Merry Christmas Eve! Hope you’re all as simultaneously thrilled and exhausted by the holiday music as I am. :) This winter break will be a busy but fun one for me: I’ll be skiing in Jackson Hole for the first time next week, then making a trip out to D.C. in January for a week-long course on culture & politics at Dumbarton Oaks
I’ve gotten a handful of new subscribers since the last update—please introduce yourself if you haven’t already, simply by replying to this email!
Today’s subject line could mean… well, whatever you want it to mean. We conquer and redefine institutions by gaming them, in ways large and small. There are many synonyms for this phenomenon: sidestepping, hacking, breaking. Go ahead, make that one of your resolutions for 2017.
At this moment, however, I’m specifically thinking about a piece
Senior Editor Jillian Mapes wrote this month, criticizing major labels for releasing increasingly longer albums in an attempt to “game” the streaming system and maximize revenue, at the arguable expense of quality. Frank Ocean’s Blonde
, The Weeknd’s Starboy
and Drake’s VIEWS—
which feature 17, 18 and 20 tracks respectively—are some cornerstones of this trend.
While Mapes’ argument reads brilliantly, I think there are plenty of musicians “gaming the system” in ways that are more illuminating than disrespectful, more amusing than artless. One of my favorite bands, Vulfpeck, has released 100% silent albums and tracks, encouraging fans to stream them millions of times in order to raise money for tours (e.g. Flow State, Sleepify). Indie band The Pocket Gods & Friends specializes in albums of one hundred 30-second tracks (stylized as 100 x 30)—since royalties on Spotify are allegedly paid after just 30 seconds, disadvantaging longer songs and raising the question of whether tracks should even last more than half a minute anymore.
Yes, longer albums give mainstream artists an arguably unfair competitive advantage on the charts. The modified emphasis on streaming in the Billboard
Hot 100 criteria makes singles essentially irrelevant, leading to a plethora of what fellow Forbes
contributor Gary Suarez calls
Yet, the new, higher-level creative paradigm in streaming is something that all artists can take advantage of. In this week’s episode of Popcast
, New York Times
pop music critic Joe Coscarelli suggests that longer lengths are part of a new “playlist aesthetic” for albums, defined by a “kitchen-sink” approach that makes mathematical sense for maximizing potential streaming royalties and catering to playlist-friendly users.
We’ve always complained about how slow the music business adopts to new technologies, but this new phenomenon seems to debunk this notion, suggesting that the industry is finally using streaming to innovate aesthetically while profiting economically. My greatest hope is that, in this process of artistic elongation, of throwing everything but the kitchen sink against the wall to see what sticks, artists won’t forget to be bold and different—traits that make otherwise overly long oeuvres like Blonde worth their celebrity.