Charli XCX has made a career out of releasing music however and whenever she wants. So if much of her new album,Charli, already sounded familiar to fans, that’s because it should: abouthalfof the album’s tracks were released as singles before its release, spanning back almost a year. This would have been unthinkable before streaming. But Charli uses the instant nature of modern platforms to her advantage, upending the traditional idea of an album and growing her audience in the process.
“I was feeling very creative and wanted to release my music rapidly and when I wanted,” Charli tells me. “Without streaming, it would be so difficult to be able to do that.”
We all know that streaming has changed the way we listen to music, but it’s also changing the way artists write and release music. With streaming, artists can instantly put their music online, which lets them test out songs, release music on a whim, or even adjust albums after they’re released. Charli has always been at the cutting edge of pop, and she has built a career around disregarding norms, including traditional release structures. It’s increasingly becoming a trend as more artists are leaving the tried and true album cycle behind.
The traditional album cycle has existed for decades. Instead of releasing music whenever it’s done, artists save up songs to build into a big album drop that happens every couple of years. “You put out a single, maybe a second single,” explains Charlie Harding, host of the podcastSwitched on Pop, which is published byThe Verge’s sister siteVox. “It’s a way of gaining some press attention to remind people your favorite artist is putting out that big, important package thing that you need to go out and buy.”
This worked great before streaming when people had to buy physical albums on things like CDs or vinyl. But now, few artists have the luxury of being forgotten for two years and then coming back to try to make a media splash. Everything is available at our fingertips, and fans are hungry for content all the time. “Everything’s very rapidly digested, and people want more,” Charli says. “Everything moves so much quicker now.”
angels, your mother is about to feed you new music for 5 months straight. you deserve it and you’re welcome.
— Charli (@charli_xcx) May 21, 2019
Charli isn’t the only artist doing this. Entire genres like hip-hop and dance have been playing with singles, mixtapes, and rapid-fire releases for ages. Other genres, like pop, have been slower to experiment, but that’s changing. You might have noticed that a lot of your favorite artists from all sorts of genres are consistently dropping more singles. The term for this is called the “waterfall strategy,” and it’s becoming more popular.
Bebe Rexha, Billie Eilish, and The Chainsmokers are among the artists doing this. They will put out singles month after month, eventually bundling them into an EP or an album. Every time a new single is put out, it gives a boost to the other ones released before it. Zach Fuller, a media analyst for MIDiA Research in London, toldBillboardlast year that this strategy works because it constantly refreshes an artist’s page with new material. “If you do discover it [from a playlist], you are innately more likely to go to the [artist’s] page, and Spotify has the latest releases at the top,” he says. The idea is that albums are built, not dropped.
Many have declared that streaming, and its contribution to the rise of singles, killed the album, but Harding and Lowe disagree. Instead, they see what’s happening as an evolution of the album, giving rise to an era where artists have the freedom to experiment in ways that were never possible before. “I think that we’ll see a lot of artists who are going to play with the form and idea of an album,” says Harding. “That will delight us, excite us, and change our idea of what an album can be.”
Essentially, streaming’s dominance means there’s no “right way” to release music anymore. Instead, it’s about what fits for an individual artist, and, for Charli, what fits is being spontaneous. “You can travel and create your own buzz via all the tools that are available for us to work on our own,” Charli says.
Plus, she says, streaming means listeners get to pick who’s worth hearing. “It’s not a bunch of white males at radio stations and record labels deciding what the general public should listen to.”
Make sure to check out other episodes of The Future of Music here.