Adele aside, Spotify is right to remove shuffle from albums

Spotify junto a unos AirPods
(Image credit: TechRadar)

Spotify has removed the shuffle button from album streaming pages - and apparently, all it took was for Adele to request that her new album be heard in the order she intended. 

Whether you believe that Spotify was really doing Adele a favor - or if the jovial Twitter exchange is part of a marketing push for the singer's first album in six years - the music streaming service is right to encourage listeners to experience albums as the artist intended. 

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Before the 1940s and the invention of the 12-inch LP (long-play) vinyl record, artists were limited to the 78 RPM gramophone record, which could only hold three to five minutes of music per side. 

Even with technology making it possible for artists to put out longer releases, it took a couple of decades for the album to take off as a concept - the careers of 50s superstars like Elvis Presley were driven primarily by single sales. 

While jazz and classical artists embraced albums much earlier, it wasn't until the release of The Beatles' Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band in 1967 that we truly entered the 'album era' - and the format endured as the main way we consumed our music until fairly recently. 

In 2019, albums sales declined by 17% year-on-year - and digital music downloads and music streaming services have a lot to answer for.

The decline of the album

Nowadays, we consume our music via playlists, with services like Spotify, Apple Music, and Tidal using a mixture of human curation and clever algorithms to create collections of singles to suit different moods, genres, or situations. 

According to a 2020 study of 8,000 people by Deezer, 54% of respondents were listening to fewer albums than they did 5-10 years ago. Think about it - when was the last time you listened to an album all the way through? When was the last time you listened to a new album from an artist you hadn't come across before?

Deezer puts this down to fans preferring to hear "a mix of tracks from different artists", as well as having too much music to choose from and busier schedules. 10% of respondents also felt that "artists don't make albums like they used to". 

Deezer may be right in saying that people prefer to mix up their music listening sessions. However, it fails to identify how Deezer, and other music streaming services, have a hand in influencing our listening habits, from making shuffling the order of tracks on an album the default listening option to making 'one-hit-wonder' singles more attractive to record labels that want to land a spot on Spotify's New Music Friday playlist.

spotify on a phone next to a laptop and a pair of headphones

(Image credit: Future Publishing)

We miss out as a result. Listen to Sgt. Pepper on shuffle, and you no longer start with the title track; this sets up the album as a live performance, with the sounds of an orchestra warming up and Paul McCartney serving as a master of ceremonies. 

As Kenneth Womack writes in his 2007 book Long and Winding Roads: The Evolving Artistry of the Beatles, the lyrics and positioning of the music as a live performance breaks the fourth wall between the artist and their audience - and that's lost if you don't listen to the album in order. 

Whether you believe that fully appreciating Adele's latest album relies so heavily on its track listing probably depends largely on how much you enjoy her music to begin with - it's certainly not being marketed as a concept album or pop opera in the same way Sgt Pepper was. 

Regardless, removing shuffle as the default way to listen to albums is a smart, and an unusually artist-friendly move from Spotify - and the company isn't exactly known for being kind to musicians, facing allegations of unfair artist compensation and supporting the practice of 'pay for play',  in which labels pay for songs to be placed on popular playlists followed by many users.

Marketing ploy or not, we're glad to see Spotify is doing something positive to encourage users to enjoy albums all the way through.

Those that do want to shuffle Adele's new album on Spotify still can, too. All you need to do is click on an album track to bring up the 'Now Playing' screen, where you can select the shuffle button yourself. 

Olivia Tambini

Olivia was previously TechRadar's Senior Editor - Home Entertainment, covering everything from headphones to TVs. Based in London, she's a popular music graduate who worked in the music industry before finding her calling in journalism. She's previously been interviewed on BBC Radio 5 Live on the subject of multi-room audio, chaired panel discussions on diversity in music festival lineups, and her bylines include T3, Stereoboard, What to Watch, Top Ten Reviews, Creative Bloq, and Croco Magazine. Olivia now has a career in PR.