Services such as Spotify and Apple Music give us access to the entire history of popular songs. But has that access made us lazy listeners? And could TikTok or TV really help us rediscover our passion for discovery?
Earlier this year, Kate Bush’s Running Up That Hill unexpectedly became the most popular song in the world. After it was used on the soundtrack of the Netflix sci-fi series Stranger Things, the streaming figures for Bush’s 1985 single rocketed by 9,900% in the US alone. Something similar was happening wherever Stranger Things was available: by 18 June, three weeks after season four of Stranger Things premiered, Running Up That Hill was No 1 on Billboard’s Global 200 chart, which, as its name suggests, collects sales and streaming data from 200-plus countries.
It became a big news story, big enough that Bush – no one’s idea of an artist intent on hogging the media spotlight – was impelled to issue a couple of statements and give a rare interview. That was partly because it was an extraordinary state of affairs: the upper reaches of the Global 200 are usually the sole province of what you might call the usual suspects – BTS, Bad Bunny, Adele, Drake et al – and not a world that plays host to tracks from critically acclaimed 37-year-old art-rock concept albums. And it was partly because the unexpected success of Running Up That Hill seemed to say something about how we discover and consume music in 2022.
We live in a world where music has never been more abundant, or available. As has frequently been pointed out, the rise of streaming in its multifarious forms essentially means the entire history of popular music is available, free, at the touch of a button. We have more-or-less eradicated obscurity: even if something is too recherché for Spotify or Apple Music, the likelihood is that someone will have ripped it from somewhere – radio, tape, vinyl – and uploaded it to YouTube. One theory that’s gained traction recently is that music is now so abundant as to be completely overwhelming in its availability, and that listeners, faced with everything at once, are increasingly playing it safe and sticking with the tried-and-tested.
That theory would explain both the tiny handful of current artists who seem to have a stranglehold on the album charts – despite the statistic that says 60,000 new tracks a day are uploaded to one streaming service alone, only one or two new artists a year join the stranglehold ranks – and the fact that around half of said album chart is invariably made up of greatest hits collections by a small clique of “heritage” acts: Fleetwood Mac, Elton John, Abba, Oasis, Michael Jackson, Bob Marley, Eminem. Presenting the public with infinite options hasn’t broadened tastes, goes said argument – it’s actively narrowed them.
At the same time, the longstanding gatekeepers of pop music have seen their power wane greatly. Simon Garfield’s superb history of BBC Radio One in the 1990s, The Nation’s Favourite, depicts an era in which getting on the station’s playlist was, as one music industry figure puts it, “the best chance of breaking a new record”.
But its listenership has long been in decline – 4.85m people listened to its flagship breakfast show in 2021 as opposed to 7.5m in 1996 – an indication of a broader shift away from radio among younger audiences. It may be that young listeners with specific tastes still crowd around its evening specialist shows in the way they used to with John Peel or the Evening Session, the Essential Selection or the Radio 1 Rap Show, but you wouldn’t bet on it: specialist radio shows are no longer the only place a keen-eared listener can find music that’s niche or genre-specific. Music television barely exists beyond a scattering of historical documentaries; there’s Later … With Jools Holland and that’s pretty much that. An attempt in 2017 to reboot the weekly Top of the Pops format, titled Sounds Like Friday Night, was cancelled after two series due to low viewing figures.
In Britain, the music press is a ghost of its former self. Beyond coverage in broadsheet newspapers, there’s Mojo and Uncut and Classic Rock, a scattering of indie magazines and a few successful specialist magazines with highly targeted audiences – prog rock fans, 80s pop enthusiasts – but the overall picture is one of a shrinking market catering exclusively to readers old enough to remember when the music press mattered. The British press certainly doesn’t wield the power it was once reputed to – the ability to make or break artists – and nor does American music website Pitchfork, by far the highest-profile and most influential of the online music titles. Even some of the internet innovations that were supposed to replace the tired old music media appear to have gone the same way. Whatever happened to MP3 blogs? They’re presumably still out there – the Hype Machine aggregator certainly is – but it’s a long time since an artist claimed they were pivotal in their rise.
It’s a state of affairs that opens questions about the way we discover and consume music now, to which the sudden success of Running Up That Hill provided at least a partial answer. In 2022, it seems, the most effective way of promoting music is to get it placed on a TV show, film or advertisement – a notion bolstered by an unexpected spate of renewed interest in Gerry Rafferty’s Right Down the Line, which went from dimly remembered 1978 album track to Gen Z favourite overnight after it was used multiple times in the latest season of US teen drama Euphoria. The people whose job it is to place music on soundtracks thus wield a degree of sway over public taste unimaginable by even the most high-profile rock critic or radio programmer in their respective medium’s heyday.
But it can’t all come from soundtracks. Where else might an audience that doesn’t read reviews or listen to the radio get its information about music? Who are the other gatekeepers now? Is it all down to the shadowy figures who compile Spotify’s highest-profile curated playlists – Today’s Top Hits, RapCaviar, Viva Latino – and the algorithms that try to predict what music you might like based on your listening habits? Certainly, a place on Spotify’s New Music Friday playlist is as prized by record companies as a spot on the Radio One A-list used to be. (If you’ve ever wondered why so many artists are so eager to collaborate with artists outside their usual musical field – as seen with the recent Ed Sheeran and J Balvin team-up – it’s likely a strategy designed to game the streaming services and turn up on as many different genre-specific playlists as possible.)
Equally, you could argue that there are limitations to the playlists’ influence, or at least how much listeners emotionally invest in the music they punt at us: “The way people hear music [now], it can glaze over you before you really get to the heart of it,” as Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ Karen O put it recently. Specialist playlists are slightly hobbled by their very anonymity – it’s impossible to work out the tastes and motivations of their faceless compilers in the way you might have done a music critic or a specialist DJ. And, the fact that there’s something deeply uneasy about being spoon-fed music by a computer aside, algorithms can never provide you the greatest music recommendations: the songs you never thought you’d like but end up loving anyway.
A corrective to streaming services’ more-of-the-same approach to music discovery might lie on video sharing platform TikTok, which has been implicated in the success of everyone from Doja Cat to Sam Fender. The music its users choose to hoist into the spotlight seems almost impenetrably random: as anyone with TikTok-using teenage kids will tell you, recent viral TikTok hits have included New Edition’s 1983 single Mr Telephone Man; Edison Lighthouse’s early 70s bubblegum smash Love Grows Where My Rosemary Goes; a spectacularly irritating instrumental version of Streets Favourite, a Shangri-Las-sampling track from a flop 2005 album by rapper Capone; and Tiny Tim’s psych-era novelty Tiptoe Thru’ the Tulips With Me. Nonetheless, record labels and artists seem incredibly keen to court TikTok users, with occasionally pitiful results: witness Justin Bieber’s awful single Yummy, not a song so much as a hook designed to be played in the background of videos about food or beauty regimes or fashion “looks”, or the saga of Gayle, the US singer-songwriter whose moment of virality with her hit single abcdefu was supposedly staged by her label, Warner subsidiary Atlantic Records.
But TikTok also often feels like a closed ecosystem, with no real impact on the wider world. Traditionally, attempts by major labels to make mainstream stars out of TikTok music “celebrities” such as Jeven Reliford and Lil Huddy have come to nothing. Ask a musically savvy tween TikTok user about a song called Rises the Moon by Liana Flores; if you haven’t heard of it, they will have. The track is a genuine phenomenon in their world: a prettily melancholy, plummy-voiced bit of folk that sounds not unlike Vashti Bunyan. It’s been streamed 119m times on Spotify, bred umpteen cover versions (I counted well over 200 covers or remixes on YouTube before giving up, exhausted) and a kind of musical subgenre: there are Spotify playlists called things like Rises The Moon Vibes and Rises The Moon Type Songs. But it achieved all this without turning its author into a mainstream star, and without spawning a meaningful follow-up: Flores’s most recent single, 2020’s Sign, has 1.5m streams, not 100m.
Perhaps that’s a state of affairs that’s in the process of changing: classic dance music-referencing pop musician PinkPantheress is a rare example of a musician who found success on TikTok before crossing over into a wider market; something similar might conceivably happen to Katie Gregson-MacLeod, a 21-year-old Scottish singer-songwriter signed by Atlantic on the basis of a melancholy song called Complex, which went viral after she posted a clip of its chorus to the platform. Or perhaps they’re going to be the rare exceptions that prove the rule.
Which, in a roundabout way, brings us back to Running Up That Hill, or at least the nature of Running Up That Hill’s success. An old song becoming hugely popular again as a result of exposure in film or TV is by no means a 21st-century phenomenon. In the late 80s and early 90s, whenever an old track was used in a Levi’s advert, it was virtually guaranteed a new lease of commercial life, whether it was Ben E King’s Stand By Me or the Clash’s Should I Stay Or Should I Go?, both subsequently UK No 1s. The difference was that those songs’ latterday success impacted at least temporarily on the artist’s wider catalogue. A Ben E King and the Drifters greatest hits comp spent seven weeks in the UK charts; the Story of the Clash compilation returned to the Top 10: their interest piqued, people were exploring artists’ back catalogues further.
That didn’t happen with Running Up That Hill. It was a huge hit, but the rest of Kate Bush’s oeuvre went largely unexplored by the people who listened to it, at least in Britain. Hounds of Love, the album that spawned Running Up That Hill, briefly entered the US Top 20 for the first time. Here, it skulked around the very lowest reaches of the Top 100 for a couple of weeks and that was it. Running Up That Hill has still been streamed 550m times more than Kate Bush’s next most popular track.
Perhaps that’s because streaming encourages a kind of decontextualised discovery. It’s a world where albums are less important than single tracks, where you’re encouraged to focus not on the artist, but the song; where music is served up with any accompanying visuals relegated to a tiny corner of the screen; where historical context, image, subcultural capital – all the other stuff that was once part of the package – no longer really matters. The popularity charts that flash up on Spotify when you click on an artist’s name often give a noticeably warped view of what said artist is, or was, about. It’s a world where Pavement are most famous for recording Harness Your Hopes, a 1999 B-side so obscure that frontman Stephen Malkmus didn’t recognise it when he heard it again and which was first hoisted into public view thanks to a quirk in Spotify’s algorithm. Where St Vincent is best known for a duet with Bon Iver called Roslyn, that carries none of the excitement or invention of her solo albums, but which happened to be in a Twilight movie. Where Aphex Twin is not an idiosyncratic electronic auteur whose oeuvre ranges from the impossibly beautiful to the incredibly challenging, but the guy who made Avril 14th: two minutes of pretty but inconsequential piano noodling from his 2001 album Drukqs, which towers over the rest of his oeuvre in popularity thanks to its use on a host of soundtracks and as a sample on Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy.
Music stripped of its cultural context, artists’ histories rewritten, a previously unimaginable abundance of choice that’s apparently limiting horizons, artists who rocket to vast success without becoming remotely famous: music discovery and consumption in 2022 is a weird, confounding, counterintuitive and strangely fascinating place, where the traditional ways of doing things have been completely overturned, but it isn’t entirely clear what’s replaced them. It’s a place that, over the next week, a series of articles in the Guardian is going to try and pick its way through, in an attempt to figure out what we listen to, how we listen to it and why, and – possibly – what the future might conceivably hold. Even if they don’t point to an obvious destination (these are uncertain times) it should be an intriguing journey – as journeys through unfamiliar territory tend to be.