How Streaming is Changing the Way We Tune In

I was going through my expansive Spotify library the other day, trying to shuffle my way into a mix of songs as early as the 1980s to music releases of just last week. Then, a slew of thoughts hit me: Are songs nowadays getting shorter and shorter? Why are pop music shifting towards minimalist production? When will my favorite new artist release a proper album instead of just singles?

Just like anyone who has a burning question would; I began searching for answers on Google, and here’s what I found.

Tunes through the times

We have seen the evolution on how music is created and released throughout the past century. It started with the invention of Thomas Edison’s phonograph in 1877. Next came the classic 12-inch vinyl LP records of the 1950s to the lightweight cassette tapes of the 1990s. Soon the cassette tapes were replaced by the abundance of shiny CDs in the 2000s.

From Phonographs to Spotify: A Brief History of the Music Industry (Wall Street Journal)

Every era of physical audio records have their own trademark stylization and ‘sound’ that have reflected each generation’s trend. We can often correlate a certain fashion of music with each format; with its quality getting richer as time progresses.

Moving on, we arrive on the digital technology in the present day. The rise of the digital era has given way to a new mode on indulging the auditory leisure: streaming. It has not only changed the way we discover and consume music, but also transformed how the artists create and release them.

As services like Spotify, Apple Music, Soundcloud, Tidal, etc. become more popular, it’s clear that streaming is the new preferred way to listen to music. Its business model is incredibly smart and super accessible. All you’ll need to do is pay for a low monthly subscription fee. And then, you can stream any song of your choice from catalogs of over 60 million tracks at your disposal. 

To understand how streaming has impacted the evolution of music, we need to look at a few key factors.

The Profits

It’s evident that streaming has become the biggest source of revenue for the music industry in recent years. It has raked in 11.4 billion U.S. dollars in 2019, which accounts for over 56% of total recorded music revenue globally.

However, do artists receive a sizable profit turnover from these revenues? Statistics show that this does not seem to be the case. The payouts per stream for the artists vary throughout different platforms: Pandora being the lowest at US$0.0013, Spotify at US$0.0044, Apple Music at US$0.0078, and Tidal at US$0.013.

Many streaming services such as Amazon Music, YouTube Music, Spotify, Tidal and Apple Music have emerged in the past few years. (Business Insider) , Source

Therefore, the songs that artists release have to generate millions of streams in order for them to profit off streaming. Consequently, this has given them the incentive to create shorter songs with high replay value. 

For instance, Spotify pays artists for each stream that has passed the 30-second mark. So, artists tend to place the chorus or the ‘hook’ of a song as early as possible, as it could help catch the attention of a listener sooner. Besides that, this also encourages artists to produce more songs that are shorter in length, in order to gain more revenue. To put it in perspective: 30 1-minute songs can make 30 times more revenue than one 30-minute song. All of this can encourage artists to put out only singles, rather than a full body of work such as an album.

Accessibility or oversaturation?

Nowadays, new artists emerge every day. With technology, it seems like anyone with decent recording equipment and software can easily churn out tracks, even without investment from major record labels. Because of this, new genres with minimal or simplistic production such as trap, tropical house and bedroom pop have taken the forefront of the music trend in the late 2010s. Songs from these genres have dominated charts all over the world, and have continued to prevail until now.

Nonetheless, the downside to this rise of accessibility in making music can oversaturate the market. To escape this, artists try to make their songs as viral as possible. With that, they usually use formulaic production with lackluster material. Thus, this can sometimes result in an overall decline in perceived music quality.

Artists depend on streaming revenue to earn their income and to gain recognition. (Billboard) , Source

On the other hand, many musicians still value the beauty of music and creativity. They often try to strike a balance between true creative output and market-driven needs. This is because they believe that the value of music needs to be upheld without sacrificing the passion and integrity as a real musician should possess.

Both of these types of artists have a common goal – to achieve widespread exposure and let their music be known. The best way to do so is to get the attention of human curators or picked up by the services’ algorithms, and subsequently have their songs featured on a playlist with a big following.

What about radio?

The decline of radio listenership is also largely due to the fact that streaming has become the dominant mode of music consumption. It does not help when generic mainstream radio tends to follow trends and give hit songs massive airplay, focusing more on songs of TikTok fame and viral chart-toppers.

I would say that radio has divert from its previous responsibility of being a tool for music discovery. Approximately ten years ago, I have had a fair share of discovering new music through the means of radio. However, I found myself easily bored listening to radio stations repeat the same 10 songs over again in a matter of a few hours. 

Since consumers have had a taste of the utmost personalization from streaming, it’s no wonder that the lack of genre diversity in mainstream radio is driving listeners away. It could also be said that most people nowadays feel a sense of pride in their music taste, and will try to stray away from being regarded as “basic”.

What is next?

Taiwanese artist Eric Chou performs a concert in August 2020, in the midst of a pandemic. (TIME) , Source

All of these aforementioned factors have contributed to a new streaming culture and unprecedented trends of music creation. We are truly experiencing a time of a thriving digital music industry.

Perhaps, the things that have been deemed outdated in the past will come back in style again. One prime example is the vinyl, which has regained a vintage collectible value for music fans as of late. 

However, beyond present day, it is hard to project where the music industry will head next. As the pandemic still shows no signs of subsiding globally yet, it seems likely major music events – such as concert tours where artists gain most of their income and exposure – will not be taking place anytime soon.

Streaming will be the dominant way artists release their work, and our way of tuning in for now.

Written by Brendan Chew Yiun Cherk