Do traditional album cycles help or hinder artists? Two NME writers fight it out

The traditional album cycle of releasing an album every couple of years, then touring it, is no longer the norm; but is this a good thing?

Traditional album cycles are boring! Inject the new music into my veins ASAP – Hannah Mylrea

From 1968 to 1977 Fleetwood Mac released 11 studio albums (and the collaborative album ‘Fleetwood Mac in Chicago’, and six compilation albums). Sometimes that was two albums a year.

David Bowie‘s early output was similar, releasing 14 studio albums between 1967 (his self-titled debut) and 1980 (‘Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps)’). Prince’s output throughout his career followed a similar pattern, which felt like the norm in ‘80s and ‘90s, but when he dropped triple album ‘Lotusflow3r’ in 2009, or when he released ‘Art Official Age’ and ‘Plectrumelectrum’ on the same day in 2014, this felt more unusual and ground breaking.

And that’s because somewhere along the way in the ’90s and ’00s musicians fell victim to the dreaded “album cycle”. Instead of just releasing music when it was ready, there was a need to release an album every couple of years leaving time for months of touring, time for a summer (or two) full of international festival dates (and for bigger artists, a reason why they should headline these festival shows, apart from, y’know, being good), and time to release a handful of singles, each a few months apart.

But over the past few years artists have started to eschew these traditional album release schedules again, and it’s exciting! It’s boring being constrained by these rules, especially when it’s so easy to write, record and drop a song on Soundcloud in the course of the evening. And if it’s boring for us, it’s probably even more mind numbing for the artists.

If artists follow this outdated formula it means they then could be waiting several years before they release a song they’ve written and are really proud of. In those few years of waiting they may decide that, however brilliant this tune could be, it now doesn’t represent them as a musician, and cut it from the ten tracks they’re putting on the new album. Just think how many absolute thumpers haven’t seen the light of day because artists feel obligated to wait to release new material!

So let’s take a leaf out of Ariana Grande’s book, who’s sick of the traditional album cycle (she’s tweeted: “i love music i ain’t waiting another 2 years to drop it. i want to share it w u when it’s freshhh”), and who released two albums in six months alongside some excellent standalone singles. Or SG Lewis who released his debut album in the form of three EPs, through his  ‘Dusk, Dark, Dawn’ trilogy (each of the three EPs soundtracks a different stage of a night out). Or Flume, who said he doesn’t want to “do an album, wait a few years and tour, then do another album, then repeat,” and instead wants to “be able to make something in the day, and then play it that night,” – and who’s mixtape ‘Hi This Is Flume’ was announced the day before it was announced. Or Foals’ two part project, which sees ‘Everything Not Saved Will Be Lost’ Part 1 and Part 2 released within one year.

Artists don’t want to be constricted, consumers want more music, and traditional album cycles restrict creativity and musical growth. They mean musicians can’t record and release tunes instantaneously so are sitting on tons of songs. And they don’t allow for any real “surprise” releases.

So let’s sack ‘em off and bring the excitement back to releasing music, because really, who needs a two year album cycle?

Long live the album cycle! Our artists deserve their work and lifestyles respected – Thomas Smith

Social media has made us greedy. We’re constantly chasing a hit of dopamine via daft memes, viral videos or, in this case, brand new music. Our brains have been trained to expect new content in any shape or form, and more often than not, we get exactly what we want. The average life-span of discussion around an album, no matter how big or small, is roughly one weekend – if you’re lucky. Remember when everyone was ragging on Chance The Rapper for being, like, happy? No-one cares anymore. We’re all about Slipknot banging on bins now!

And as our appetite for content has grown larger and larger, it’s harder for anyone to be satisfied. An album every three years and a couple of tours just won’t cut it anymore. We’ve been conditioned, and quite frankly, spoilt, by the endless glut of algorithm-driven playlists to serve up new discoveries when our favourite artists take their sweet-ass time. People may want to bust the “album cycle” – but if we do, what comes next?

It’s hard to argue against some of the benefits of ditching the drawn-out process. Music revenues for artists are a pittance compared to the payouts artists like Fleetwood Mac and David Bowie may have received. Keeping an artist’s name hot on social media with a constant stream of releases is just how some survive. And more music? Well, it means more touring and more opportunities to flog merch to loyal fans. Our stars absolutely deserve a return on the art they’ve thrown themselves into.

And yet, I can’t be the only one to miss a well-thought out cycle, can I? Take IDLES, for one. Their second album ‘Joy As An Act Of Resistance’, released in August 2018, proved the making of them and they’ve become festival-season staples. It would have been easy to throw out a follow-up this summer and keep the momentum going with no end in sight.

Instead, their songs about intolerance and masculinity Brexit Britain have taken on new meanings as the political and cultural spheres develop. At the end of this year, they’ll headline London’s mammoth Alexandra Palace to cap off a career-defining run, and taking a bit of time before the next release is ready. By sticking with their cycle, ‘Joy’ has become much more than an album – it’s now encompassed a defiant movement and garnered a powerful fan community. And, if anything, the live shows appear to be getting even better.

The constant attention on artists to provide music at the drop of the hat is detrimental to the artists in ways people don’t quite appreciate. Vampire Weekend’s Ezra Koenig felt pressure from fans in the six-year wait for fourth album ‘Father Of The Bride’, which was released in May. “People tend to denigrate workaholics in their own life, but people aren’t like that with artists, they just want their artists to be psychotic workaholics,” he told NME in our recent Big Read. “You see firsthand how people take that path and rarely end up happy.”

There’s also the expense involved with making a record. For someone like Ariana Grande – who released 2018’s ‘Sweetener’ and 2019’s ‘Thank U, Next’ in a matter of months – it’s less of an issue. She worked alongside 16 producers from across the globe for ‘Thank U, Next’ with countless other collaborators helping her bring the vision to life.

For emerging musicians, getting everyone together and arranging/affording space and equipment to record music is costly. If we push musicians to spend all their time and reinvest minuscule earnings on making something brand new to satisfy fans, that becomes another barrier placed in the way of people who can afford to make music.

So long live the album and every bit of the cycle – we owe our musicians time to create at a comfortable pace and respect the work we have, not what comes next. If greed takes over, we run the risk of endangering the the album format completely.