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Business News/ Industry / Media/  Streaming Is Changing the Sound of Music
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Streaming Is Changing the Sound of Music


To succeed on Spotify and other services, songs are getting shorter, albums are getting longer, and artists are collaborating across genres.


In 2022, on-demand music streams in the U.S. alone exceeded 1 trillion. Starting in the mid-2010s, the success of streaming services like Spotify, Tencent and Apple Music led the music industry into a period of sustained revenue growth for the first time since 1999, the year Napster launched. But the rise of streaming hasn’t just transformed the business of music; it has changed the music as well.

In 1972, the Temptations hit number one on the Billboard Hot 100 charts, winning three Grammys, with a seven-minute version of the song “Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone." Before the Temptations sing a word, an instrumental introduction featuring organ, guitar, bass, and a hi-hat cymbal ebbs and flows for more than four minutes. If the group were in the studio today, the title chorus would most likely have been featured much earlier in the song. That’s because music streaming services pay artists based on the number of plays each month, and to count as a play, a user must listen to the song past the 30-second mark. If a song you’ve never heard before takes a long time to get to the hook or simply has an extended intro, there is a good chance that you may simply hit the button to go to the next song.

To keep the “skip rate" as low as possible, musical artists are increasingly moving a song’s hook or chorus to that initial 30-second sweet spot. Nate Sloan and Charlie Harding, the hosts of the “Switched on Pop" podcast, have coined the term “Pop Overture" to describe a new trend in which a song “will play a hint of the chorus in the first five to 10 seconds so that the hook is in your ear, hoping that you’ll stick around till about 30 seconds in when the full chorus eventually comes in."

Creators are modifying more than just the introductory sections of tracks for optimal performance on streaming. Every track that is listened to for more than 30 seconds counts as a play, but whether a listener makes it all the way through a song helps to determine whether a streaming service like Spotify will recommend similar songs in the future.

As the Grammy-winning producer and performer Mark Ronson said in an interview in the Guardian, “All your songs have to be under three minutes and 15 seconds because if people don’t listen to them all the way to the end they go into this ratio of ‘non-complete heard,’ which sends your Spotify rating down." For a musician, getting a song on Spotify’s popular Today’s Top Hits playlist means real money. A study by researchers at the University of Minnesota and the European Joint Research Centre found that songs on the list gained an average of 20 million streams, worth up to $163,000 in royalties.

As a result, according to an analysis by blogger Michael Tauberg, the average length of hit songs has dropped by more than 30 seconds since 2000, when it was over four minutes. Nearly two-thirds of the songs that achieved the number one spot in the first half of 2021 were under three minutes long. Ironically, these tracks would have fit comfortably on early recording cylinders and phonograph records, whose limitations were considered a major artistic impediment in the early 20th century.

As songs get shorter, albums are getting longer. “Culture II" by the hip-hop group Migos, the number one album in America in February 2018, included 24 tracks and clocked in at an hour and 45 minutes, almost double the length of Migos’s previous Grammy-nominated release. Chris Brown’s “Heartbreak on a Full Moon" in 2017 had 45 songs. In 2022, the British indie band Pocket of God took this trend to an extreme with their album “1000 x 30: Nobody Makes Money Anymore." The title said it all: the band was protesting inadequate compensation by offering an album comprising 1,000 tracks of just over 30 seconds in length. The first song is titled “0.002," referring to how many cents the artists ended up receiving each time a song was played.

This trend, too, is a response to the incentives of streaming. When fans stream a new album from their favorite acts, they tend to listen to the whole thing the first time through, so the more songs the album contains, the more income it generates. Taylor Swift’s 2022 album “Midnights" occupied all of the top 10 slots of the Hot 100 chart shortly after its release. When Ed Sheeran’s album “Divide" was released in 2017 and all 16 of its songs made it into the top 20, it sparked a backlash in the British music industry, which was concerned that other artists were missing out on the benefits of occupying the top chart positions. The U.K.’s Official Charts Company adopted a new rule that an artist could have a maximum of three tracks in the top 100 at a time, regardless of the actual streaming numbers.

The streaming economy is also altering release strategies for new music. In the era of records and CDs, labels tried to maximize the sales of an album before the artist’s next one hit the store shelves. In 2017, by contrast, the rapper Future released two albums in consecutive weeks, and both of them hit number one. Brockhampton, another hip-hop artist, dropped three albums that year. Streaming also means more opportunity for genres that usually didn’t get shelf space in the era of physical retail. Latin and K-Pop artists are showing up more and more frequently in Spotify’s Global Top 100; more than 10 million music consumers follow ¡Viva Latino!, making it the third most followed playlist on Spotify.

This popularity has fostered more and more collaborations across genres, as artists become more engaged with a broader spectrum of other artists. A remix of a pop song that includes a verse sung in Spanish by a Latin star means that the track can be featured on a wider variety of playlists, and increases the chance that it will appear in search results. For instance, when Justin Bieber’s song “Sorry" was released in October 2015, it spent three weeks at number one on the Billboard Hot 100. One month later, “Sorry (Latino Remix)" was released, featuring J. Balvin, the Colombian reggaeton artist, singing in Spanish. That version of the track appealed to a broader audience than the original while drawing fans to both versions, racking up an additional 178 million Spotify plays.

The creative impulse that drives musicians to create new and different versions of popular songs should not be discounted. But it would be naive to ignore the commercial motivations that often factor in.

Howie Singer is the former Chief Strategic Technologist of Warner Music Group and Bill Rosenblatt is president of GiantSteps, a media technology consulting firm. This essay is adapted from their new book, “Key Changes: The Ten Times Technology Transformed the Music Industry," published this month by Oxford University Press.

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