The Longer the Better? Albums and Music in the Age of Streaming

On Jan. 26, Migos released “Culture II,” the sequel to their 2017 hit “Culture.” In many ways, “Culture II” sounded exactly like its predecessor, with its palette of moody trap beats, A-list features, triplet flows, and a healthy collection of Audemars Piguet watches. However, the two projects had one major difference: their length. Running an arduous 106 minutes over 24 tracks, “Culture II” was a long, bloated step down from “Culture” and its relatively compact tracklisting. Migos’ most recent effort, with an additional 11 tracks, was 50 minutes longer than their 2017 release. Long albums certainly aren’t an anomaly within the music industry; however, artists are increasingly releasing longer and longer albums. Ultimately, artists are trying to inflate their album sales by racking up streams on arduously long albums and exploiting the Billboard charts. While previously uncommon, more and more artists are putting out enormous, bloated albums to the detriment of their artistry.
To fully understand why long albums are financially beneficial to artists, the Billboard ranking criteria must be closely examined. According to Billboard, for an album to generate one “sale” on a streaming service, such as Spotify or Apple Music, songs must be played 1,500 times. The listener can choose to listen to the whole project or just one song. As long they generate 1,500 streams, a sale is added to the album’s Billboard ranking. So, if someone were to listen to “Culture,” they would have to play it around 115 times front to back before a sale was registered. “Culture II” in contrast would only have to be played 63 times to yield the same statistical boost to the Billboard count. In this way, people who simply play a long album and let it run its course end up being drastically more beneficial, allowing the album to stay on the charts longer and maintain its popularity and buzz.
Migos aren’t the only artists opting to put out longer projects. The trend appears to be concentrated in hip hop and R&B; artists such as Lil Yachty, Lil Uzi Vert, Jhene Aiko, and Drake have been releasing longer and longer material. Lil Yachty’s most recent project was 30 minutes longer than his debut. Lil Uzi Vert’s “Luv is Rage 2” was 20 minutes longer than the original “Luv is Rage,” and a half hour longer than “Lil Uzi Vert vs. the World” and “The Perfect Luv Tape.” Drake is an interesting case in that he has been exploiting the streaming loophole since 2016. His album “Views” was an arduous 90 minutes, ending with his ubiquitous hit “Hotline Bling.” The addition of “Hotline Bling” to the tracklisting is especially important, as Drake would have known that the song (which was nearly a year old when “Views” released) would continue to see heavy streaming. By adding “Hotline Bling” to the tracklisting Drake boosted his Billboard charting significantly, capitalizing on the population of listeners who just wanted to play “Hotline Bling.” The most egregious example of stream farming, however, is the most recent Chris Brown album, which boasted 45 tracks  running for 3 hours and 19 minutes, and a note from the artist to “leave the album on repeat.” If it wasn’t clear before, Chris Brown certainly signalled that artists are well aware of how to game the Billboard system.
It’s evident that artists are catching on to the trend of boosting their Billboard stats with longer albums, but the question of whether listeners should be concerned is another matter entirely. While artists certainly generate more revenue with these projects,  the decision to lengthen albums is hurtful to the artform. Artists are tacking songs onto their albums to rack up streams, creating a relatively disposable listening experience. Granted, not every artist is interested in producing a concise and cohesive album, but one would be hard-pressed to find a Lil Yachty or Migos fan who prefers their recent output to the more engaging (if shorter) “Culture” and “Lil Boat.” Ultimately, reform is necessary on the part of the Billboard charts. An artist shouldn’t have to be three times as popular as another artist in order for them to chart higher with a shorter album. This is not to say that artists should be forced to produce short bodies of work, only that those who choose to do so should not see charting as an unattainable goal. Streaming has undeniably changed the face of music today. However, listeners may not be doomed to sit through 100 minute projects until the end of their days. The new Lil Yachty release “Lil Boat 2,” expected soon, is 17 tracks long. While not a brief album by any means, “Lil Boat 2” will be six tracks shorter than “Teenage Emotions” after the latter was almost universally panned by critics and fans. It’s too early to say, but perhaps things are moving in the right direction.

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