Track Order in an MP3 World

Up until a few years ago the most popular unit of musical consumption was the album. On albums individual songs were components in a larger artistic vision, and artists very thoughtfully chose the order in which they played. But in today’s MP3 world, where consumers have the ability to cherry-pick individual songs, is track order still even relevant? Why yes…yes it is.

The B Side
The dawn of popular music was actually quite similar to today in some respects. In the ‘50’s the “single” song ruled. With the ‘60’s and the advent of album-oriented-radio (AOR), artists began to combine songs into albums, and the album became an art form all its own. The dominant format of the time, the LP, was two-sided and forced artists to arrange albums in two halves – almost like two acts of a play. As a result, songs were ordered as a musical journey, with an ebb and flow.

During the AOR era an album’s best songs often appeared on the side two. Two great examples: “Beat It” and “Billy Jean”, from Michael Jackson’s Thriller, and “Back in Black” and “You Shook Me All Night Long”, from AC-DC’s Back in Black. Both are tracks 1 and 2 from side two of their respective albums.

Have you ever noticed that when you play the above CD’s today it feels a little awkward that their benchmark tunes are in the middle of the track list? That’s because the newer CD format lends itself to a different song-order philosophy. CD’s don’t need to be flipped. As a result, artists ordering songs for CD’s put their best songs right at the front of their albums – often in a “baseball lineup”, with the biggest hitters in positions 1 through 4. Most everything beyond track 5 is the "B" material.

The A Side
As physical album sales wane and sales of single songs online becomes the standard, why continue to worry about track order? Because everywhere your songs appear, be it iTunes, ReverbNation, MySpace, or SoundClick, they appear in a list. And just like the CD format, what’s at the top of the list is what people will listen to first, and most. You want to put your best foot forward.

This is especially true for bands or songwriters creating websites to sell themselves and promote their songs. When trying to catch a publisher or promoter’s ear you don’t have time to arrange songs in a creative journey of tempos, keys, and moods. You need to come out swinging by putting the great stuff right up front. Sad but true: songs past track 4 in a playlist are almost never listened to.

Another aspect of human behavior to keep in mind is that people are attracted to things that other people are attracted to. Nothing attracts a crowd like a crowd, right? On websites that display “counters” you can take advantage of this by posting your most-listened-to songs a bit lower in the track order, and putting new songs that you want to get feedback on in the number 1 or 2 slot. People will still listen to the popular songs simply because they display a high hit-count, while also being more likely to check out the new stuff.

The Run-Off Groove
I really hope that as this new era of digital music distribution evolves there will still be bands for whom the album remains the primary artistic expression. For me music is most enjoyable in this context. Songwriters achieve greater creative depth and scope when they aren't writing every song to be a hit single. Listening to one track from Abbey Road is not the same as listening to the album in its entirety.

*Photo by JohnBurke


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