All Filler, No Killer: Artists Are Gaming The System With Stupidly Long Albums
Gaming streaming services has come at a price.
Just over a week ago, Drake released his highly anticipated fifth studio album, Scorpion.
To say its been successful is a gross understatement: the 25-track Scorpion has broken just about every streaming record there is, including becoming the first album to surpass 1 billion streams in under a week. It also easily crushed Spotify and Apple Music’s one-day streaming numbers, raking in over 130 million and 170 million plays, respectively.
Drake now has seven songs in the Billboard Hot 100 top ten, besting The Beatles’ 1964 effort of five songs. Moreover, he has beaten all of his own streaming records, including one he just set only last year with More Life — that is, the most singles in the Hot 100 at once. When More Life dropped he had 24 tracks in the chart, post-Scorpion he has 27.
You get the idea: Scorpion is fucking everywhere. But the reason it’s everywhere isn’t because it’s a great album (the opposite is true), it’s because Drake and other artists have now taken it upon themselves to release long albums in order to game a chart system that rewards quantity over quality. And that’s a big problem.
Are Long Albums Stretching Talent Thin On Purpose?
Back in 2014, Billboard began counting streaming numbers in its official chart records, with 1500 streams equalling one album unit. Two years later, the Recording Industry Association of America (they’re the Grammys people) adopted the same formula to calculate album certifications.
Effectively, this means that longer albums could have much easier time achieving gold and platinum certifications on Billboard — they have more songs to stream, thus they can reach the album unit number much faster. Scorpion, for example, was certified platinum in the US the same day it was released.
The Australian Recording Industry Association (ARIA) has also followed suit — it currently counts every 175 streams as a sale. In May 2017, ARIA also updated the way they calculate album sales.
“The two tracks attracting most streams are reduced to the level of the average of the next eight highest streamed tracks associated with the album (or all tracks where an album has fewer than ten tracks),” ARIA confirmed to Music Junkee. “After the methodology above is applied, the streams of the top ten tracks (or all tracks where an album has fewer than ten tracks) making up the album are aggregated together and converted using the streaming conversion factor established for the singles 1:175 and the widely used rate of ten tracks = one album.”
The methodology ARIA uses ensures that longer albums will not be rewarded above shorter records in the album charts — it doesn’t matter whether an album has 10 or 90 tracks, it won’t make any difference on the album charts.
But the Billboard methodology is easily being exploited. Migos’ third album Culture II — released in January — was a mammoth double disc effort that ran to nearly one hour and 45 minutes. Fourteen of its tracks charted in the Hot 100 within the first week of its release — at the time, that equalled the record for most songs in the Hot 100 by a group, the The Beatles’ had held for 54 years.
If Drake was in a group he would have crushed them both last week.
It was the same story with Post Malone’s Beerbongs & Bentleys back in May. It debuted at #1 on the ARIA charts, and 16 of the album’s 17 tracks charted in the ARIA Top 50 Singles chart. Its success caused a minor stir at the time because Malone had now equalled Michael Jackson’s long-held record for the most songs in the ARIA Top 50 at the same time.
Probably the most infamous example in recent years was Chris Brown’s 2017 Heartbreak on a Full Moon, which boasted 45 tracks and a running time of two and a half hours.
It’s not just the charts that artists are hoping to dominate by releasing long albums, it’s the streaming services themselves. The rise of popular playlists (such as Spotify’s RapCaviar, which boasts nearly 9 million followers) has possibly spurred artists to adopt a scattergun approach to their albums — the more songs they have in the mix, the more likely they are to have them turn up in various playlists. Consumers may not necessarily listen to whole albums anymore, but they are definitely listening to playlists.
Albums like Scorpion or Culture II probably weren’t intended to be listened to in one sitting (and with running times of over 90 minutes, who has the fucking time?) but rather they reflect our current landscape of dipping in and out.
“Stacking albums with extra songs is a strategic way to achieve certain goals,” says Atlantic Records’ Malcolm Manswell told Rolling Stone earlier this year. “On the sponsorship side, this stuff helps labels sell an artist or argue for why a brand should use an artist.”
Drake may be able to lay claim to being the Biggest Artist In The World, but is he the best?
Long Albums Does Not Mean Better Albums
Scorpion may have won the chart game, but critically it was greeted with a groan. Variety labelled it “unwieldy” and “numbing”, The Irish Times said it was a “a painfully dull barrage of lifeless tunes”, The Guardian said it was a “maddening monument to superstardom”. Pitchfork was fairly generous in its review, giving it a 6.9, but still admitted it was the “latest in a series of diminishing returns” for Drake.
For what it’s worth, Junkee thought Scorpion contained five good songs. It would’ve made a really great EP.
Engineering albums specifically for commercial success is, obviously, nothing new. No major album will be released unless the label backing it is sure of a return on its investment. Nevertheless, it’s immensely frustrating to watch artists so blatantly game the system.
Luckily, we’re already beginning to see a pushback. Kanye West and G.O.O.D Music’s recent run of albums — including Daytona by Pusha T, and Ye’s and Kid Cudi’s KIDS SEE GHOSTS — were capped at seven songs apiece, roughly a third of the length of Scorpion. The final album in West’s run, Teyana Taylor’s groundbreaking KTSE, came in at eight tracks.
Regardless of what you think of West’s musical output, all of these albums are punchy, consistent, and noticeably absent of filler. Who has time for a track like Drake’s appalling ‘I’m Upset‘ when you only have 30 minutes available?
“More isn’t always better,” Interscope’s Joie Manda told RS. “If you throw out 100 songs a year like you’re buying 100 lottery tickets, that’s not a good plan — you can compromise the quality of your album by having more songs.”
Which, when you consider Scorpion, and More Life, and Views, and Culture II, and Beerbongs & Bentleys, and Ed Sheeran’s chart-singularity… strikes true.
Jules LeFevre is Junkee’s Music Writer. Follow her on Twitter.