And on the fourth record, Adele said “Let albums be listened to as we intended”. Thus, Adele killed the shuffle button. And Spotify listeners saw that it was good.
The godlike cultural and commercial power wielded by Adele is not in doubt. But on 21 November, Spotify offered further proof of her influence by changing a key feature of the music streaming app to please her. Until then, when you navigated to an album page on Spotify, the big green button at the top of the page shuffled the tracks. The default option – what Spotify assumed most listeners wanted to do – was to take a painstakingly crafted sequence of songs and chuck them in a lucky dip, with the algorithm randomly rummaging through and serving you tracks according to its whim.
Adele, understandably, was unhappy about this, and Spotify, either fearing a PR foul-up or wishing genuinely to – as the company’s statement claimed – “create the best experiences for both artists and their fans”, paid attention. “This was the only request I had in our ever changing industry!” tweeted Adele. “We don’t create albums with so much care and thought into our track listing for no reason. Our art tells a story and our stories should be listened to as we intended. Thank you Spotify for listening”. The big green button now plays the tracks in sequence – for all albums, not just Adele’s.
This small technical tweak is significant for two reasons. Firstly, it is a rare victory for the artist in a relationship that is usually stacked in favour of the streaming giant. Spotify does not disclose how much it pays artists, but most agree that it’s not enough: industry estimates put the pay-out per stream at less than £0.004, and that’s before any cut taken by a record company. Boycotts of Spotify by artists such as Adele (who resisted putting her third album 25 on Spotify and Apple Music for several months) and Taylor Swift usually do not last. In 2013, Thom Yorke described streaming as “the last desperate fart of a dying corpse”, but Radiohead’s decision to grant Spotify access to their back catalogue suggests even this most principled of bands acknowledge that such platforms represent the future of the music industry (the fart may have more propulsive power than previously imagined).
Secondly, Spotify’s decision represents an acknowledgement of the backlash against listening by algorithm, and the revival of the album as a form. When Apple launched the iPod 20 years ago, in October 2001, and the iTunes store two years later, two of the innovations were a randomised shuffle function and an ability to purchase individual tracks from albums. Many artists disliked both the financial and artistic implications of “unbundling” tracks. The sense that the album was being stripped for parts only continued in the streaming age, as the shuffle button retained its primacy, and the playlist – machine-tooled to retain listeners’ attention and serve their taste –began to replace the LP as the format of choice.
But in recent years, the album has made a comeback. It’s a trend most clearly seen in vinyl sales. In 2021, revenue from vinyl sales in the US overtook that of CDs for the first time since 1986. In the UK, vinyl sales have increased by more than 2,000 per cent since 2007. A further surge in interest during the pandemic has created huge problems for an industry struggling to meet the demand. The LP revival can only partly be explained by nostalgia – although Fleetwood Mac and Led Zeppelin reissues always sell well, artists such as Billie Eilish and Lana Del Rey have topped the vinyl charts in recent years.
The care taken in the physical ritual of playing a record is mirrored by the way the listener is encouraged to honour the artist’s intentions: side A, then side B, to its crackly close. In this way we experience the emotional and narrative arc of Joni Mitchell’s Blue, or the rich sonic world of Sgt. Pepper, or the heartbreaker’s dozen of Adele’s 30. At the same time, innovations such as Tim Burgess’s Twitter listening parties – a communal album playback organised online – have revealed a hunger for the LP as an intense listening experience, a feeling that has been particularly pronounced during a pandemic in which the pleasures of live music have been unattainable.
Spotify has for years been distracting listeners away from the album, by telling us what’s popular, recommending what’s similar, encouraging us to continue the shuffling habit Apple got us hooked on 20 years ago. But Adele should be thanked: the restoration of the humble “play button” does both artists and listeners a service. In the battle for the soul of the album, she has struck a small but decisive blow.
Tom Gatti is editor of “Long Players: Writers on the Albums that Shaped Them”.