The playlist versus album debate has been a topic of discussion on online blogs and music forums since the digitization of music and the rise of music streaming platforms. Meanwhile, many fear the death of the album, which is not unwarranted. A 2020 study by music streaming platform Deezer found that only 9 percent of people preferred the album format compared to 40 percent that favored playlists. With Spotify, the biggest music streaming platform today — featuring over 4 billion playlists on its platform, 1 billion of which were added to its collection in 2020 alone — it’s clear that the way we consume music has drastically changed in conjunction with music streaming platforms. However, is it fair to say that Spotify’s playlist-driven model is causing many people to abandon playlists and, subsequently, causing the death of the album, or is there something far more complicated occurring in the realm of music culture?

For one, questioning the rise of playlists — both personalized and Spotify-curated — reveals how our consumption of music has become increasingly individualistic, which is problematic in the context of cultural capitalism, which, at the very least, devalues art. The tendency to create new playlists for every function or mood, endlessly categorizing them by general sound, genre, etc., and carefully isolating songs out of the context of a complete work ultimately co-opts artists’ creative vision.

Back in 2021, Adele even successfully requested that Spotify get rid of its default shuffle button on albums. Upon the change, she tweeted, “Our art tells a story and our stories should be listened to as we intended.” Alongside Adele’s sentiment, when music in playlist format is increasingly personalized to optimize our everyday activities, such as studying, and is tailored to all types of emotional states, energy levels or seasons, music consumption is only further cemented as a functional tool as opposed to a means of engaging in others’ artistic expression. Emphasis is placed more on appreciating the service artists provide than the songs, aesthetics or content of their work, allowing us listeners to become passive in our engagement with our favorite songs.

This isn’t to say that music should never be used as a functional tool to, for example, improve mental well-being. There’s also a case to be made for playlist-crafting as a unique form of creative expression. However, tailoring your listening experience for your own needs each time is not sustainable. While Spotify tracks users’ listening patterns, the demand for playlists as a new medium impairs artists’ ability to commit to their creative visions and produce cohesive albums. In this way, Spotify is certainly not immune to critiques of today’s music culture. Rather, listeners’ individualistic tendencies proliferate a cycle that renders musicians reliant on both their audiences and streaming platforms in an already profit-driven industry.

Spotify playlists exist for almost every occasion — even one that can only be described as “Beast Mode,” a Spotify playlist amassing over 9 million likes. As these playlists come to dominate streaming demands, artists turn to “playlist carpet-bombing,” a strategy used to get on as many Spotify-curated playlists as possible in hopes of increasing streams or gaining any recognition at all. One of the most prominent examples is Luis Fonsi’s “Despacito,” which was released in several versions — including pop, salsa and “urban” — and added to its portfolio with a variety of remixes. For smaller artists, getting on a Spotify playlist is already an achievement, but for artists like Luis Fonsi, who already have big hits to their name, incessant production of music appealing to a wider audience is necessary to consistently appear on playlists that are constantly refreshed.

In addition, investment in playlists has been criticized for encouraging “bland” and formulaic music, all while discouraging artistic freedom. The term “Spotify-core” describes a Spotify-branded genre characterized as “vaguely electronic, usually female vocals, [with] glitchy effects” and as “homogenous mid-tempo pop drawing from rap and EDM.” Ultimately, music that follows these guidelines does better on Spotify. This general sound has only been further solidified as being synonymous with its platform following the start of their Spotify Singles program in 2016. Under the program, Spotify releases two EPs with partnered artists — most often a “fresh” re-release of an original and a cover — and promises a spot on their New Releases playlist and another Spotify-curated playlist. Most Spotify releases conform to the quintessential melancholy pop sound of “Spotify-core,” and, given the rise of playlists as a functional tool, it’s no wonder that many artists have become subservient to producing “mood-enhancing background music” for every occasion. Still, as consumers who propel Spotify’s playlist-driven model, it’s up to listeners to break the cycle of reliance on Spotify-curated playlists artists have been subjected to.

There’s no denying that the album format has already been deemphasized with visual albums and mixtapes gaining popularity. However, while Spotify continues to dominate and influence creative expression, rethinking our priorities for our listening experiences and engagement with musicians’ work is critical to restoring the dying integrity of the album format as a form of art and storytelling.

Julie Ha is a sophomore majoring in English.