Here’s My Greatest Fear for Music of the Future–and It’s All Your Fault

Sorry about the click-baity headline, but I really think it’s time we talked about an abyss with which music is flirting–especially pop music.

Notice how so much of today’s pop music sounds the same? Songs are structured the same way with multiple hooks and catchy beats that have the sugary hit of candy but with the same evanescent pleasure. Consume, enjoy, discard, repeat. We’ve been moving inexorably towards this assembly-line sameness for the last ten years or so, a process that’s been driven almost entirely by behaviours that have their roots in the middle 80s.

When CDs players began to catch on, one of the most addictive buttons was the one that allowed you to instantly skip to the next track from the remote control. No more getting up to move the needle across the LP to the next track or fast-forwarding the cassette. A quick *click* and you instantly avoided boredom, the results of a bad first impression or unfamiliarity. The skip button became indispensable as we embraced the idea that life was too short to listen to music we didn’t (initially) care about.

Here’s the problem with this convenience: sometimes we need repeated unintentional or unwanted exposure to a song or sound before the penny drops and we go “Ah! I get it now!” The best example is modern jazz, a form of music often so complex that it’s impossible to appreciate it upon first listen. It’s only on repeated listening that we begin to understand what’s going on and what the artist is trying to say. Appreciating certain types of music requires effort on the part of the listener. The skip button removes that responsibility and burden. Don’t like something? Just skip it!

You know you do it. I do. Guilty as charged.

The ability to skip songs has followed us into the era of streaming, and this is when things begin weird. Data collected by Spotify says that a full one-quarter of streamed songs are skipped in the first five seconds.

Looking closer, we see that almost 30% of streamers skip a song within the first 10 seconds and over 35% are gone by the end of the first 30 seconds. This is actually having a massive effect on how songs are written and produced.

How so? For a stream to count as a sale and for royalties to be paid out, it has to play for at least 30 seconds. Labels, songwriters and producers are therefore incentivized to create songs that grab a listener right out of the gate. GQ puts it this way:

Most listeners will abandon anything too jarringly different before then, so there’s an incentive for artists to draw on a small pool of bankable writers, producers and styles. “I call it the shit-click factor,” says Masterton. “If a record is too challenging, then people will say, ‘What’s this? It’s shit,’ and click onto the next one. There used to be room on the charts for something dynamic and exciting such as the Arctic Monkeys. I can’t see the circumstances right now where that could happen.”

This effect is most glaring when one looks at the Top 40 chart where sonic similarities (chorus at the beginning followed by hooks aplenty) are more and more prevalent. The result is a sad homogeneity that is, well, boring.

So far, this situation is mostly restricted to pop songs, but what if this attitude were to extend to other genres? As streaming continues to be adopted by more and more people–and as artists struggle to get paid for their work and therefore become more determined to keep us listening for more than that 30-second cut-off–will this mould more and more songwriting going forward?

Maybe not. But it’s worth observing, don’t you think?  Just in case, though, you might want to lay off that skip button a little.

Alan Cross

is an internationally known broadcaster, interviewer, writer, consultant, blogger and speaker. In his 30+ years in the music business, Alan has interviewed the biggest names in rock, from David Bowie and U2 to Pearl Jam and the Foo Fighters. He’s also known as a musicologist and documentarian through programs like The Ongoing History of New Music.

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