Sunday, September 17, 2023

Music in the Streaming Age

In the grand tapestry of human evolution, our sense of hearing has played a pivotal role in our survival and cultural development. Over time, our hearing has evolved in response to environmental cues and the intricate dance of language and communication. This journey has left its imprint on the very structure of our inner ears and the regions of our brains responsible for language processing. 

As our societies grew in complexity, so did our music. It was evolving from simple and rhythmic, to intricate compositions of classical music and avant-garde, experimental, serialist, highly spatialized music. It was changing from danceable to complex and dissonant rhythms. Some complex music was very popular - such as psychedelic rock band Pink Floyd; other not so much - such as Karlheinz Stockhausen's compositions. Modern music was incorporating elements of many other genres - eg alternative rock: punk rock, heavy metal, and experimental music and even simpler Hip Hop: jazz, funk, and soul. The most popular music was not always simplest but was more accessible.

In the 2020s, the world of music experienced a seismic shift with the rise of streaming platforms like Spotify, Tencent, and Apple Music. The impact was profound, not only revitalizing the music industry's revenue but also redefining the very essence of music itself.

Traditionally, music was a patient storyteller, often taking its time to build up to a climactic chorus or hook. Yet, the economics of streaming introduced a new imperative – capturing the listener's attention within the first 30 seconds. Enter the "Pop Overture," a clever technique where a song hints at its chorus within the initial moments, engaging the listener and encouraging them to stay for the full musical journey. 

To keep the dreaded "skip rate" at bay, artists began to craft shorter songs. Lengthy instrumental intros were swapped for immediate engagement, resulting in a significant reduction in the average duration of hit songs. In 2021, nearly two-thirds of chart-toppers clocked in at under three minutes, a departure from the days when a four-minute+ song was the norm.

As individual songs shrank, albums expanded. Streaming listeners, keen to maximize their musical experience, embraced longer albums. More songs equaled more income, with Taylor Swift's "Midnights" dominating the Hot 100 chart by offering an extensive musical journey. The average complexity of melodies had fallen over time, with two big drops in 1975 and 2000, as well as a smaller drop in 1996. The overriding pattern shows decreasing complexity and increasing note density in popular melodies over time, especially since 2000.

Streaming opened doors for genres that once struggled for visibility. Latin and K-Pop artists rose to prominence on Spotify's Global Top 100, fostering a rich tapestry of cross-genre collaborations. Remixes featuring artists from different backgrounds expanded a song's appeal and audience, exemplified by Justin Bieber's "Sorry (Latino Remix)" with J. Balvin.

While artistic creativity remains paramount, commercial considerations loom large. The streaming economy's dynamics, with its emphasis on plays, playlists, and recommendations, have compelled artists and labels to explore innovative strategies to maximize reach and revenue.

In this ever-evolving landscape of sound, music's essence has been reshaped by the streaming revolution. The emphasis on retaining listeners and optimizing plays has redefined how songs are crafted and albums are composed. With an emphasis on retaining listener engagement and maximizing plays, the industry has adapted to the evolving preferences and economics of the streaming era.


Streaming is changing the sound of music(

Hamilton, M., Pearce, M. Trajectories and revolutions in popular melody based on U.S. charts from 1950 to 2023. Sci Rep 14, 14749 (2024).

Acknowledgements: ChatGPT, Bard and Bing image creator

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