Why Artists Put The Best Songs on Their Albums First – Rolling Stone
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Think You Have a Hit? Make Sure It’s the First Song on Your Album

As the power of the album wanes on streaming services, sequencing matters more than ever

Billie Eilish in concert at O2 Institute, Birmingham, UK - 02 Mar 2019; Amy Harris/Invision/AP/REX/Shutterstock

Billie Eilish and 21 Savage

Jason Sheldon/REX/Shutterstock

As a songwriter and producer, Warren “Oak” Felder’s resume encompasses hits from Nicki Minaj (“Your Love”), Usher (“Good Kisser”) and Alessia Cara (“Here”). He’s been in the industry for nearly 15 years and, until 2018, he had never heard anyone say “skip rate” in the studio.

“That word was not uttered,” Felder says. But it’s become increasingly common: “Now there are conversations we all have as songwriters — ‘yeah, we just want the skip rate of this song to be super low.'”

Skip rate indicates whether listeners make it through any 30 seconds of a song — after which a stream counts for royalty purposes — in a given playlist. And data like this, which comes from the streaming services, is quietly rewiring the album-making process, especially for young artists with commercial ambitions.

The basic concern: At a time when every skip is quantified and reflected in both an artist’s public statistics — at least on YouTube and Spotify — and his or her bank account, how do you construct an album to be bulletproof against listeners’ short attention spans?

“I’ve had a million and one conversations about the whole album sequencing thing,” says Barry “Hefner” Johnson, co-founder of the management company Since the 80s, which includes 21 Savage and J.I.D. on its roster. “This really affects new and younger artists that are trying to capture the attention of an audience. If you don’t, they’re gonna move on to something else too quick.”

“Here are the numbers; numbers don’t lie.”

Previous generations of artists never realized how good they had it. If fans bought Marvin Gaye’s tour de force, I Want You, and only listened to the first song before moving on, Gaye was none the wiser — and, just as important, none the poorer. What’s more, Gaye’s label did not receive information the week after release indicating that fans had decided to skip track three, the “After the Dance” instrumental, en masse because they preferred tracks with vocals.

That’s not to say that the musical medium of choice hasn’t always dictated, to some degree, the creation of content. Concept albums were not possible before LPs were popular. The adoption of the 12″ vinyl single in the Seventies allowed for the recording of longer songs with more distance between soft and loud, paving the way for remixes and transforming dance music.

But the feedback loop between the medium and the music transmitted within is now instantaneous and ruthlessly precise. “Data comes back [from YouTube] and it’s like, ‘videos that have intros longer than 20 seconds have less playback value,'” adds Alexander “AE” Edwards, vp of A&R at Def Jam. “So if an artist is going to start a video off with a 30-second scene of them running in the bank and robbing the bank, it’s like, ‘people might not watch this because they don’t want to sit through 30 seconds of no music.’ We have those conversations within the label and with the artists: ‘Maybe the intro has to be 15 seconds; this is why; here are the numbers; numbers don’t lie.'”

When it comes to albums, the current emphasis for younger acts is steering prospective listeners through the project’s early stretches with a white-knuckle grip. “People are definitely putting the focus tracks towards the front of the album to make sure those get the proper shot at having a chance to stick,” says Ezekiel Lewis, executive vp of A&R at Epic Records.

Johnson has seen the same trend. “Put the best six songs up front, make it top heavy to keep ’em glued in for a longer listen,” he explains. “I remember a conversation that me and No I.D. had a couple months ago. He was saying, nowadays, if you can make it past the first six songs, people almost deem your album a classic.”

In theory, front-loading an album has an attention-holding effect — “If people don’t appreciate the top of the album, they won’t even get to the bottom of it,” Lewis says — but there’s also a psychological aspect to it. Playlist-listening is already out-performing album-listening in surveys, so “people are positioning their albums to feel like playlists,” explains Henny Yegezu, who manages Goldlink and Smino.

“Think of a Spotify or Apple playlist: Positioning matters,” Yegezu continues. “The Number One song on the playlist is something you’re gunning for. The way you gauge success is how far up and down you are. [Placing big songs first on an album is] adjusting to the customer and how they consume the music [now].”

There may also be a commercial advantage to placing singles first. To the extent that fans still start an album by listening to the first track, putting singles near the top of the album is a way to give them a boost on the charts, since streams count towards the rankings. “You see the intro always at the top of the streaming numbers the first week when their album is released,” says Dallas Martin, svp of A&R at Atlantic Records. “Everybody is listening to the first song automatically.” So when 21 Savage starts I Am > I Was with “A Lot,” that’s “for sure a strategy” to help it get more attention. (It’s also worth noting that “A Lot” is great, and worthy of extra attention.)

Some in the music industry caution against over-reliance on data. “Skip rates are a funny thing for a few reasons,” explains Danny Rukasin, who co-manages Billie Eilish. “You’re looking at an aggregate — every single listener’s skip rate in a given playlist. But some artists have core fans that are going to listen no matter what. Those are the people that you should care about. You obviously care about the mass audience as well, but when you’re trying to pull it all into one ratio, I think you’re missing a lot of details you should be paying attention to.”

“Attention spans are so short, if you don’t catch people right off the bat, they might not hear the hits at the end.”

But when data is in your face all the time — and labels now pride themselves on their spreadsheet-reading abilities — it’s not easy to ignore. “We have tons of conversations about skip rates,” Martin says. “Soon as that first week data comes, we check to see what’s really talking back.”

There is one group of commercially-inclined acts that gets to rise above these conversations: Stars. “[Ariana Grande] already made the money back on the album [from the gargantuan success of her first two singles] — people like her, who are established, can make albums how they want to,” Johnson says. Interestingly, Grande back-loaded her new album, placing all three singles at the end.

There are a few other singers in her orbit. Rukasin says Eilish is not taking any skip-rate calculations into account as she finishes her debut album; Eilish has amassed a fervent following over the past two years, to the point where she is one of the only singers with singles that can stream like Grande’s. Then there are the usual suspects: “Beyonce, Rihanna, Kendrick — They do what they want,” Johnson adds. “You’re gonna listen anyway.” This suggests that the Album As Statement is now primarily a luxury, a plaything for the mega-rich.

But even seemingly invincible stars can’t stop listener attrition over the course of an album. “March 14,” the 25th and final track on Drake’s Scorpion, is the marathon-double-album’s least-listened-to song, according to data from BuzzAngle, a company that charts music consumption. The same goes for “Coffee Bean,” the closing song on Travis Scott’s Astroworld.

This puts young acts in a tough position. “I had this argument with the label, Dreamville and Interscope, about the album from Earthgang [a hip-hop duo who signed with J. Cole’s Dreamville Records in 2017],” Johnson says. “We had this whole conceptual album with skits and everything, and we had some of our biggest songs at the end of the album. They were just like, ‘what if people don’t get to the back of the album? Attention spans are so short, if you don’t catch people right off the bat, they might not hear the hits at the end. So how about putting the bigger songs up front.'” (In an email, the A&R at Interscope who works with Earthgang said he did not remember this meeting.)

Yegezu understands the strike-early mindset. “With baby acts, the reality is that the idea [of a concept album] might go over fans’ heads,” he says.

“Concept albums still exist, and there are always exceptions to the general rule,” Lewis adds.

“But in the era of tracks, put your best foot forward.”

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