The Rise Of The Playlist And How It Became King


“The making of a good compilation tape is a very subtle art, many do’s and don’ts. First of all, you’re using someone else’s poetry to express how you feel: This is a delicate thing. […] The making of a great compilation tape, like breaking up, is hard to do and takes ages longer than it might seem. You gotta kick it off with a killer, to grab attention. Then you got to take it up a notch, but you don’t wanna blow your wad, so then you got to cool it off a notch. There are a lot of rules.”

These words were spoken by Rob Gordon, John Cusack’s character in the 2000 record store rom-com High Fidelity, a character who has been quoted endlessly by music snobs in the 18 years since the movie was released.

Some of what he says still rings true: Making a mix specifically for somebody is a vulnerable and personal experience for both parties. As compilation tapes have been replaced by the streaming playlist, though, the flaws of Gordon’s philosophy have worn deeper, much like the grooves of the records he plays as delusions of grandeur dance in his head, behind the pensive, self-important look on his face.

To Gordon, musical taste was a pissing contest, and a mixtape the ultimate display of who is holier than thou. In 2018, that doesn’t feel right. Music — the good, the bad, the popular, the obscure — is only ever a click, swipe, tap, or even voice command away. Music belongs to the people, and today, it’s streaming playlists that are bringing it to them.

The playlist is king. How did we get here?

Between 1999 and 2009, revenue from music sales plunged from $14.6 billion to $6.3 billion, a drop of well over half. This was largely due to rampant music piracy, but now those lost album sales have been at least partially replaced with streaming music. The emergence of platforms like Spotify and Apple Music shook up the industry so much that in 2014, Billboard had to change how they tracked album sales by introducing the album-equivalent unit, which takes plays on streaming services into account. Two years after that, Chance The Rapper’s Coloring Book mixtape became the first release to place on the Billboard 200 as a streaming-exclusive album.