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Streaming Is Changing How We Make Music (If You Read Just One Article on Music Today, Make It This One)

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.

Alan Cross

is an internationally known broadcaster, interviewer, writer, consultant, blogger and speaker. In his 40+ 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.

Alan Cross has 38340 posts and counting. See all posts by Alan Cross

2 thoughts on “Streaming Is Changing How We Make Music (If You Read Just One Article on Music Today, Make It This One)

  • That was a fascinating read. Funny, I kept thinking about the medium. He mentioned Gangnam Style. I wonder would the song have been a hit without the video? For me, the video made me like the song. I may have liked it anyway, but maybe not as much. Some videos really make the song more interesting. When there were no visuals, we were completely reliant on the music. Streaming kind of goes back there unless you consider YouTube. Sheer volume of streaming makes it hard to ‘get’ a song that requires repeat plays to get into. Radio programming made that work. Given the ever shrinking attention spans, does a 30 second song now work?

    All this tells me is I’m getting old. I’m fascinated but still have some of that curmudgeonly ‘that cannot work’ mentally around what a song is. And I keep thinking about how many great songs that no one will ever hear because the time required to appreciate it is beyond our mental capacities…

  • Reminded me of an interview several years ago on CBC Spark (ep 110, March 12 2010) , Jay Frank discussing with Nora concepts in his book Future Hit .DNA, how song writing is changing for the digital age. I think he answered the question of why write past 30 seconds. He also explains how the 78 was and still is responsible for the 3 minute pop song.
    He was talking before the streaming age, but his explanation of the Zero-Play environment sure fits with the streaming ‘skip’.
    Worth a listen.


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