Rumors of “The Death of the Album” have been greatly exaggerated. Sure, comparing this week’s SoundScan numbers to those 20 years ago is good for a laugh (or a cry), but it bears remembering that the album, as we currently think of it, has only existed since the late-’60s. Before that, it was really more analogous to a photo album — a collection of pieces packaged together more out of convenience than any sense of artistic necessity. The LP had been around for about twenty years before the real beginning of “The Album Era,” which, interestingly enough, is about how long the MP3 has been around today.
Now that we all have basically every song ever recorded in our pockets at all times, the signal-to-noise ratio can be overwhelming, and people need new ways to consume and engage with music. To that end, the digital compilation might just be the “capital-A Album” of the post-MP3 era, providing a fresh listening experience based more on real-world utility than genre, era, or perceived cultural capital.
There are countless ways that repackaging can breathe new life into a piece of music. A compilation that features your best-selling artist and your 20th best-selling artist will benefit both — further driving track sales for an established hit, while also using that hit to attract fans and buoy sales for under-performing catalog — but this doesn’t just work for two artists within the same label or genre. With compilations that focus on moods or activities (“Music for Dinner Parties,” “Music for Road Trips,” “Music for Writing Long-Winded Blog Posts,” etc.), anything goes, provided it flows well and fits the stated function of the collection. For example, “Chill Out: Mellow Music for Relaxation” (pictured above) is a mixture of underground Hip Hop, Jazz Standards, ’70s Psychedelia, Classical Guitar, downtempo Electronic music and Reggae. These seemingly disparate styles can all be packaged together in the right context, introducing the consumer to new music they might have otherwise dismissed.
As genres splinter into smaller and increasingly arbitrary sub-genres, and established catalog continues to outperform new releases, it is clearly time for a new way forward. Spotify‘s front page has a list of curated playlists where “Workout” and “Focus” are listed between “Pop” and “Latino;” and Songza (recently purchased by Google for eight figures) has built an entire business around curating playlists to compliment any situation, and recommending them based on what you’re likely to be doing at any time of day.
More and more each day, this seems like the logical next step for an industry in constant transition. Welcome to the Compilation Era.