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How the 2010s changed our music listening habits — and music itself

This Sunday, Jan. 28, 2018, photo shows music streaming apps clockwise from top left, Apple, Spotify, Amazon, Pandora and Google on an iPhone in New York. A federal copyright board has raised the music streaming royalties for songwriters and music publish
This Sunday, Jan. 28, 2018, photo shows music streaming apps clockwise from top left, Apple, Spotify, Amazon, Pandora and Google on an iPhone in New York.
Jenny Kane, Associated Press

SALT LAKE CITY — A person listening to music looks the same as he or she always has. But looks are deceiving.

In reality, almost nothing about the current music-listening experience is the same as it was a decade ago. The 2010s changed a lot of things, music included. How we listen has changed. What we listen to has changed. And who is watching us when we listen has changed. These are exciting (and sometimes frightening) times.

Something in the air

When wireless radio started becoming the norm 100 years ago, it ushered a major shift in our conception of sound itself.

“People had to recalibrate themselves to a whole new understanding of what it meant to hear voices,” Suzannah Showler recently wrote in Real Life Magazine. “And though the listening apparatus could be switched off and on, the broadcast itself never went away, every still and silent moment now shivering with currents and vibrations. ‘Wireless is a permanent guest,’ wrote media theorist Rudolph Arnheim in 1934. There was something in the air.”

Such realizations might now seem antiquated. In reality, though, we’re undergoing a similar mental recalibration right now — albeit with our personal music libraries. Streaming music services like Spotify and Apple Music have moved our libraries off personal hard drives, iPods and CDs, and into the cloud. Our music is decreasingly self-contained and private. Instead, it exists in the ether. There is something in the air once again.

As the music format changes, so too does our conception of music itself, and how we perceive our relationship to it. Listening to music is still a personal experience, but it’s become couched in something more overtly collective.

“Recorded music simply materializes around us whenever we need it,” Jayson Greene wrote for Pitchfork in October. “At least as a consumer experience, it is now about as close to the feeling of telepathy — think of the song, any song, make it appear in the air around you — as it has ever been.”

Streaming is also altering what we listen to. A 2017 study, “Changing their tune: How consumers’ adoption of online streaming affects music consumption and discovery,” showed that streaming drastically increases a listener’s eclecticism. The increased diversity wasn’t a surprise — given more options, and removing the cost barrier to entry, of course people took more chances. The real revelation was the rate at which habits changed in the short term and then persisted in the long term.

In the participants’ first week of streaming, their number of songs played increased by 132%, and the number of unique artists they listened to increased by 62%. Six months into their streaming experience, participants’ consumption was still 49% higher than it was on other platforms, with the unique artists they consumed being 32% higher than it had been previously.

“Once you buy a subscription, the incremental variety to you is free,” Bart J. Bronnenberg, one of the professors who helmed the study, told Fast Company.

“All these effects are very sizable, and they actually seem to represent a long-run behavioral shift,” he continued. “You end up listening to more music and, on balance, the variety expansion is quite large — you tend to listen to the same thing less often.”

Streaming’s enormous tradeoff

Our increased dependence on streaming comes at a cost — a cost that is only now starting to be realized. In a June piece titled “Big Mood Machine,” writer Liz Pelly detailed how Spotify sells data on its more than 200 million users to numerous multinational corporations. It’s not people’s music preferences alone, but also the emotional tendencies and moods that the music fosters and indicates, that are so valuable to advertisers. Spotify has this data, and it’s increasingly pointed users to mood-based listening, as opposed to genre-based listening, via Spotify’s myriad mood playlists.

“They have troves of data related to our emotional states, moods and feelings,” Pelly writes. “It’s a matter of unprecedented access to our interior lives, which is buffered by the flimsy illusion of privacy.”

This alone is pretty alarming. But Spotify — and, it’s safe to assume, other streaming services that follow Spotify’s lead — also uses this data to recommend music that will appease advertisers.

Pelly writes, “What’s in question here isn’t just how Spotify monitors and mines data on our listening in order to use their ‘audience segments’ as a form of currency — but also how it then creates environments more suitable for advertisers through what it recommends, manipulating future listening on the platform. Indeed, Spotify seeks not just to monitor and mine our mood, but also to manipulate future behavior.”

The music is different

As listeners have increasingly relied on streaming services, so too have record labels and music makers. And this has changed the very structure of popular music.

More and more, musicians rely on curated streaming playlists for exposure: Getting put on a popular Spotify playlist can catapult an artist from anonymity to some level of notoriety. Studies show that song intros are getting shorter — assumedly to keep listeners from skipping to the next song — and tempos have gotten faster. The Guardian’s Sam Wolfson also noted how, perhaps paradoxically, streaming has made albums longer, “simply because listening to a 20-track album generates twice as much revenue as listening to a 10-track one.”

Hubert Léveillé Gauvin, a music theory doctoral student at Ohio State University, studied how song structures have changed in the music streaming era. In a 2017 interview about his findings, he noted, “Artists and producers are shifting from having their songs as cultural products to having their songs as advertisements for themselves. Your product isn’t necessarily your song, it’s your personal brand.”

Of course, not all musicians are thrilled about this. In a piece for NPR, Paula Mejía examined the murky “contractual idiosyncrasies” of royalty payouts on streaming services. The two most popular steaming music services, Spotify and Apple Music, use a “pro rata” royalty model, which pays rights-holders according to market share — how many streams they get in relation to the most popular songs — rather than a per-play model.

The pro-rata model potentially stacks the deck for artists who are already more popular. Pelly, author of the aforementioned “Big Mood Machine,” said in the NPR piece that “we’re in this moment where artists on every level are expected to think this way that, in the past, would have been a way of thinking about artists that are gonna be on the Top 40 radio. And now all artists are expected to be beholden to the mechanisms of pop music in a sense.”

This pop music mentality spills over into YouTube and Instagram, which have become major gathering spots for music makers and listeners. These platforms, and the way users engage with them, are suited for simple, digestible, meme-worthy music.

In a piece for Pitchfork titled “The Strange Evolution of Viral Music Stardom,” musician Catherine Slater, who goes by the stage name Slayyyter, recalled her near-brushes with virality, noting, “There’s no Lady Gaga breakout artists anymore. It’s all just this meme, funny, jokey kind of stuff.”

One-hit wonders are nothing new. But, the piece argues, Instagram/YouTube/etc. have exponentially increased the frequency with which they enter our lives. Modern “cancel culture” also means these one-hit wonders exit our lives even faster now, since old social media posts are so easy to access.

“This kind of stuff has always happened,” Insanul Ahmed, executive editor of the lyric annotation service Genius, said in the piece. “It just happens faster and on a wider scale now, because everything in our lives seems to be happening faster and on a wider scale.”

It’s not all bad

Yes, social media and streaming services may, at times, make today’s music environment seem like an increasingly turbocharged Machiavellian hellscape. But it’s also erased longstanding collaborative barriers between major pop stars and smaller artists.

Indie went pop in the 2010s, and pop also went indie. Vampire Weekend’s Ezra Koenig co-wrote Beyonce’s 2016 hit “Hold Up.” Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon collaborated with Kanye West on much of West’s 2010 album “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy.” Ryan Adams released an entire cover album of Taylor Swift’s “1989.” Miley Cyrus teamed up with the Flaming Lips for 2015’s “Miley Cyrus & Her Dead Petz” album. Father John Misty has a writing credit on Post Malone’s “Myself.” The list goes on and on.

This kind of cross-pollination would have seemed impossible in previous decades. But, like all the other surprising changes in the 2010s — musical, societal, political, and otherwise — it is simply our new normal. Once again, these are exciting (and sometimes frightening) times.