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Friday 26 November 2021

Spotify will do anything for the mighty Adele. Giles Smith will not


Catching what seems to be the national mood fairly broadly at the moment, Spotify’s Twitter account purred to Adele recently: “Anything for you”.

Anything, in this case, meant removing, at Adele’s request, the shuffle facility from the page with her new album on it. “We don’t create albums with so much care and thought into our track listing for no reason,” Adele herself tweeted. “Our art tells a story and our stories should be listened to as we intended. Thank you Spotify for listening.”

So, final score: Art 1 Shuffle Button 0, a small victory for the purity of the artist’s album-length vision – and possibly even a pyrrhic one. We punters are still free to lift out individual tracks, copy them to playlists of our own devising and shuffle them until we drop. But a point has been made and we will know, as we do so, that Adele is deeply disappointed in us for ignoring all her “care and thought.”

Nevertheless, it was, perhaps, a little surprising to find shuffling quite so high on a list of things a leading recording artist could reasonably hold against Spotify. The world’s most dominant music-streaming platform could easily be felt to stimulate far worse listening habits than the occasional desire to auto-jumble somebody’s carefully organised set of songs. There’s the manner in which, for example, its frictionless abundance enables glib and impatient browsing. (The pre-Spotify me would have been appalled at the speed and peremptoriness with which I sampled, judged and dismissed an entire new Sting album the other day.) Or there’s its eerie shepherding of one’s tastes by opaque algorithms, or the way it facilitates, via its app, the straining of expensively recorded music through cheap phone speakers.

Also, this is a facility which bulk-delivers music as pure aural product with the scantiest of credits for the people behind it. Good luck finding out on Spotify who, for example, played the bass on Adele’s album, or who arranged the strings. In a way, Spotify stocks music the way that Woolworth’s used to. It’s on the shelves, but you aren’t really expecting anyone in there to tell you anything about it.

And that’s before we even mention the very live issue of how – and, more particularly, how little – Spotify pays artists.

Yet shuffling was where Adele chose to send her formidable tanks – thereby reawakening a long dormant identity crisis which has hovered over pop albums since the 1960s, when the “long player” form truly came into its own. Because what actually is an album? A loosely bound collection of songs or a carefully coordinated and fully interdependent statement? A serious play or a haphazard variety show? A finished wall or a box of bricks?

In that context it was perhaps mildly surprising to find Adele coming down so heavily on the side of the concept album. Indeed, art-rock purists might even argue that Adele lost her right to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with them when she released a single in advance of her new album (‘Easy on Me’, track two, as it turned out) and then, two days before release day, posted a video of herself previewing a second song (‘To Be Loved’, track 11), suggesting that her larger project could, in fact, be broken into smaller pieces and heard out of sequence if she needed it to be.

Indeed, those same purists might well suggest that Adele should get back to us when she is ready to go full Led Zeppelin/Pink Floyd in this cause. (Both those acts, among other progressives, spent the 70s propounding the high-minded belief that chiselling 7-inch singles from 12-inch albums was philistinism on a par with Michelangelo deliberately snapping an arm off one of his statues.)

In reality, though, is a little light shuffling so bad – least of all if conducted in the privacy of one’s own sitting room or car? (And, on that subject, we’ll wait to see if Adele is serious enough about this purge to send an electrician round to disable the shuffle button on my 15-year-old CD player.) There is a pleasure in hearing familiar songs in an unfamiliar order. It’s a thin pleasure, it’s true, but in the past it has provided this writer with a vital justification for buying greatest hits albums by beloved artists. (“I already have all these songs,” one was able to think, as one headed sheepishly for the counter, “but not in this particular order”.)

And are not the very best pop concerts ones in which an act basically puts its repertoire on shuffle and smacks us with the big hits when we’re not quite expecting them? Which is why the contemporary vogue for converting arena tours into heritage listening parties (see The Eagles play the Hotel California album in full!) feels so inherently musty. What happened to surprise?

In any case, was anyone intending to shuffle Adele’s new album at the first time of listening, or at any point before becoming slightly tired of it? It seems unlikely. Whereas very many listeners are clearly bent on jumping straight to the best bits, which they can still do, and which Spotify still openly encourages with its “Popular” top five list, which is the first thing a browser sees on an artist’s page. At the time of writing, Adele’s Popular list is five tracks from 30, in the order (look away, Adele): track two, track five, track six, track three, track seven.

Perhaps we can agree that the order of songs on an album matters up to a point, but that it probably doesn’t pay to be too fussy about it. Probably my favourite double album of all time, Stevie Wonder’s Songs in the Key of Life, was, for no reason I have ever understood, pressed on vinyl so that the first disc held side one and side four, and the other held side two and side three, additionally complicating playing the album in its intended order and, actually, ensuring that, until the CD came out eight years later, I pretty well never had.

“Our stories should be listened to as we intended,” Adele maintained, but unfortunately that’s not a demand that she or any other artist gets to make. And as it happens, that’s a fact about art and its consumption which is especially transparent on Spotify. Consider the treatment meted out on that platform to the famous 16-minute, eight-song suite on side two of The Beatles’ Abbey Road album. At the time of writing, the third song from the end of that medley, ‘Golden Slumbers’, has been streamed a fairly impressive 61 million times. Yet ‘Carry That Weight’, which directly follows it, somehow loses a third of that audience at the join – just 41 million streams are so far registered. By the time ‘The End’ starts, the audience has shrunk again, this time to 28 million, for an aggregate loss of 33 million streams over those last three movements. Would Lennon and McCartney ever have predicted they would one day empty a room in this manner?

As for McCartney’s throw-away album-closing coda, ‘Her Majesty’, the 20 seconds of silence that precede it appear on Spotify to promote an almost total digital walk-out. Only just over 186,000 listens had been recorded at the time of writing. Contrast George Harrison’s ‘Here Comes the Sun’ which dwarfs the rest of the album with 741 million streams. The people seem to be speaking fairly loudly here. But would the artist be especially keen to hear what they’re saying?

It’s a parallel tale with Adele and 30. Early days, of course, but, for all her noble campaigning against the shuffle button, the available data does not yet indicate that listeners are finding the time and patience to attend to Adele’s new album as the uninterruptible 58-minute statement that she maintains that it is. “Our art tells a story,” as she said, but at the time of writing, chapter five of that story (‘Oh My God’), with 26 million streams, has had 10 million more reads than chapter six (‘Can I Get It’) which has had five million more reads than chapters eight, nine and ten.

It goes without saying that the consuming public has never automatically been a great respecter of artists’ intentions. But if the art isn’t making those intentions clear and unignorable, it’s normally wisest to assume the problem is with the art rather than with the consuming public. The boldest strike Adele could make against shuffling would be to release an album that nobody wants to shuffle or could even conceive of shuffling. Otherwise, let the people shuffle, surely, because they will in any case.

Mind you, if Adele thinks shuffling is bad, wait until she finds out what people are doing to her music in karaoke bars.