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25 April 2024

The rise of the overlong album

Streaming rewards short tracks and long records. Does it make for better music?

By Sarah Manavis

There are few universal rules for what makes good writing, but one has long persisted: kill your darlings. Cut the flourishes that don’t meaningfully add to the greater work, no matter how much you love them, and you’ll be left with a more coherent piece of art. But concision cuts both ways: short works are often cheaper to make and more commercially viable, offering something easily digestible to a wider number of people. In the music industry, short, radio-friendly (and now TikTok-friendly) two-and-a-half-minute songs often dominate the charts. As Beyoncé famously lamented in her 2013 documentary Life Is but a Dream: “People don’t make albums any more… They just try to sell a bunch of little, quick singles… People don’t even listen to a body of work.”

Recently, though, something has shifted. On Friday 19 April, Taylor Swift released her 11th record, The Tortured Poets Department. In its full Anthology version, it’s a double album with a run-time of more than two hours, across a whopping 31 individual tracks. It comes less than a month after Beyoncé herself released Cowboy Carter, a 27-track album clocking in just shy of 80 minutes. Other artists, including Drake, SZA, Lana Del Rey, Nicki Minaj and Jessie Ware, have also released albums in the last few years that are at least as long, often due to a high volume of short tracks.

Each of these artists has suggested these sprawling albums are evidence of their growth as musicians. Some pitch them as plumbing rich historical depths; others say they’re a sign of shirking perfectionism. All frame long records as more artistically authentic, and a challenge to mass-market wisdom. 

But is this the whole story? There are now commercial incentives for artists to put more music into the album cycle. The dominance of streaming means that artists are eager to work these platforms’ algorithms, which prefer having as many new tracks as possible to promote to users on a daily basis. The generative playlists created by companies like Spotify and Apple Music also mean the more songs an artist makes available, the more likely they are to be featured, potentially growing their listener-base with every extra track that’s released.

It’s understandable that artists want to maximise their audience on streaming platforms, whose business models have altered the commercial value of a song – millions of streams are now needed to make any real money. At the same time, records marketed as curated, cohesive works that should be listened to as a whole, also seem to sell more physical copies – vinyl copies of both Cowboy Carter and The Tortured Poets Department have been in especially high demand. It would be naive to think longer albums are the sole result of creative freedom, and not primarily motivated by new industry norms.

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While the artists themselves might claim a longer album is a more artistically valuable album, more often than not, the quality of such records is uneven. Rather than slickly eurythmic, they typically have long stretches that feel meandering or dull. These longer works do vary in consistency, and not every lengthy album feels needlessly extended (without wanting to stoke a fan rivalry, you can hear a thoughtful, chronological cohesion in Cowboy Carter which is absent from the seemingly random track listing of The Tortured Poets Department – though, in Beyoncé’s case, her shorter Renaissance is the more cohesive work). But the result of listening to them in one sitting is almost always a repetition-driven fatigue that sets in near the hour mark, when many albums would naturally finish.

There is an obvious argument that these major artists don’t need to bend and twist to algorithms at the expense of their work. They have such enormous fan bases (and such immense market exposure) that they’ll maintain their vast wealth and cultural influence regardless. But modern fandom also incentivises more for the sake of more. However many songs Taylor Swift releases – no matter how bad, under-baked or identical to one another they may be – every single track she puts out will have thousands of fans sincerely calling it their favourite ever. Its lyrics will become tattoos; social media accounts will be named in its honour.

For globally successful artists, there are now few reasons not to release everything they work on. Whatever the artists do, their fans – as Swift sings on “I Can Do It with a Broken Heart” – will still always be screaming for more.

[See also: The tortured Taylor Swift]

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