A few weeks ago, the music business celebrated the 25th anniversary of Nirvana's "Nevermind." When it came out in 1991, it blew the doors off the old rock and roll order and forever change music, and remains a seminal work to this day. Kids now born and raised entirely post "Nevermind," and even entirely post-Cobain, still see the album as influential and relevant, and a listen reveals that it doesn't feel dated at all.
But even though "Nevermind" still feels fresh as an artistic statement, the format feels a little..old. The same week that we celebrated Nirvana's milestone, another shift in the industry finally came to fruition -- according to a survey by MusicBiz.org and LOOP, listening to playlists have surpassed albums for the first time ever. It's been a long time coming, certainly, and with the shift to streaming it was bound to happen sooner or later. But this raises the question -- in 25 years, will we still celebrate landmark albums? The 25th anniversary of that great Discover Weekly playlist just doesn't have the same ring to it.
The larger question is: are albums necessary anymore? If fans are consuming music on streaming services and mostly listening to playlists, does it even make sense to release full albums and build campaigns around their release, instead of simply releasing tracks as they are finished and running on-going campaigns to break artists?
For a handful of bands, albums are a statement of a grand vision -- Kendrick Lamar's "To Pimp a Butterfly," for instance, has a narrative that is best experienced when listening to the whole thing from start to finish. But for the vast majority of artists, albums are nothing more than a collection of tracks, some stronger than others, and are nothing more than a throwback to the bad old days when you could charge fans for two good tracks and ten filler songs, there was nothing they could do about it.
Part of the reason the album still exists is that it serves as an organizing principle. Booking studio time is difficult and expensive, and it makes sense to record several tracks at once; record labels are staffed by humans with families and friends who can't work 24/7, and thus need to prioritize artists, and album cycles are the easiest way to do this. That being said, the tide has begun to change, and it stands to reason that within a few years, once streaming has become even more mainstream, labels might move away from this model.
Of course, labels and artists need to adapt to the times, and changing release formats doesn't mean that great music will disappear. But for those of us who stood in line outside Tower Records to buy "Nevermind" at midnight, or remember the first time we heard an important record start to finish, it's hard to say goodbye to the format completely. Sure, kids will still get "Smells Like Teen Spirit" on playlists for years to come -- but the idea of marking the passage of time with release dates is one that will surely fade into history.