I read a recent New York Times article on Drake’s new release which wasn’t billed as an album or a mixtape, but a “playlist”. (NY Times, Meet Drake the Curator, 21Mar2017 (Arts Section page 1).
So I got to thinking... are record albums on the road to extinction? Will recording artists abandon creating albums? Not unlike the pressing question: Will our taxis and cars of the future be self-driving – 100’s of millions of dollars are currently being invested in making self-driving cars our new reality. Is the playlist the new driverless car?
The reader is invited to do what I typically do: Google “record album versus playlist” and a score of articles, blogs, and websites pop up. The information in one way or another is illuminating, thought provoking, interesting and it's conversation could possibly be a game changer to the already transformed music industry. So readers go take a look, you will probably learn a lot and may very well be influenced on how you buy, listen and become a music fan.
But I am offering the reader here in these musings, what I think about albums versus playlists and am not reporting other viewpoints. The views expressed herein are entirely mine – keep in mind while I told you to Google this topic, I haven’t read or opened the links to explore this. Unusual for me, as I wanted to keep this article my own and not an amalgamation of other people’s thoughts or ideas.
I grew up buying albums back in the earlier 1960’s when as a high school student, I couldn’t wait to head into the city to go to Colony records and buy Cream’s first album Fresh Cream (1966). And my journey of record listening began in earnest with this purchase.
At that time there were only a couple of ways of accessing rock n’ roll music: AM radio, FM radio, Kenny White’s Basement, John Zias’ room, my own turntable, and TV (Ed Sullivan or Playboy After Dark (1969 to 1970). On a Saturday night, I stayed up and listened to the Grateful Dead – Jerry Garcia playing in Hef’s penthouse apartment set not at all incongruous. Finally I attended live concerts at the Fillmore East, The Beacon (James Taylor in 1998) or the Pallidum (after the Fillmore closed in 1971).
I also clearly remember, I had to listen to the LP’s tracks in the order they appeared – the artist and the producers set down the list of songs and their order. Technology at that time meant picking my turntable’s arm and changing the order of the songs or repeating the cuts I enjoyed – That also meant I often just really liked and listened to 4 or 5 tracks out of the 11 or 13 a typical LP offered. On the radio, at least the FM station I listened to,WNEW 102.7, rarely if ever played the entire LP album - Track 1 to the last track. So the playlist as far as I now can tell really consisted of me skipping tracks or changing albums on the turntable – not exactly Spotify or iPod Shuffle.
Critics covered the entire LP, each and every track in its entirety. The notion of a playlist really existed only on the radio where the DJ played a list of music tracks and to be honest I couldn’t change the station or change a turntable with a remote. I had no shuffle. Nor could I surf the airwaves or Kenny White’s turntables (he had two, which was unusual). I mean this was an analog world not a digital one. If memory serves me, I never really like listening to the entire album of any recording artist who got my $9.99. My listening was more of I had to suffer through a couple of tracks to get to the gems and once discovered I’d prefer to play the same tracks over and over (I am told it wore out the grooves to play a track more than 4 or 5 times in a row – don’t know if that is true).
I was a huge fan of the ‘best of’ albums because someone else choose the most popular tracks over the course of two or more albums of any particular artist. I also loved anthology albums which were advertised on the local television stations or in the back of TV Guide.
If the recording artist put together his or her albums tracks and they did so as a narrative or a complete work, much like a playwright or author writes acts or scenes or chapters, to represent the whole of that artist's expression of thought. The playlist is a collection of separate moods, thoughts, influences which is how I prefer to listen to music. I wasn’t a listener or fan of the whole play or the whole full expression of the recording artist, I kind of liked parts, the separate parts which are very much a playlist. I had to wait for Napster and Apple to bring forth a new reality which fulfilled my previous listening habits.
I know artists will continue to write songs and albums and rock operas with a structure like a novel or a play. We still have to sit for the entire 2 hour play or listen to the album for the entire length of the LP in the order the music is made all dictated by the artist – but my listening preference is to be handed a remote or a shuffle setting to jump around and listened not to how the artist conceptualized the album but to how I like to listen to the music. After all, it is not his $9.99 but mine, and once bought I outta be able to listen to it my way. And truth be told, I would not mind having a remote to skip parts in a play or in a novel just so I can focus on the parts I like.
In closing, there is no likelihood the playlist, unlike the self-driving car, could become sentient and kill me. Playlists 4ever. I have been listening to playlists all my musical listening life and will continue to do so until the day I die – hopefully not under the wheels of an angry self-driving Chevy.