The Worst Part of the Streaming Era — for Artists and Fans

You haven’t fully experienced an album until you’ve held it in your hands.
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Streaming era, the worst part, 2020

Playing London rhymer Kano’s latest album, Hoodies All Summer, on my turntable, I was reminded of the power of a full and well-thought-out album experience. Sitting with well-designed album art can uplift your understanding of a record’s themes, and deepen your relationship to them. Interacting with an album in the physical adds both sight and touch to the artist’s toolbox. Kano did not take either element for granted while crafting the vinyl release of Hoodies.

From the first listen, Hoodies All Summer commands our attention. The album paints dire portraits of an abandoned society but refuses to give up the idea that the “ends” can someday be a better place for all those living there right now. It contains many of the chopped vocal samples and jittery drum patterns one might associate with grime, but mostly trades its electronic melodies for understated piano and string arrangements.

By the time penultimate track and bonafide grime banger “Class of Deja” hits, Kano has fully immersed listeners in a compelling portrait of all the circumstances that birthed its genre. On the next song, “SYM,” the final track on the album, Kano tells us, “If we don’t hold each other down, we won’t make it. These are words that resonate deep within you.

Hoodies All Summer is a fantastic body of work. Still, it wasn’t until I held that album in my hands that I felt I was able to experience the album as Kano intended truly.

The call for solidarity on Hoodies’ final song is mirrored in its cover: A single black and white photograph, unaccompanied by a name or title, looking up at a group of children putting their palms together. Flipping over the record, we don’t find a tracklist, but rather a portion of the lyrics for “Teardrops,” which give the album its title:

In love and war / All is fair where Im from / The weak wont last / A week in shoes like our ones / When it rains it pours / Hoodies all summer / Cause teardrops from the sky / Only seem to fall on you and I

Removing the first vinyl from its outer sleeve reveals another, more disturbing cover. Here, a youth lays slain on the concrete, his body distorted, blood trickling down, smudging the album’s tracklist on the backside. Without warning, Kano confronts us with the violent reality that birthed his poetry. Upon removing the second piece of vinyl, we find a printed inner sleeve, which features photographs of those same children depicted on the cover, playing in the streets of their neighborhood with toy guns.

Children are playing games, but around the corner, there could a dead body. And their playacting is already tinged with violence. How long can they afford to maintain their innocence in an environment like this? The photography is as beautiful as it is tragic, and it is against this backdrop that Kano’s story plays out in full.

The carefully crafted order in which the photography of Hoodies All Summer is presented reminds me of a 25-year-old album which also smartly crafted the staging of its artwork: Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers).

enter-the-wu-36-chambers

When Wu-Tang Clan released their debut album on November 9, 1993, nary a soul outside of Staten Island could identify a single member of the 10-man outfit. The cover, which keeps their identities hidden, features the crew members—we assume—lunging at the spectator. It moves towards us with the same ferocity present in their rhymes. The Wu were cyphers, unknown forces with a dense vocabulary packed to the gills with their mystic mixture of Eastern philosophy, Five Percent Nation terminology, Shaw Brothers kung fu movie lore, and Shaolin slang. Their rhymes were intoxicating, but you needed to immerse yourself within them to have all 36 chambers reveal themselves.

The group strengthened the effect of all this worldbuilding with the experience they provided fans when it came time to remove the record, tape, or CD from its sleeve or casing. The inner artwork features a single recognizable photo of the Clan’s members. As the crew unmasks themselves through their lyrics, consumers are literally unmasking the group members. The physical act of unpacking the record works in tandem with the act of mentally unpacking the content. There’s incredible strength in offering listeners that experience.

In the case of Wu-Tang Clan and Kano, the album art and packaging became a part of the full album experience. The streaming era, however, isn’t wholly to blame for these exceptions to the digital rule—it only exacerbated the condition. According to Livia Tortella, a former executive VP of marketing and creative media at Atlantic Records, the compact disc began the devaluation.

“We were living for so long with the CD cover art space after vinyl went away that we lost that feel of a great tactile, creative experience,” Tortella says. “Something got lost when you had to crack open the plastic CD with all the marketing stickers on it.”

Tortella’s comments were made in response to Apple’s iTunes LP format, launched on September 9, 2009, to much music industry fanfare. Apple designed iTunes to simplify the download process and to offer its customers a more immersive experience. Unfortunately, despite supplanting once industry leader Best Buy as the number one music retailer in the United States, the click-to-purchase mechanism failed miserably to replicate anything close to resembling the experience of purchasing a physical product. Less than ten years later, Apple killed off the iTunes LP in March 2018.

Of course, tactile experience isn’t a necessity for an album to succeed, or even for an album cover to work as the artist intends. Plenty of designs translate almost as well to screens as they do to a vinyl or CD cover. For instance, take the bright, almost-neon colors and instantly recognizable daisy-age iconography of De La Soul’s seminal classic Three Feet High and Rising. Or the afro-donning child on Biggie’s Ready To Die, or the sleek red and green contours of a female figure on a pitch-black background of A Tribe Called Quest’s The Low End Theory. No matter how big or small the rendering, these images communicate the ideas behind them.

The same thing can’t be said for Tribe’s third studio album, Midnight Marauders. Portraits of their peers in the rap game, at the time, form a wallpaper behind that familiar red, black, and green female figure, but to work optimally, they need to be recognizable. In a larger, printed format, the cover is undeniable. But on your phone’s screen, the background becomes a visual clutter.

Kano’s Hoodies All Summer suffers the same fate. The children joining palms on the cover is a striking image, a beautiful photograph, but its relevance to the album is only apparent given the full context of the accompanying artwork. Diving into the album with its photography and staging is such a moving experience; it strengthened my appreciation of Hoodies to a degree I had not expected and momentarily forgot was even possible.

The streaming era is, in many ways, a blessing for music consumers. I likely wouldn’t have even come across Kano’s project if not for an algorithmic recommendation made by my DSP. The ease with which we can sample an unending ocean of music is unparalleled. But the full gamut of senses available to artists is no longer available. No longer can artists rely on physical objects as a supporting act of their work.

You haven’t fully experienced an album until you’ve held it in your hands. 

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