2019 so far in music. Playlists 35, Albums 0.

Unless something dramatic happens, it looks like 2019 may be the first year since 1990 in which I cannot hand on heart, say I have a personal favourite album of the year. I’m not saying that there haven’t been some great albums — it’s just that my own personal form of music consumption has now switched to songs, and it looks like this shift might be permanent.

Don’t get me wrong, I’ve heard some good albums this year for sure. Checking my library now, still there downloaded are Aldous Harding, The Amazons, Big Thief, Cass McCombs. Clinic, The Delines, Durand Jones, FONTAINES D.C. and that’s just a-to-d. I’ve enjoyed all of these and many more, but none have gone on heavy rotation. The culprit in all of this of course — the playlist.

Once you start with playlists, you cannot stop, but what’s behind the habit is an interesting set of side effects. Now I will explain that I have been playlisting for personal use for many years, and often shared these among friends in the usual settings — parties, holidays, drinks, dinners that kind of thing. Then in January this year I decided to set these playlists in digital stone via my ‘playlist magazine’ The Song Sommelier. I’ve posted some 35 playlists on the site now — via the (amazing) Soundsgood.co ‘all-services’ player.

Here are the three main ‘side-effects’ (pun intended?) in my album listening:

a) I’m ‘previewing’ more albums than usual — that’s perhaps because we are in a very fertile period musically, but also because I’m taking interest in a much wider set of genres than I have ever done — this must be down to streaming, with everything available and discoverable

b) As a result of side-effect a) above, I am not breaking through the familiarity barrier with any one album. Usually that takes patience, perseverance and at least three proper listens. This is the threshold we cross that can feel like magic, whereby we learn to love not just the songs but the sequence, and when some of the songs we didn’t first like, reveal themselves later on to be slow-burn favourites. And then we just love the whole album so much it goes on heavy rotation at the expense of everything else. That hasn’t happened so far this year — the everything else continues to win out now

c) As a result of side-effect b) above, I’ve come to accept that when I pick an album to save and I am ready to listen, this may be the only time I listen to that record. I’ll judge whether or not I like it on that one listen, and pick out a song or two to drop into a playlist

The Song Sommelier is an enjoyable pastime that has a handy bi-product for me of keeping up with new music, and that is quite useful professionally. However, I didn’t expect that it would take over my own consumption habits so insidiously. Playlist curation takes up a lot of time. For each and every playlist (I use the modern standard length of circa. 30 tracks per list) I spent a lot of hours initially compiling, scheduling, shuffling songs in and out, and weeding through many more songs that don’t fit the list. If I’m working with a collaborator it’s much easier of course — mostly just listening and enjoying. While this take up most of my listening hours, I have plenty of time left for albums too.

www.songsommelier.com covers by Mick Clarke

But here’s the rub: I’m enjoying these playlists far more than I am enjoying any album — especially on heavy rotation. Variety clearly is a factor. But the scheduling really matters with playlists — almost as much as with albums. With playlists, it’s possible to evoke a mood — for longer and with more variety — than you can get from an album. Often, for albums to work they are doing the opposite of evoking a mood, instead taking the listener on a journey through several mood changes, shifts of tone, pace etc. This makes me restless.

You can do things with playlists you can’t with albums. Take Elton John for example. I’ve never been a fan until I recently compiled a career retrospective of his non-bluesy ballads — magical stuff. I’ve listened to Elton more in the past week than I have in my entire life, and I’m a lot better off for it. I would have never got there via his albums or greatest hits compilations.

I am going to miss albums. I have a FOMO of not adding to my annual classics list. I will miss following an artist’s trajectory through their album history. I loved the way The National’s sound matured and focused through three or four LPs, and I was relieved more than anything, to find that Radiohead’s “Moon Shaped Pool” became my favourite by them after 30 years as a fan. But is it just me, or is there less distinction in sound and musical direction from album-to-album these days anyhow?

I can see the how my personal experience is different from mass behaviours of course. But somehow the gist of the insight from my own experience has given me a glimpse of why we are all listening the way we are listening. It’s why mood-based playlists have become so popular. And why album listening continues its slow decline. It convinces me too that playlist listening has much more room to grow than album listening, through innovation of the format. This could be via artists themselves making more playlists and mixtapes, Spotify’s personalised ‘algotorial’ style playlists, BBC Sounds’ Music Mixes and more.

Checking MIDiA global consumer data, the current prevalence of the main music habits shows that even among the highly engaged music subscriber base, little more than one third of the subscriber base engage in any one activity regularly (there is plenty of overlap however).

Music Subscriber Activities at least monthly (MIDiA Q4 ’18, global music survey)

Right now, many innovations are happening in the lean-back playlist space. Sleep, study and relax are turning out to be highly lucrative zones for playlist brands and the lucky few composers that can get into them. I’d also like to see more lean-forward playlist features, such as being able to select and preview songs, give personal playlists some AI based capabilities to learn much better recommendations, and the generation of more context such as visual art and ‘genius’ type content. Spotify seems to be ahead of the game here yet again with its song ‘stories’ feature.

But I get the feeling that nothing will quite work like human imagination and taste. In this space it looks like Apple, Amazon and even SoundCloud are now making more moves, finally. I can foresee a return to curation and context via formats that work in the on-demand streaming world in a way they did on good old radio.

Check out One Night Only: Elton At The Chateau, a fantasy setlist curated on www.songsommelier.com