“There ain’t no gold in this river that I’ve been washing my hands in forever,” sings Adele, the British pop star, in her first single from her album, 30, which garnered 60.7m streams on release last week. An oblique reference, perhaps, to artists’ concern of money and control diluted by music-streaming services. Yet Adele pulled off a feat this week by persuading Spotify, the world’s biggest such service by paid subscription, to remove as a default its shuffle option on albums. In so doing, she has turned up the volume on a power struggle between artists, labels, and the streaming services that now shape the music industry.
“Our art tells a story and our stories should be listened to as we intended,” Adele wrote on Twitter, in response to Spotify’s decision. She is right. Just as galleries of artists’ paintings are curated to offer a particular experience, so musicians will tailor their albums. Think of the Beatles’ Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, or any of the 1960s’ concept albums; an idea popularised by the advent of the vinyl LP in the late 1940s. Listeners are of course free to choose how they consume albums, and in the 2000s jumped over songs they did not like on iPods, skipped over them in the 1990s on CDs, and fast-forwarded them on their Walkmen in the 1980s.
The decision by Spotify will not disable shuffling, merely stop it being the default option. Which when it comes to albums, rather than playlists, seems counterintuitive anyway: why listen to an entire album if not in the intended order?
Adele’s victory is all the more sweet because it is rare in an industry where labels and streaming services are so dominant. While streaming arguably saved the industry from the piracy rampant in the 2000s, it also upended it, from one focused on purchases to one fixated on consumption. The only artist whose album was streamed more on release (at 90.8m) than Adele’s is Taylor Swift, another young woman whose superstar status has allowed her to wrest back some control, in her case by re-recording her back catalogue that had been sold to private equity.
There are still many concerns: large labels like Sony Music or Universal Music — which floated in September with a market capitalisation of €45bn — still hold too much sway, and not enough revenue from streaming trickles down to artists. The UK’s antitrust regulator is now probing both issues. One rough rule of thumb is that Spotify pays out $4 per 1,000 streams, from which a label, management and production will all take a cut. Less is paid if only half the song is listened to, and royalties only start after 30 seconds.
Streaming now accounts for roughly 80 per cent of music listened to in the UK and the model has wrought profound changes on how listeners consume music and how artists deliver it. Streaming demands tracks that hold listeners’ attention for more than that vital half-minute, which benefits upbeat songs with an earworm chorus kicking in before then. Albums that front-load their catchiest tracks do well for the same reason, as do albums that have more, shorter tracks: an album with 24 tracks can make double the money than one with 12. This marks out Adele’s latest 12-track, ballad-heavy album — where I Drink Wine lasts over six minutes — as one that only a superstar could afford to make.
Then again, creating a furore that goes viral just as you release your first full-length album in six years is the kind of marketing nous that is just as important to commercial success these days as a perfectly curated tracklist — listened to in the order intended, of course.