Technology has changed the way we create and enjoy music—and change can be a positive thing. For example, we have access to a wider variety of music than ever before. But understanding how these changes affect both artists and listeners is critical.
Streaming services offer access to a wide variety of music, which enables them not only to reach a wide variety of consumers but also to match an individual’s distinct interests. Within those services, we have the ability to create playlists of our favorite songs. As a result, listeners rarely listen to an entire album. Most playlists that are created on various platforms contain songs from multiple artists and across many albums. So, are we moving away from the concept of the album? If playlists are made up mostly of singles, listeners can quickly hear samples from different artists and curate a collection that they truly enjoy. The resulting playlists “are great at entertaining listeners but give musicians much less of a chance to make an impression on listeners and lead to diminishing creative potency.”1 An artistic concept may be built over years as the artist writes for and records an album, while a single gives the listener just a snapshot of the artist’s vision. It is possible that consumers are missing out on the artist’s full potential.
Not only are listeners no longer listening to full albums, but the singles are also getting shorter. A 2019 article offers an explanation: “There are a few reasons this may be the case: The inability to hold a listener’s attention to a lengthy track and the economics of the music industry on streaming music.”2 It is true that our attention spans are getting shorter, so what drives a listener to continue listening to a longer track? Many listen to just a snippet and then skip ahead. Keeping the listener’s attention is paramount. Streaming services also remove the need to purchase music outright, so the artist needs revenue to come from the number of times a track is streamed. If more singles played in less airtime can create more revenue, why not make them shorter?
The impact of streaming is not relegated to artist—it extends to the listener. It is possible that exposure to a wide variety of music encourages critical listening. The ability to compare tracks side by side can help us think more critically about the music we consume. However, it is imperative that these skills be built through active listening. Passive listening will not produce the same results. While we do have access to a wide variety of music, how do we use that access? The tracks in playlists are often very similar, and the recommendations in the platforms ensure that we listen to similar tracks instead of introducing us to others. That drives artists to create in specific mold and does not encourage creativity.
We have the music of generations at our fingertips, and we get to choose what we do with it. We can allow the massive consumption model to lead to diminished creativity, or we can use the great variety we see to spur on more creative outputs by challenging artists in their potential.
Questions for Discussion
- What are creative ways artists can use the limited amount of time in shortened tracks to reach their audiences?
- How can artists showcase their overarching creative concepts without the platform of an album?
- What are ways artists can capture and keep listeners’ attention for longer periods of time?
- How do music consumers help shape the way forward?
- How can listeners use the variety of music available to them to listen more critically?
- How can listeners seek out variety when playlists only recommend similar tracks?
Breakdown: Are Playlists Good or Bad for Musicians? (n.d.). Output. https://output.com/blog/playlists-good-or-bad-for-musicians
If you’ve noticed songs have been getting shorter, you might be right (2019, July 12). Dance Music Northwest. https://www.dancemusicnw.com/science-behind-shorter-songs-2019/