The sequencing of tracks on an album may have long been subject to artists' creative muses, but, according to A&R and streaming services decision-makers, the order in which songs appear on a set can have far-reaching effects on an acts', and labels', bottom lines, especially in an era of digital music consumption.
As digital music becomes the primary avenue by which many fans discover, sample, engage and share an album, label executives are paying closer attention to whether the track order of an album has grown or diminished in importance outside of the physical format.
In particular with subscription services like Spotify or Rhapsody, which pay labels on an agreed per-play basis, there has been interest to see if the order of tracks could have a significant enough effect on payouts made.
Throughout the rock era, an album's track order has often been based on what has caught an artist's fancy, shaped by such elements as feel and flow. "I never like to put two happy songs in a row or two of the same kind of sadness in a row," Taylor Swift explained in the Oct. 27 Billboard cover story about how she decided the order of cuts on her recent Billboard 200 chart-topper "Red." "It's just about establishing [a sequence that] sounds like that's the order of things. It's a gut-feeling thing."
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In other cases, it's even simpler; Billy Joel reportedly set the sequence for his 1993 Billboard 200 No. 1 "River of Dreams" based on the order in which he wrote each song (with "Famous Last Words" serving as a logical closer for the album).
The Oct. 13 On-Demand Songs chart served, however, as a stark example that artists and labels may want to revisit the importance of songs' spots on albums. That week, as Mumford & Sons' sophomore set "Babel" debuted atop the Billboard 200 (with 600,000 copies sold, according to Nielsen SoundScan), 11 of the 12 cuts on its standard edition roared onto On-Demand Songs. More noticeably, the order of the songs on the album almost mirrors that in which they bowed on the subscription streaming tally that week. Lead single "I Will Wait" started at No. 15, followed by the title cut at No. 16 and "Whispers in the Dark" at No. 21. The tracks are the third, first and second on the set, respectively.
The album's next four titles - "Holland Road," "Ghosts That We Knew," "Lover of the Light" and "Lovers' Eyes" - entered On-Demand Songs at Nos. 24, 28, 32 and 35, respectively, with tracks 9-12 arriving also almost identically to their album placement. (Last song "Not With Haste" just missed the survey that week, although it debuted the following frame at No. 41).
Such data suggests that the earlier a song appears on an album, the more likely a listener is to stream it. At the same time, a music consumer's attention span may be even shorter than any artist wants to believe. "Everyone's doing 20 different things at once: listening to music, watching TV, and probably while on their iPad," Rdio content marketing manager Kelli Fannon says. "When it comes to taking an hour to listen to an album in its entirety, I have all the best intentions in the world myself. But, ultimately, I can only get through the first three or four songs before the phone rings, or someone asks me a question, or I have a meeting I have to run to …
"Then, I really do want to go back and hear that album, so I'll start back over at the first track," Fannon says. "It may take me three or four times before I get all the way through."
Very possibly, too, for equally time-crunched Rdio subscribers.
Warner Bros. executive VP of A&R Jeff Fenster echoes that long before a listener faces such time constraints, acts hoping to get signed would do well to realize that they have only so long to make a memorable first impression with label leaders whom they hope to impress. "If I get a demo and the act has got great songs at numbers six and seven on it, there's a very good chance that I will never hear those," he says.
Ultimately, Fenster says, while an album's song sequence is key, it doesn't trump the most important factor toward an artist attaining success: quality. "If something's intriguing, then I might listen to 13 songs. A lot of it is just, 'Does this make me want to listen to more or not?'"
A set's sequence likely isn't the sole driver of how fans consume albums. Just because the title track is the lead cut on "Babel" doesn't necessarily mean that that's the only reason that it debuted so high on On-Demand Songs, according to Glassnote founder/president Daniel Glass. "'Babel' was the one song that fans had never heard Mumford & Sons play live before. Their other new songs were played in some shape or form over their past two years of touring. That's my theory as to why it did so well. It truly was a brand new song."
Still, Glass agrees that it pays to place a hit or potential single early on an album, a practice that, he says, has roots in in-store play (i.e., better to nudge shoppers toward the counter as quickly as possible). "In general, we advise our bands not to bury their singles and most commercial tracks toward the end of an album," he says. "I heard Paul Simon speak once to audience of producers and songwriters. He said, 'Start out with your hit'," Glass remembers. "In other words, don't be too smart for the room. Captivate people quickly. Then, they can dive into the rest of the record and find out more nuances and subtleties as they go."
Then again, Joel's No. 3-peaking Billboard Hot 100 hit "The River of Dreams" and Swift's "We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together," her first Hot 100 No. 1, appear eighth on "River of Dreams" and "Red," respectively. Of course, both acts were clearly established at the time of each release, suggesting that stacking singles early on a set may be more vital to newer acts seeking to establish themselves.
The best lesson to take from studying albums' track sequences may be that even in an era of streaming, in which listener behavior seemingly reflects a tendency to sample only portions of releases, the album format appears to have a bright future. Per the Oct. 13 On-Demand Songs chart, the 11 cuts that debuted from Babel each totaled robust sums of between 555,000 and 330,000 on-demands streams, according to Nielsen BDS. Says Spotify chief content officer Ken Parks, "The fairly even distribution of listens across all the tracks on that record means that people are enjoying that music as a cohesive collection."
"For artists that tell a story with an album, with an intro, a pacing, a mood that's set, and a narrative that's being told, that's great news," he says. "They can still make that music available as they intend to tell that story and still expect that people are going to listen to it."