A Theory of Album Epistemology

I have a theory for why people don’t listen to albums all the way through. Anthony Fantano recently addressed the ongoing “death of the album” discussion—he argues that albums have in fact saturated the market, but people rarely listen to them cover to cover because they rely too much on the strength of their singles or repeat monotonous formulas song by song. Nevertheless, artists still need more than singles to support tours, and labels ultimately can’t decide which song ends up a hit—so the album persists.

Artists and critics alike lament this “demise” of the album and the birth of singles culture. But perhaps we’re in a singles culture because singles make up playlists and really, we’re in a playlist culture. The general population’s relationship to music has changed. Back when people would listen to music because that was the point of whatever they were doing, they could orient themselves to the music’s narrative—albums are traditionally understood as narrative objects. These days, music often constitutes a background to whatever we’re doing, so if people listen to music for extended periods of time, it’s usually because they’re orienting themselves to the music’s tone.

Playlists are typically assembled for the sake of organizing songs around a central tone, rather than a central narrative. People don’t want the tone of their playlists jumping all over the place, because that’s distracting to whatever they’re focused on doing, like working out or chatting over coffee. On the flip side, they don’t want their albums staying at the same tone all the way through, because that’s boring and doesn’t lend itself to dynamic storytelling.

So if you want your album to be commercially viable—as an album and not just as a collection of singles—you have to consider your market and what kind of listeners it comprises. Most likely, they’ll be somewhat passive. Therefore to sell a set of songs and have them played consecutively, you’ll have to structure the song-to-song tonal arc with the playlist form in mind.

Of course this is a compromise, and in a perfect world your entire market would consist of people who want to do nothing but listen to your project. But there are obvious benefits to having your songs heard in their intended order, by fans who are less than idolatrous—you can subvert the trend of mindless listening by inserting inter-song narrative structure into spaces where your album would have otherwise been left unplayed.

The compromise seems reasonable enough. In fact, this is already happening in the form of “commercial mixtapes” or “commercial playlists,” like Drake’s More Life. The distinction I’m making is one of professionalism and artistic intention; the mixtape connotes “not a serious project,” or “judge my artistry on the basis of my forthcoming album.”

I think all music should be judged on its own right, and while at best the mixtape-album hierarchy liberates artists to venture into new territory without such high commercial stakes, at worst it tends to delegitimize the artistry of mixtapes as a whole. In a sense, this whole theory takes the attitude that “serious art is lost on this generation” for granted. So I think that if you must hierarchize form, for commercial or artistic reasons, then you should try calling your project an album but structuring it like a playlist.