 2018