Culture Critique: Stream Trolling is a Problem

How musical artists disseminate and create their art has changed greatly over the past century. At first, in the forties and fifties, there was a great emphasis placed on creating and releasing singles non-stop, flooding the market with quickly made, two to three minute pop melodies. Artists like The Beatles, The Beach Boys, Chuck Berry and Elvis made their fortunes with this formula, along with so many others. 

Then, things shifted in the sixties and seventies, when artists created more album-oriented work, where the entire album was considered as a cohesive, artistic unit and not as a vehicle just to sell singles. Artists like The Who, Pink Floyd, David Bowie and Led Zeppelin were at the forefront of this new way of presenting music. Now, album sales were what mattered; not only were they more rewarding for the listener, but they made a whole lot more money too. Why sell a million singles for a dollar when you can sell a million albums for 10 dollars?

Selling music has largely stayed that way ever since, but now, with the advent of the internet and streaming services such as Spotify and Apple Music, we’ve entered a strange age where both of these practices are hybridized into an ethically and artistically toxic mess. Songs are haphazardly stuffed into an album with the hopes of a few songs making enough plays to constitute hundreds of thousands of album sales. Usually, these “stream trolling” albums have around twenty or thirty tracks and are often nearly two hours in length.

Luke Hinz of HotNewHipHop explains this issue at length in his article, “Stream Trolling: The Problem With Excessively Long Tracklists.” “According to the new [Recording Industry Association of America] system, 150 song streams is equal to one paid song download,” Hinz explained. “From there, ten paid song downloads equals one album download. Simply put: 1,500 song streams counts toward one album sale.” Hinz further explored this using Migos as an example, pointing to their various chart topping singles from Culture II (such as “Stir Fry” and “Narcos”) as a way for them to easily go double platinum in album sales.

This practice is as sleazy as it is manipulative. It’s a way for certain artists to find a loophole in the system and receive underserved accolades. If the system was any different, I doubt artists like Drake, Migos and Chris Brown would be experiencing an ounce of the success they have been receiving. Not only that, but I bet their fans (and in Chris Brown’s case, what little fans he has left) don’t know that they are helping them in their seedy success.

My main issue with this is how lazy this practice is. These artists are essentially just throwing their leftovers into a trash bin and feeding it to the masses. It’s an insult to the album as an art form, degrading it as just a way to earn prestige. There are albums out there that are just as long as Drake’s ninety minute Scorpion that are more artistically and musically profound then Drake’s could ever be. Despite that, these deserving albums only receive a fraction of the success and are ignored due to not drumming up enough hype. 

Artists that don’t release albums like this are left in the dust. Kanye West’s Ye was 23 minutes in length and was just seven songs long. It and it’s Wyoming Session siblings were designed to be all killer and no filler. Despite that Ye only sold 156,000 units, while Scorpion went platinum, despite the former being the superior of the two. West’s Ye was a more focused, coherent project than Drake’s bloated and unwieldy Scorpion. The stream friendly formula that Drake used on his most recent record proved to be more financially viable than West’s focused strategy.

Ultimately, this is a huge problem for the music industry. It promotes bad artistry through bloated, boring albums, and these artists manipulate their listeners to get platinum album sales through streaming singles. Hopefully this loophole will be closed soon. Maybe they can introduce a system where one complete stream of an album is the equivalent of the sale of an album? Until then, we’ll just have to endure.