The album isn’t completely dead and the playlist isn’t yet the be-all and end-all – which means that artists are somewhat creatively discombobulated in what is really a curious transition period. But with that comes the scope to experiment and push the boundaries. Justin Bieber could be the one firing the starting pistol for the way that a series of EPs straddle the album and playlist worlds, containing elements of both and yet existing in their own right. We look at how to meet fan expectations with not only what you put out but also how you put it out, where to refine the frequency of releases and why playlists may actually allow the album to be reborn.
Streaming was meant to be the music industry’s final format, a musical pick ‘n’ mix that would put an end to the arbitrary stylistic restrictions imposed on music releases by the length of a side of vinyl or the storage capacity of a CD. Yet, strangely, this hasn’t been the case: many young artists still clamour to release albums, while the difference between the mixtape and the album remains hugely important in hip-hop.
In fact, in the digital world, the number of formats – or perhaps that should be “formats”, given the historical link between formats and physical objects – is actually increasing. At the start of the millennium, formats were largely limited to singles, EPs, artist albums, compilation albums and boxsets. This was a five-way divide that felt manageable, with just the odd mixtape and DJ mix CD to jam a spoke in the wheels. Then came the digital music era with the single-track release, the playlist, the enhanced playlist and the digital boxset.
Justin adjustin’: the Bieber EP experiment
Now Justin Bieber, of all people, has emerged to throw another curveball into the equation in the form of his new compilation series. “Gonna be putting up some compilations for you guys. Tuesdays and Thursdays,” he wrote on 24th March 2020, including a link to a five-track collection titled R&Bieber. Nothing so strange about that, you might think. Except for the fact that R&Bieber – ostensibly a new release – was made up of five tracks that had already appeared on Bieber’s new album, Changes, which had been released just one month before. Subsequent EPs followed suit, essentially packaging up tracks from Changes into new configurations.
The interest that Bieber’s plans elicited was a clear indicator of the continuing debate around musical formats in the digital age.
“Formats remain quite important for music; I think they all allow the artist to convey things differently and also have a lead up of different marketing plans,” says Jeremy Erlich, co-head of music for Spotify. “I think a lot of what is happening in the streaming world today has been inspired by what hip-hop has done for a long time with the mixtapes, with the way of having artists be able to release a body of work which isn’t necessarily their fully polished, fully marketed, fully prepared album or debut album or second album, which is a milestone event.”
Neil Blanket, head of marketing for Mute, says that for artists, especially, formats still count, with a reverence towards the album format deeply ingrained in musical lore. “We’re very much an artist first company, so it [format] really depends on how our artists want to present their projects to the world. In the majority, that is still the traditional album long-player,” he says. “Whilst we’re living in a much more track-driven world, the majority of our artists are still thinking in album terms. Even when we work on individual tracks or EPs, they tend to still be part of a longer-term album campaign.” Mute’s job, he explains, is to then work out how to fit the artist’s desires into the campaign.
Legacy formats and legacy problems
The music industry, even now, is still built around the album: record label contracts tend to be based on a specific number of albums, while marketing cycles are largely constructed around the album release cycle
“On the label side, there are more contractual things about what is an LP or an EP or a single; what constitutes an album,” says Erlich, who previously worked for Interscope Records. “When artists ask me what they should do, whether they should release a single or EP or LP, generally I try not to answer the question. It gets me in trouble. But what I always tell them is: ‘It’s a lot easier to market the album as a body of work than it is just a single. You can market a single, but then it’s just a track.’ The key to anyone being extremely successful is evolving from having a great track to having a great body of work.”
The live business has a similar respect for the album format, with tours and new albums going hand in hand. Asked how much live agents and promoters rely on the album as a hook for tours, Blanket says this is “artist dependent”. “But very much so with some of our more established artists, whose agents would very much expect a tour to be around a new album release,” he explains.
Formats, fans and… fury?
Whether consumers care so much about formats is a tricky question. Certainly, the uproar among some Bieber fans when they found out that the “new” EPs would contain previously released material suggested they do. One “@xoxoJahkeem” tweeted “You put out a whole ass album and you’re making EPs with literally the exact same songs that were on the same album for some boost on your album sales? No ma’am, that is NOT it okay? [sic]” Arguably, though, this is more of a problem of communication than one of the formats itself, with several fans pointing out that US girl group Fifth Harmony successfully released five EPs in six weeks in 2013 to help promote their Better Together EP.
Erlich says that some fans will always prefer top 40 hits and playlists, while others enjoy “having an actual body of work they can dive into, then they can find the songs that aren’t the singles.” “I always look at the statistics of when an album comes out and who is streaming what,” he adds. “Even the deeper cuts on the [hit] album have millions and millions of streams. It allows users to go in and spend more time with the artist.”
Nigel Harding, VP of artist marketing at Deezer, has a slightly different view. His company recently conducted a global study of 8,000 people which found over half (54%) are listening to fewer albums than they did five or 10 years ago. “This is reflected in our streaming data, which shows the UK’s album listening time is now lower than the 26 minutes daily average worldwide – at just 17 minutes a day,” he adds. “Instead, fans worldwide prefer hearing a mix of tracks from different artists.”
The reasons for the decline of the album, he explains, are that consumers feel they have “too much music to choose from and a busy schedule”, a classic example of the paralysing choice overload that marketers are often warned about.
It’s tempting to wonder whether the increased length of albums has something to do with this: with the lingering death of the CD and its attendant physical restraints, artists and labels have succumbed to the temptation to make their albums ever longer. Rolling Stone reported in 2018 that on Spotify the duration of the top five streamed albums rose by almost 10 minutes over the previous five years, reaching an average of 60 minutes. There is a certain coldblooded logic to this: more tracks equals more streams equals more chart success, with Drake’s 25-track opus Scorpion being a particularly notable example of this trend, passing 1bn first-week streams.
But what if consumers are turned off by excessive length? Harding says that one in 10 respondents in the Deezer survey said “artists don’t make albums like they used to” – the kind of finding that will chill the music industry’s blood. Harding believes that Drake’s mammoth albums are unlikely to have put listeners off. “But Drake is the exception rather than the rule. Ultimately, most artists are going to be better off with a few tracks that stream a lot rather than a lot of tracks that stream a little,” he explains. Erlich, meanwhile, believes there is no “real answer” as to how long an album should be. “There is definitely too short and definitely too long. But there is a pretty big sweet spot…. a pretty wide middle-ground,” he says.
Pacing or pell-mell: getting the frequency of releases right
Added to this general sense of abundance is the fact that many artists are releasing more music than in the three-year album cycles of the 2000s. Justin Bieber has his EP series, which stands at six releases in three weeks at the time of writing; Ed Sheeran pioneered the double-single release, when he dropped ‘Castle On The Hill’ and ‘Shape Of You’ on the same day, in the run-up to his third studio album, Divide; and Ariane Grande released her fourth and fifth studio albums, Sweetener and thank u, next, within six months of each other, a pace of release that would have been unthinkable for a major pop act in the early 2000s.
Somewhat confusingly, this rapid release schedule can be seen both as a sign of success – Grande striking while the iron is hot – and failure.
“If you don’t keep coming at the algorithm with content, you are at a disadvantage,” says one music industry insider. “The music business tends to keep going and going [with releases] until something connects and then you pump the brakes and you work that.”
That might sound like an intensive way to work, but the same executive claims that the music industry might actually be moving too slowly for fans. “If, as an artist, you move too quickly, you lose the industry and you lose media. Journalists can’t get their heads around too many releases,” he says. “But if you move too slowly then you could lose your audience. So who are you releasing music for? The industry? Or your fans?”
Both Bieber and Def Jam have been quiet about the logic behind these EP releases – and UMG didn’t respond to our questions – so we can’t say why exactly they have come about. But looking at the EPs’ lengths, titles and track listings allows us to speculate.
Changes is 17 songs and 51 minutes long; all six of the EPs have five tracks apiece, with total run times of between 13 and 17 minutes. That puts them all comfortably within Deezer’s global average listening time of 26 minutes.
The EPs’ titles (with the exception of Hailey’s Favs, presumably compiled by Bieber’s wife Hailey Baldwin) – R&Bieber, Work From Home, Biebs and Chill, Couple Goals and Party – also largely reflect those of popular playlists. Spotify’s own Work From Home playlist has 559k followers, for example, while its Dance Party has 4m.
Whatever Bieber’s reasoning, these EPs offer a neat crossover with playlist culture – a good look for the singer given that 40% of respondents said that they preferred playlists and mood mixes to albums in Deezer’s research. The (almost) simultaneous release of album and EPs neatly covers both markets: the 17-song album works for fans who want a deep dive into Bieber; the five-track EPs serve more casual listeners who want a certain listening mood.
This may raise the hackles of the kind of music fan who sees the playlist as destroying the sacred album experience. But Erlich is more relaxed about the two coexisting. “The playlist is more akin to what radio listening was. It’s a discovery mechanic, a lean-back experience. You put on a playlist when you don’t really know what you want to listen to,” he says. “[Playlists are] a tool by which users can discover more and hopefully they go back to the catalogue. I will listen to playlists and I will go, ‘Oh, I haven’t heard Florence + The Machine in a while.’ And I will click on Florence’s artist page and listen to her album.”
Playlists as the album saviour, not the album killer?
Playlists may even offer an opportunity to rejuvenate the album format. Spotify’s Enhanced Album format – essentially playlists of album tracks plus extra content – have already had some success, with Taylor Swift’s Love Taylor, Lover Enhanced Album playlist on Spotify passing 1m followers in just a couple of weeks, a hugely impressive performance for an artist playlist.
“At Spotify, we think: how can we give more tools to artists so that they can express their body of work in more ways? We’ve done enhanced album, liner notes and videos,” says Erlich. “That all goes back to the fact that most people at Spotify are, deep down, music fans and we remember those days when you used to buy a vinyl record or CD and you could go through the liner notes and the artwork on the physical pack. You spend more time admiring what the body of work was.”
Without giving specifics, Erlich says that Spotify has been “seeing some results” around enhanced albums. “When there is additional context, fans spend more time,” he says. “Which is really exciting. Enhanced albums were one step along the path and we were continuing to work as to how you can evolve that medium for the artist to have a bigger canvas to play on.”
Ignition Records’ head of marketing Clare Byrne says she expects to see more enhanced album playlist releases. “They help ‘tell the story’ giving the artist/ release identity, which aids fans’ engagement and a more encompassing user experience,” she says. “Even the addition of Spotify Canvases is a good example of this.”
Deezer’s Nigel Harding, meanwhile, talks about the idea of the dynamic EP, a format that is only really possible in the streaming era. “Returning artists tend to gather new tracks together in a loose collection, often prior to the release of a full album,” he says. “The first track is released as a stand-alone single, then subsequent releases are added one-by-one to form a growing compilation of brand new music.”
Erlich believes that artists will drive experimentation around digital formats in the future, especially as they take advantage of the freedom that online delivery allows. “It’s encouraging when artists try new stuff; the more people can find different ways to connect with their fans, the better,” he says. “I think over time what we are going to see is different ways to surround the music. Whether that is our Canvas feature, video embedded in playlists, whether that is liner notes… I had a call from a major artist’s manager saying, ‘We want to do this around the album.’ And it was… so insane that I don’t know if we can technically do this, but we will try. Those calls are amazing.”
Momentum is all
Already, the one-size-fits-all package into which labels have sometimes tried to squeeze artists is faltering. “When I talk to artists they ask, ‘How should I release music?’ ‘It really depends.’ And everyone fucking hates that answer,” says Erlich. “Because they wish I could be like, ‘Release your first single on this day and not his day you’ll be really successful…’ But you take an Ed Sheeran: Ed Sheeran is completely quiet forever until he drops an album and they are always really successful. And then you take a lot of hip-hop artists and they are never really off cycle. They keep on dropping music.”
Artists, Erlich believes, will be able to lead this experimentation because they understand their fans better than anyone. But they will not be alone, thanks to the power of data.
“The amount of data we give back to artists on Spotify for Artists, [you can] at least take the temperature of what the fans want,” Erlich concludes. “But what I try to tell artists and managers is what matters most in terms of release cadence is momentum, rather than any other indicator.
“And you can kind of see when people want more and you can kind of see when they are OK to take a little break. Or you’re at the peak and you don’t want to overcrowd the noise. It depends. They [formats] are all pretty useful tools for an artist.
Cover image by Beloborod / Shutterstock.com