Sounds of Silence: how streaming killed patience in the music industry

(Sookeun Jung)

(Sookeun Jung)

The silence is deafening, palpable. When your favorite artist goes years without new music—without even a cursory life update, really—their invisibility screams louder at you than any juiced-up bassline ever could. Widen the frame and the screaming only increases in volume, hitting a fever pitch and coalescing into what sounds like thousands of voices. Refocus, and it becomes clear that it was never the artist screaming at all, but everyone else at them.

Such is the plight of the popular musician in today’s streaming era. The incessant public demand for content never halts, only increasing with time until the rapper/singer/band who has had the audacity to withhold new projects from the world for any longer than a calendar year FINALLY releases their magic onto Spotify or Apple Music.

Take some of the biggest names in the industry. For every Drake or Kendrick Lamar, whose productivity has acquiesced into fan thirst in the form of at least 4 full-length projects since 2015, there are widely-speculated-upon ghosts i.e. Frank Ocean or Rihanna. Both last released albums in 2016—Frank’s Blond(e), a vibrant, melancholic R&B sunset; Rihanna’s Anti, a weed-infused, independent transcension of labels both musical and personal.

Since 2016, much of the conversation surrounding the two prolific, now-30-somethings has revolved around the magic of their recent work and speculation over possible hints at something new. Anti and Blond(e) remain on the Billboard 200, owing their success to both their magical composition and the love of their followers. But if you browse Twitter, it won’t take long to find countless fan laments of a lack of new music from the two giants.

Time passes more slowly when there’s so much new music packed into it. Popular up-and-coming artists like Gunna and Rico Nasty are putting out multiple albums and EPs per year, and perusing streaming services can be just as suffocating for the listener as it is illuminating nowadays.

Detroit rapper Tee Grizzley, in a late-2018 interview with Billboard, explained that saturating the market with new music keeps an artist in the public eye. More music means more streams; more streams means more money. Streaming is good for artists and great for the labels that still manage to sign them, but as albums get more bloated in the interest of upping revenue, the idea of the album as an art piece seems to be fading out of the public consciousness.

It was not always this way. Once upon a time in popular music, a three-year wait between albums was not the eternity it is today. In the mid-1990’s and early 2000’s—a pre-streaming sweet spot amidst the rise of hip-hop and its offshoots to cultural dominance—waiting two, three, four years to release an album was commonplace.

Snoop Dogg waited almost three years between his first and second albums. Wu-Tang Clan went a shade under four years between its first two studio releases; call it blasphemy, and it might be, but for the sake of modern comparison:

A$AP Mob put out its first two albums within a calendar year of each other. Nas and A Tribe Called Quest both took almost five years to release their first three projects, respectively. Erykah Badu took 6.5 years to do the same, and Big L went five years between his only two studio records. The productivity we’ve come to expect from our favorites is ahistorical and unnatural, a departure from the habits of genre legends and disrespectful to the process of creating lasting art.

An ever-advancing expectation of productivity may be harmful to more than just the artistic process. Earl Sweatshirt, reclusive lyrical gymnast, bemoaned the modern pressure placed on artists prior to the release of his third studio album in late November. The internet increasingly allows the discovery of artistic talents like Earl, whose prodigious rhyme schemes thrust him into the public sphere at just 14. Like Frank, his close friend and Odd Future collaborator, Earl has taken his time on his music, owing in part to these pressures as well as unfortunate tragedy.

How Earl describes the stress of being in the public eye is prescient. In an interview with Craig Jenkins of Vulture, he says that he paid very little attention to written criticism around the first single for his new album, Some Rap Songs. Instead, Earl said he “paid more attention to what people were saying on my social shit. I didn’t read so much because, honestly … I feel guilty holding the album. I need people to listen to the whole thing.”

In silence, these stars relinquish the ability to shape much of their public narratives. Their motivations vary. Frank, in a recent interview with GQ, remarks that by making his Instagram public, he wanted to show people that he is doing better than the funk they ascribe to him. He wanted to show that he is doing more than the nothing they can ascertain from refreshing his Spotify page. Rihanna, for her part, seems completely at ease, publicly beloved and uninterested in the clamor.  

Earl, in his music and interviews, will candidly wax poetic about his isolation and bouts of depression. If part of these struggles come from his relationship with the public, it seems like, as fans and consumers, we’re giving mental health problems to artists whose work we use to alleviate our own.

Gunna put out his first studio album this weekend, his fifth project since 2017. Tierra Whack, fresh off of one of the best, weirdest albums of 2018, committed last week to putting out a song a week for the foreseeable future. As more of these rising artists commit to saturating our playlists, the demands on titans like Frank, Rihanna, and Earl—and other recluses like Lil Uzi Vert,TDE’s Isaiah Rashad and SZA—will only increase. And as albums grow longer, our conception of art grows more muddled.

“When you're completely minimal with media, there's a lot of pressure on whatever one thing you're doing,” Frank notes in his GQ interview. “The stakes are higher.”

It is a balancing act, one that few can pull off. So cherish the art when it comes. Embrace the reclusive methods and the cryptic posts, hang on the five-second leaked clips. The time artists spend is not in vain, and those that make us wait maddeningly long often gift us with the greatest music.

CultureZach Miller