Michael Foster weighs in on how streaming and playlist culture is effecting album sales for niche genres including ambient, electronic, new age and electronica; and whether they could spell out the end of conventional albums or actually multiply sales.
Guest post by Michael Foster of Ambient Visions
I read an article about how playlists were going to be the downfall of albums and even though I just wrote about playlists in my last blog post I wanted to share my feelings about the idea that was floated in this article which appeared on Hypebot and MusicThinkTank recently. The name of the article was “Will Playlists Kill Off Albums?” which was a question that I felt deserved an answer from the perspective of a long term ambient listener.
There was a time in my past, say around the early 1990’s, that I was just discovering the joys of ambient, new age and the delicious music that Forest played on his radio show called Musical Starstreams that marked the beginning of my exploration of my musical boundaries. He referred to the music he played as “exotic electronica” and to someone who was born and raised on rock and roll from about the age of 12 it was a huge leap of understanding that rock was not the be all end all of the music that would consume my life.
At that point in time there were no streaming services like Spotify for me to explore new music through and record stores rarely carried these genres or if they did they were confined to a tiny little space that included Enya and Vangelis a smattering of titles that usually represented anyone in a similar category who had made the Billboard charts or who had sold well before. We had no playlists to guide us and to help us make decisions about what we might want to listen to. But around 1995 I discovered an album called Path: An Ambient Journey from Windham Hill (thanks Will) and it became the beginning of my search for the albums that were represented there.
In the early days we did not have playlists but we did have the next best thing…compilation albums that gave us a taste of the best that certain labels had to offer. In other words these compilation albums became our playlists and our guides as to what was yet to be discovered in terms of ambient and new age music. Windham Hill had a whole series of these compilations over the years as did Narada Records and it was these compilations that always spurred me on to find and buy those albums represented on these CD playlists.
I discovered Musical Starstreams around 1996 and that added electronica and chill out music to my knowledge base and those influences have been with me ever since. Those were my playlists in a time before playlists and they did not kill off my desire for albums but rather enhanced that desire by allowing me to get a taste of the album before actually purchasing it. To me the compilation albums from days gone past and the playlists that currently dot the Spotify landscape are signposts that give direction to discerning listeners as to what artists they should be exploring in more depth and rather than destroy album sales or streams they point the way as to particular artists to focus on.
I will be the first to say that with Spotify and other streaming services the musically landscape has become filled to overflowing with new titles pouring out on Fridays each week and many just appearing as soon as they are completed by the artist regardless of the day of week. With such an influx of music to sift through each week and knowing that there will be more next week listeners can be overwhelmed by the sheer quantity of titles that are available. No one wants to miss a new release by a favorite artist or miss out on discovering a new favorite artist because they didn’t have time to find them amidst the flood of music.
I think that playlists in the ambient, electronic, new age and electronica communities will bring to light those artists classic or new whose music is important to our community out into the spotlight so they can be rediscovered or found for the very first time by listeners around the globe. I think that ambient and associated genres of music have a dedicated fan base who support their favorite artist’s releases and that playlists act as a guide not as competition to those albums. When I hear a song by an artist on a playlist that I really love my first action after that is to find that artist and listen to their catalog more in depth and see if their music as a whole would be something that would find a place in the music that fills my life.
I think that the fans of the music that Ambient Visions has covered for the last 18 years are not your typical pop music churn and burn fans who are only interested in that one song on an album that they can intensely consume on an MP3 on their phones for a few weeks before moving on to find the next big thing. I have been listening to that same Path Windham Hill release for the last 23 years and will probably be listening to it on my death bed. I searched out every album on that Windham Hill release and acquired it one by one and that is still my modus operandi with playlists to this day. They are my guide but they are not the end of the journey. I hope that the readers of Ambient Visions share this sentiment with me and will always listen deeply to artists that they find interesting on the playlists they consume whether it is the Ambient Visions weekly playlist or one of the other fine playlists that are scattered over the internet on various services.
Streaming services are great, but not as great as having the music at your beck and call via having a CD copy in your collection or having downloaded the album itself in both MP3 and a higher definition format. Several thousand CDs later and downloads enough to fill a few TB drives I’m going to have to say that playlists don’t kill ambient album sales they multiply them. Drop me a line and let me know what you think or pop into the AV Twitter account to weigh in on this topic. The past, the present and the future of ambient/new age genres is for me like living in the Nexus and living in pure joy. See you next time.