From the Archives: The Dying Art of the Playlist

Originally published July 13, 2021

Editor’s Note: I went to see the Dead & Company last night and didn’t have the foresight to prepare something for today. Sorry for phoning it in, but I assure you the concert was worth it. Review coming soon,

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Picture this: It’s 2005. You’re recently sixteen, the owner of a shiny new driver’s license and a car with a tape deck. You also have an iPod and some crazy contraption that allows the iPod to be played in your car by somehow connecting said iPod to the tape deck. For the past three days you have been on iTunes, taking all of the songs you downloaded from Kazaa and Limewire and methodically, thoughtfully organizing them into playlists. The playlists have funny names. Rainy Day. Road Trip. Sunny Afternoon. Morning. Party Music. Slow Jamz (always with a “z”). Instrumental Mood. Golden Oldies. Indie (which, for some reason, was the Dave Matthews Band?).

And you actually listen to those playlists, track-for-track. If it’s a sunny afternoon and you’re out driving, you put on your Sunny Afternoon playlist, roll the windows down, and turn the volume WAAAYYYYYY up. It’s beautiful. It’s one less thing to think about. It adds some consistency to an otherwise unpredictable world. Once you have a playlist just about memorized, you can add a whole new dimension by just hitting “shuffle” instead of playing the list as it is written. And those days are gone.

Wax Nostalgic

That’s my story, at least. I miss playlists. I miss the old iPods that were just for music (and the occasional episode of The Office). I don’t miss the tape deck or the weird contraption, but I really do miss the iPod and playlists. Why do I miss these things?

For one thing, that was something I was always interested in. I love music. I listen to a lot of music across a lot of different genres. My iTunes has songs from something like 91 different years on it, ranging from the late1920s (Harry McClintock’s “Big Rock Candy Mountain,” 1928) to this year (The Black Keys’s Delta Kream, which I discussed in a podcast recently). I listen to jazz, classical, rap, pop, country, rock, blues, fusion, funk, disco, folk, and even some electronica-type stuff. I love music.

Evolution of the iPods | Apple Revolution

For another thing, it was something I had control of. You remember your teenage years. You don’t have much control over anything that’s going on around you, really. You probably aren’t paying bills, you don’t have your days free because of school, and you are generally at the mercy of several adults. For that reason it is important to take control of the things you can, and for me that was music.

And finally, teenage years are filled with all sorts of emotions. That’s not groundbreaking, but the fact that you’re generally feeling those emotions if not for the first time, certainly at an amplified level, is a little groundbreaking, at least to the kids living it. Being sad at 12 versus being heartbroken at 17 are completely different levels of sadness. Everything is new, everything feels like it’s in a bubble, you’re figuring out who you are and who everyone else is, and everything just feels very intense. Because of that, at least in my theory, you make very strong connections with things like movies, television, and music. This means that the playlists tend to be well thought out and come with plenty of strong emotional memories even years later.

And that’s all gone now.

Get Off My Lawn

Warning: I’m about to sound like a very grouchy old man. Pandora and Spotify have ruined playlists. The iPhone has ruined playlists. Crappy pop music has ruined playlists. And the new music industry based around streaming singles instead of albums has ruined playlists. Don’t worry. I’ll cover each of these in turn.

Pandora Unveils “Thumbprint Radio” For People Who Like Variety | TechCrunch

Pandora and Spotify started the ruination. Pandora, hard as it may be to believe, has been around in its current form since around 2005. I remember people listening to it on the school computers when I was in high school. I also remember school computers, which aren’t much of a thing anymore. But Pandora and Spotify began the ruination of music-listening creativity. Pandora and Spotify allow a person to pick a song or artist or whatever, then just generates a playlist based on that. And for the record, I think that’s awesome. I love the idea of that. It exposes people to new music and allows people to hear things they wouldn’t hear otherwise. And yeah, I know Spotify allows you to create a playlist now, but it’s not the same. The point is that Pandora and Spotify took the thought out of listening to music.

The iPhone has ruined playlists a little bit, too. Remember when iPods were their own things? Remember when your phone was just for calling (and maybe texting if you’re around my age) and your iPod was for music? But then the iPhone came along and music and phone became one. The music became a sideshow to the phone. For the first time, a phone had easily navigable Internet, crazy texting ability, apps like that stupid Zippo one that just served the purpose of…looking…like a lighter? But the music? The music was just something else on the phone. It became less special, and people quit putting as much thought into the music they had.

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Crappy pop music has ruined playlists by being crappy pop music. Most pop music is crappy, but crappy pop is just about all that people hear on the radio anymore aside from the classic rock/country stations. Even the indie and hard rock stations mostly play crap. I heard an Imagine Dragons song on an indie station the other day, and about ten minutes later I heard the same song on the hard rock station, and then the next day I heard the same song on KISS FM that was being piped into an Ace Hardware I was in. Imagine Dragons suck, and they are a crossover suck-cess; they suck across at least three genres. But the point is that the radio plays crap, and people don’t have to buy the album to hear the hits as much as they used to.

Which brings me to my last point: the music industry has ruined playlists. Not all that long ago, if I wanted to own a pop song, I had to go to Town East Mall, walk to the Sam Goody, and pay money for a tape or CD of the album that happened to include that hit. Don’t laugh, but I can remember getting a Matchbox Twenty album (More Than You Think You Are) just because I had heard “Unwell” on KISS FM and liked it. Then it turned out I liked the whole album. It was awesome. But now everything is based on streaming singles and there are plenty of artists who no longer even make albums. That means those artists aren’t even given you the opportunity to discover other music by them. That’s wild, right?

How Does That Ruin Playlists Though?

A fair question. Here’s how all of that ruins playlists: Playlists are supposed to be things that are made with great care. The songs have to mean something and contribute to the overall motif or theme or mood or whatever. If you just throw songs together as a hodgepodge, that’s not really a playlist. That’s just filler. That’s just a radio station or just hitting “shuffle” on your whole library.

But Spotify and Pandora have taken that away by taking the brainwork out of it. The iPhone made music a sideshow and just one more pedestrian feature of a truly amazing machine. This means people didn’t want to put in the work to make a playlist because it was always right there. You could put whatever you want on, including the creation of a new playlist, on the fly. There’s no time for thought. Crappy new music means younger kids aren’t making playlists, and the music industry has been so scientifically commercialized that there’s not point in making a whole album because the singles sell better. This means the artists aren’t able to be as creative and the fans don’t have the chance to hear anything dynamic from that artist.

Unnatural Selection

How listening to music has changed - CBBC Newsround

Playlists were the natural successors of mix tapes. I grew up with mix tapes. Of course, we were limited to whatever came on the radio when we were recording with actual tapes And we were further limited by the space. Most CDs only held 80 minutes of music at the most, and while that’s much longer than the average album, it’s not adaptable to anything longer. If you have a six-hour road trip, that’s 360 minutes, which is four and a half CDs. Or, it’s some of an 8-hour playlists. Or whatever. You get the point.

But now playlists are the victims of patricide. The idea of streaming music and having some algorithm do all the work for you killed the thoughtful playlist.

Look, I’m all for Pandora and Spotify and even just using your Amazon Echo to play music randomly. A lot of times when I’m exercising I’ll go to the Alexa app on my phone and say “Alexa, play music by John Prine and similar artists.” And over the course of my workout it’s almost guaranteed I will hear at least two songs I’ve never heard before, and about once a week or so I’ll hear some artists I’ve never heard of. And I love it.

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But there are also plenty of times when I want to hear a playlist. I have a playlist for cleaning the house. I have another one for driving at night alone. I have another one for yardwork, one for reading stuff for work (mostly jazz), one for reading high-brow books (mostly classical), and one for reading easy-to-read stuff like action novels (mostly video game soundtracks). I even have a playlist specifically for driving to a sporting event in which I am participating (mostly the same playlist I’ve had since my pre-game playlist in ninth grade).

It’s easier than ever to hear new music, but it seems like it’s harder than ever to listen to music you already know. I’m not trying to go backwards or stop time, but I just want to advocate for the concept of playlists. I sincerely hope that if you’re reading this you take the time to make a playlist for something. Even a quick one for cooking or taking a shower. But take some time to really appreciate the music you have today.

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