Technology has always played a profound, shadowy supporting role in how we hear music. It was the brief length of the first commercially manufactured gramophone records that defined the still-standard length of the three-minute pop song. Later, seven-inch singles gave birth to the culture of jukeboxes, incentivising immediate choice in a way that might be considered a precursor to today's streaming revolution.
In the 1950s, the advent of LPs allowed the album to develop as an art form – a 40-ish minute suite to fit a 12-inch record – while cassette tapes spawned the homegrown mixtape culture in the 1980s. CDs brought more convenience and a longer runtime, presaging recorded music's sales peak during the 1990s.
The Age of Shuffle
In the early 2000s, the invention of the iPod swept that all aside, and gave birth to what we might call the "Age of Shuffle". No longer restricted to a single recorded source – or, at best, a clumsy six-disc CD changer – listeners were suddenly free to draw from endless sequential variations of their favourite tunes, at whim or at random. The album was pronounced dead, only somewhat prematurely.
And now, as streaming services unleash us from the burdens of making any choice at all, beyond a loosely defined “mood”, we enter the “Age of the Playlist”.
Too much choice
Like an almighty, time-travelling jukebox, streaming services' greatest USPs are promoting possibility. Platforms such as Anghami, Spotify, Apple Music and Tidal each stock between 20 and 50 million songs – allowing users to explore unknown genres, eras and continents with a single swipe. The listener has never had so much choice.
The problem, as some see it, is that most people don't know what to do with this newfound freedom, a conundrum that has given birth to the lazy listening fall-back: the playlist. The fact that numerous niche and unsigned artists have enjoyed overnight success after being dropped into one of Spotify's everyman playlists proves just how many are choosing to forgo making a selection – and the shadowy career-making power that sits with a few "expert curators" at Spotify HQ.
The rise of mood music
But beyond anointing tomorrow's stars, crippling record companies and dulling attention spans, streaming culture has also given a fresh rise to another curious musical trend: mood music. The most popular playlists are not those that conform to a strict genre – not Jazztronica, or Death & Grind Classics – but those grasping after a more nebulous organising principle. Among the best-followed selections on Spotify today are the vagaries of Your Favourite Coffeehouse, Have a Great Day! and Songs to Sing in the Shower – playlists that serve up satisfyingly safe background music to growing ranks of listeners who in previous eras might simply have switched on the radio.
An even stranger twist on this trend is the functional playlist, or Music to Do Other Things To.
In decades past, tunes curated to serve a particular environment or mood – "lift music", or "dinner table jazz" – were generally frowned upon as lowbrow and inferior. The kind of numbing electronic dance music that remains a gym mainstay has long been a source of derision for serious listeners.
But today the internet is awash with ready-made mixes designed to suit external activities, for audiences with little time for the music itself. Particularly popular are productivity-inspiring collections such as "Focus music", "Brain Food" and "Music to do homework to".
Step aside for Spotify
The trend is only likely to increase in this country since November's regional launch of Spotify. The world's most successful streaming app has enjoyed a tenfold increase in the number of users over the past five years and now boasts 87 million paid subscribers and 191 million overall users.
The market-leading monolith is inspiring this cultural shift in how we approach music, employing experts to curate ideal playlists to accompany activities, from running to relaxing, and from romance to road trips.
But ready-made soundtracks cherrypicked by professionals – or, heaven forbid, an algorithm – suggest a muso-troubling brand of disinterest in the origins or intent of the music itself. Today you don't need to know the name of the song, where the singer came from, or even what genre you are listening to.
Writing music for swipes
In the same way that the seven-inch record gave birth to the single, and the LP defined the album format, streaming culture is now having a profound effect on today's music-makers and facilitators. Musicians write with swipes rather than airplay in mind, and record labels pull favours for slots on lucrative playlists. But, conversely, offline musicians are pursuing this activity accompanying idea in ways that might have proved less palatable to listeners before the sudden sea change. Later this month, eclectic turntablist Kid Koala releases Music to Draw To: Io, his second album aimed at giving graphic artists and bedroom sketchers an ideally inspirational soundtrack.
Released in 2015, contemporary composer Max Richter's Sleep – an eight-hour "lullaby for our frenetic world" composed in consultation with a neurologist – has shipped 100,000 copies and inspired overnight sleep-in, pyjama-clad concerts.
As the activity you do at the same time eclipses the music itself, some fear a dilution in artistry. But playlists needn't be seen as a threat. Throughout its history, music's power, beauty and longevity has been drawn from its amorphous nature and it's precisely this malleability that has fuelled its Darwinian adaptation to new technology.
Today’s playlist generation is just the latest listening revolution in recorded sound’s turbocharged evolution – and it doubtless will not be the last.
Five of the wackiest playlists from today's streamers:
Train Station Stopover
Miss your last train home? No worries, Spotify’s ace curators have come up with a compilation tailored for that EXACT specific moment.
Mozart Classical Music for Studying, Concentration, Relaxation
Does listening to Mozart really make you smarter? More than seven million YouTubers seem to think so.
Metal for Yoga
“Death metal yoga” is apparently a thing. This Apple Music playlist may convert you.
More than 31 era-strafing hours of music ideal for getting your needles working, according to one Spotify user.
Motivational Workout Songs
Genre-straddling, fist-pumping anthems, from Eminem's Lose Yourself to Eye of the Tiger by Survivor, via Apple Music.