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Album Sequencing in the Age of Streaming
We have heard about the “death of the album” for quite some time now. In consumption terms, this is partly true. Across all demographics, albums have lost their dominance over singles and playlists as the primary listening format. Both physical and digital albums sales are down too. To account for our new listening habits, the music industry now considers 1500 streams or 10 digital downloads the equivalent of one album copy purchase.
While these stats may seem like reasons NOT to make an album, the opposite is true. Albums can still move an artist's career forward without selling a single copy. Take Chance the Rapper. He built his reputation for remaining unsigned to a major record label and dropping his mixtapes online for free. Many of the biggest names in rap today followed a similar pattern.
With albums no longer a sales driver, artists can use the format more freely to make their statement and earn credibility. In 2013, Boards of Canada delighted fans with a bizarre scavenger hunt leading to the live-stream of their fourth album Tomorrow’s Harvest. And Both Frank Ocean and Beyonce have put out recentish albums with conceptual video pieces attached to them.
Albums tell the story of an artist or group at a specific moment in time that one or two singles cannot. Think of a recent album you really enjoyed listening to. Would it have been as impactful released as a slew of singles over the course of a year? Probably not.
When it comes time to release your long-form music project, one thing that definitely needs to be considered is its sequencing—i.e. the ordering of songs to create a compelling narrative and flow. This is where albums have a leg up over playlists.
Using some wonderfully sequenced modern albums as reference (almost all released in the last 10 years) I’ll provide you with tips for sequencing your album to better fit the streaming format.
Why is album sequencing important?
From start to finish, the best albums show a good sense of dynamics, detail, and story telling. Sequencing is crucial in this process. Two soft songs in a row will play much differently than a transition from a soft song to an edgy one.
Listeners can easily skip from one song to another, so take this as your chance to convince them otherwise. Give them a reason to stick around and listen to multiple songs in a row, the way they were intended.
How to create a strong sequence
You’ve done the hard work of actually writing the songs, now it's time order them in a way that demonstrates purpose and intent to listeners. This should be a fun, but considered process. It’s the final step before your album is mastered.
To get started, you might want to think about how people will listen to your album. Is it music for long car rides? The soundtrack to the pre-drink or after-party? A companion as you clean your apartment on a weekend afternoon? The answers to these questions can help provide a framework for your album’s sequencing. In some cases, lyrics will dictate song sequence.
Related to album sequencing, take note of the visual display of streaming. Album name, song titles, and album art are all tools that can used to bring listeners closer to your album. Ultimately, the music itself will make the biggest impact, but these seemingly small things still matter.
Like the process of creating music, there is no one way to sequence an album. But there are some useful guidelines worth considering. The first song on an album holds special significance. It should quickly set the tone for listeners and encourage them to stick around.
Aphex Twin’s 1992 landmark Selected Ambient Works 85-92 does a great job at this. Within the first second of opener “Xtal” we are introduced to the main sounds that shape the entire album: airy, dreamlike chords and drum machine patterns. The song moves along at an assured pace, slowly guiding listeners into headier atmospheres over the course of its five minute runtime. After a short ambient outro and three seconds of silence, the energy shoots right back up with the pulsing, but mysterious techno of song number two, “Tha.”
SAW was released 25 years ago, but it still works well in a streaming format. If you came across any one of it’s songs for the first time in a playlist, then checked out the album, you would be pleased to find out it delivers more of the same sound (in a good way).
On a completely different tip, Bon Iver’s 2007 debut For Emma, Forever Ago also makes a strong first impression. The campfire guitar strumming and intimate, raw recording quality of song one, “Flume,” quickly captures the isolated cabin environment where the album was was made. Once Justin Vernon’s wounded falsetto creeps in at the 20 second mark, we know we’re in for an emotional ride. The song ends with a 10 second silence, giving listeners enough time to recover, then returns to a similar sound palette (and vulnerable feeling) on song two, “Lump Sum,” albeit at a higher tempo and backed by a 4/4 beat to prevent the album from descending into an early despair.
Though the two albums described here occupy different sound worlds, they both tell listeners what to expect from from the first song, then follow through on that promise with the second song, while still demonstrating a range of material. Seems simple enough, right? On your own, listen to these songs in a reversed order, or start each album off from a song midway through—it’s hard to imagine them any other way.
Some artists choose an intro—a short instrumental or mood piece—for the first song of their album. I’m a fan of this approach, but a slow start is riskier in the streaming age, especially for a first album. Hit listeners with something accessible right of the bat.
Track three or four is a good time for a single. If you have a single out with some blog buzz, or just a real catchy tune, put it early in the tracklist.
Building things up
How long should a modern album be? They are no longer limited by the imposed time restrictions of physical mediums so there is more freedom here. Since streams are now counted as albums sales, there is incentive for high-profile artists to overstuff their albums, aware their fans will scramble to listen to every song, and in doing so, boost streams that help them quickly reach high chart positions. Drake’s most recent effort, the 25-track Scorpion, released June 2018, broke two records in its first week: one for total streams, the other for number of charting songs, beating out none other than the Beatles.
Elsewhere, popular artists are approaching album length more modestly. Kanye West, of all people, released a string of G.O.O.D. music albums this summer (including his own Ye, released June 2018) that all clocked in at under 30 minutes. When it comes to choosing your album length, the shorter the better. Asking listeners to stick around for more than 10 songs or 45 minutes is a stretch.
Think of your album like a book or film. The beginning sets the scene, the middle plays with expectations, and the end provides a conclusion (which I will discuss later on). By the time you have reached your album’s midway point, consider moving into more experimental or longer songs. You’ve already developed a relationship with listeners during the first part of your album and they will trust you to take them on a wilder ride during the second. A long pause, interlude, or skit can be a good way of resetting your album and listener expectations.
On Frank Ocean’s third effort, 2016’s Blonde, he included personal interludes, like a voicemail from his mom, to provide brief moments of transparency in a calculated album defined by high-production spectacle. It helps listeners feel like they are getting to know Ocean.
Laurel Halo regularly employs short improvisational pieces to break up longer album songs and showcase her eclecticism. On her third album, Dust, released 2017, she placed two-cut-and-paste collages in the first half to foreshadow the chaotic production of the second half, smoothing the transition from brighter pop songs like “Moontalk” to bizarro cuts such as “Syzygy.”
For his 1996 debut Endtroducing…, DJ Shadow used sample-based miniatures of film dialogue, psychedelia, and turntablism to either subtly suggest a change in mood or provoke a jarring shift. Half-songs, like retro diversion “Organ Donor,” are some of the most enduring moments on the album. As a unique example of album sequencing, he actually teases the now-famous organ sample two songs earlier in “Stem/Long Stem” at around three-and-a-half minutes in.
Moments like these make people excited about albums. Bury bits of treasure in your album that listeners can dig up on repeat listens.
The final act
So you’ve made it to the end of your album: how do you make it a memorable moment so listeners return to it again?
Some artists use the last song on an album to slow down and reflect. After eight songs of indie-dance on Sound of Silver, released in 2007, LCD Soundsystem frontman James Murphy brought out slow-building piano ballad “New York, I Love You But You’re Bringing Me Down” to examine his love-hate relationship with his city.
Others use the final act for a moment of celebration. At the end of his 2011 album “We Must Become the Pitiless Censors of Ourselves,” singer-songwriter John Maus went full epic with “Believe," a soaring haze of keyboards and vocals. Like the ending of a concert, here the big hit is saved for last, leaving listeners wanting more.
Whatever you chose to do, the final song on your album should enhance the themes and moods explored in it, either by contrast, excess, or absence.
Once you have a sense of the order of the songs on your album, bring the mixed versions into your DAW to arrange them. Fades and silences are two key technical tools to help album flow.
In an album setting, fades are gradual increases or decreases in sound level at the start or end of a song. A short fade-in can add drama to the start of song, and fade-outs are there to make sure glitches, reverb tails and delay echoes disappear appropriately.
You may be tempted to fade-out an entire song, but I would caution against doing this for two main reasons. One, the editing possibilities offered by DAWs make full song fade-outs seems like a lazy way out. Two, the listening experience has changed. We are regularly distracted by texts and emails, and can access huge quantities of music at anytime. A slow fade has high potential for disengaging a listener and resulting in a song skip.
If you need space between songs, use silence instead. It’s just as powerful as sound. I touched on it earlier, but silence can reset a listener’s ears after a heavy or emotional song. A longer silence can take a listener's attention away from two songs that sound similar, whereas a lack of silence between songs helps to sustain a mood.
Fades and silences are micro-edits that require a lot of focus. After editing for hours your perception of time will be distorted. Be sure to listen back to your album sequence from the perspective of a listener when your ears are fresh before sending your songs to mastering.
The whole package
Depending on the style of music you make and the journey you want listeners to take, your album’s sequencing choices will differ. Intuition can guide some of your sequencing, but song order and transitions should not be haphazard. There should be some significance behind your decisions.
Streaming has changed the way we listen to music and the way it's made. Take advantage of the freedoms offered by streaming to play with album structure in a creative way.
As you are writing your album, keep sequencing in the back of your mind. Listen to great albums that inspire you and pay attention to the sequencing. What were the tiny moments between the big songs that had the biggest impact? And why? Bring this same level of detail to your own album.