Not that long ago, I had a conversation with someone on how I felt that streaming music services were changing the way people perceived music. My argument was that with ever-shortening attention spans and an ever-increasing amount of music, songs have less time than ever to find appeal for us. If a track doesn’t grab us within 30, 20, 15, 10, 5 seconds, we hit the skip button.
Go on. Prove to me I’m wrong. The next time you’re listening to a music stream, take note of how long it takes for you to skip to the next song. And hey, I’m just as guilty as anyone. But back to my conversation.
“How is this consumer behaviour–this impatient attitude towards music–affecting how music is written, produced and performer? Are the hooks coming earlier? Is there a particular emphasis on rhythm? Do we get to the chorus faster? And what about the fact that most streaming music services won’t pay out to the rights holder unless you stick with the song for at least 30 seconds?”
Think about it. Songwriter and performers have to struggle even hard to get and hold our attention. How is this changing music? The Independent has a terrific article on the subject.
In songs, we get new, and repeated, information doled out to us in an engaging way that makes it stick in our heads. We learnt language like this – we sing the ABCs – and, in many ways, pop songs are like nursery rhymes for adults (“A, B, C/ It’s easy as 1, 2, 3/ As simple as do, re, mi/ A, B, C/ 1, 2, 3/ Baby you and me” – The Jackson Five). They both seek to satisfy us on a basic, neurological level.
But, in watching the industry disassemble and recombine, I’m reminded of how much the delivering technology has also been at play:
– Song length was affected by the amount a wax roll could hold.
– Song intros were a certain length so DJs could give call-out letters, traffic and weather.
– Song length has been a determining factor in radio airplay (too long = no play).
– The LP limited the amount of material that could be released; the CD expanded it, in some cases beyond what an artist had to say.
– From a fidelity standpoint, the MP3 was a huge step down, but this was a function of the “pipes” (the means of transmission) that could get the music to the listener. Larger pipes meant that things such as Tidal are possible, but only after the technology had been figured out. Whether or not the service takes root, song quality is affected (depending on what you’re listening on, of course)
There are many more examples of technology influencing song form, of course. But it’s crazy to witness the hangover from previous technologies that now are being declared dead. For instance, if the CD is dead/dying rapidly, why are people still making 10-song buckets of three-minute songs? Well, some aren’t, that’s true, but the rethinking has not yet taken hold in a fully fledged way. Most of my students are making five-song EPs, which is also a holdover.
The truth is, songs have a financial incentive to change what they look and sound like. Spotify, the clear leader in the streaming space, pays after 30 seconds, so an honest question is:
A) Why write beyond that? And…
B) Are you, in fact, screwing yourself six times over for writing a three-minute song (30 seconds x 6 = three minutes)?
Whoa, huh? There’s much more. Read it, dammit.