Let’s begin with a portion of the TEDx presentation I gave in Winnipeg this week.
Thanks to streaming, recorded music has been liberated from its all its physical limitations. The whole of human musical history exists as pure data, accessible by anyone with an Internet connection. And this is great, right?
Well, yes—but not entirely.
The size and nature of the physical containers we used to construct to hold our music created certain patterns of behavior.
For example, we had to work for a reasonably long time to earn the money to buy these pieces of plastic. Today, you can access tens of millions of songs for free or something close to it.
When we bought music, we created a financial relationship with it. We’d listen to albums over and over again until we absorbed all the music, even the songs we might not have liked at first. Otherwise, a feeling developed that we had wasted our money.
When we listen to music from a physical format, we have additional resources. Album artwork. Lyric sheets. Liner notes. All those came with the container. No so in the digital world.
And there was always this scarcity when it came to physical music. You could only afford to buy so much. And even the biggest record store might have just 100,000 titles. Compare that to the 50 million songs available on Spotify.
Streaming is not about possession. It’s about access and convenience. This lack of a container has resulted in some very different interactions with music.
And this is my main point today. Technology is not only changing the way we listen to music and how we value it but it’s also warping the very nature of music itself.
To explain what I mean, we must look at some numbers.
Data analysis shows that 24% of steaming listeners will skip to the next song in the first five seconds. Another 29% will bail after 10 seconds. And another 35% will be gone by the time the song is 30 seconds old.
Those numbers are crucial because streaming service doesn’t pay out for a song until 30 seconds have passed. People skipping a song drives down its appeal with Spotify’s algorithm, thereby preventing from bubbling up on playlists.
This means producers and songwriters throw everything they can at the first 30 seconds of a song in order to hold our attention.
How? Shorter intros. Putting the choruses up front. Adding as many sugar-high hooks as possible before the song is half a minute old. Anything to drag us to that 30-second mark so everyone can get paid.
Songs are getting shorter. Spotify’s algorithms are increasingly favouring shorter songs due to the fact that more people stick with them longer. In 2000, the average length of a song on the Billboard Hot 100 was four minutes and none were under two-and-a-half minutes. Today, the average song on the same chart is 3 minutes and 30 seconds and the number of songs until two-and-a-half minutes has increased by 6% over the last three years.
If you’re an artist, you’re thinking about writing shorter songs because the chances of listeners cycling through more of your songs is greater. More listens equals more money. A British band called The Pocket God released an album earlier this year called 300×30: 298 songs none longer than 40 seconds.
So much for the 10-minute rock epic, right? Why spend all that time writing and recording a long song when you’re going to get paid the same as someone who wrote a song lasting 40 seconds?
Here’s another analogy. Remember that Cinerama shot in Lawrence of Arabia that begins with a dot off in the distance which then grows into a camel train? What’s the point of creating a shot like that if people are only watching on a phone?
Why bother recording albums? With streaming, it’s all about individual songs that are included on playlists. That container—the album—that was ushered in with the LP in 1948 and the CD in 1982—is looking increasingly unwelcome.
Then there’s this:
I’m not the only one thinking this way. See?