Live shows, vinyl, cassettes and compact discs were considered timeless forms of music consumption that were expected to eternally dominate the music scene. This was true until 2001 when Listen.com brought monumental changes to listeners worldwide. By 2005, American listeners were introduced to Pandora, and six years later, Spotify was legalized in the United States.
A year after Spotify’s introduction to the U.S., the complaints began to roll in. Accusations of underpaying artists in accordance with their streams and general worry about how the streaming platform was impacting the listening experience weighed heavily on consumers and musicians alike.
Co-President of Second District Records Sean Carlson, a senior in the Kogod School of Business, says streaming services’ benefits equate to their drawbacks.
“It’s losing that spark of going to the record store and having the same physical record as somebody else. There’s no better way to experience music than going to a live concert,” Carlson said. “But on the other side, I’m glad I get to listen to whatever music I want to.”
Instead of listeners painstakingly searching the stacks, streaming platforms hire musicologists who analyze and perform a research-based study of music to compile a blueprint for chart-topping songs and suggested playlists.
At the 2022 Goldman Sachs Communacopia + Technology Conference, Steve Cooper, CEO and director of Warner Music Group, confirmed that over 100,000 new tracks were being uploaded to Spotify, Apple Music and Soundcloud “on any given day.” In addition to the daily uploads, suggested amenities such as Spotify Blend and shared playlists are foundational to building a modern, international music community.
Despite this, SDR co-president and senior in the College of Arts and Sciences Drew Dale said that streaming services don’t market music as a communal activity.
“I think the platform definitely encourages the narrative of individual listening,” Dale said. “The algorithm does push things into a more mainstream, homogenous listening experience.”
2022’s most popular music streaming service is Spotify, a platform hailed for how it shapes the consumer experience. Spotify’s algorithm depends on three features: lyrical content and language, song features and past listening habits.
An earlier algorithm used by Pandora is the Music Genome Project. Musicologists measured 450 attributes, from genre to decade and everything in between, studying and collecting musical details on every track to compare songs and compile them into genres and subgenres.
In an attempt to make more content accessible to consumers, streaming platforms have added thousands of tracks from international, upcoming, and established artists, consolidating the mainstream and the fringe genres. Yet, users are not always accessing diversity in their listening experience.
Big names like Taylor Swift have a publicly fraught relationship with Spotify. Initially, Swift refused to release her 2012 album, “Red,” on Spotify and in 2014 removed her music completely before restoring it in 2017. Aware of Spotify’s mistreatment, SDR still sponsors student accounts.
In 2020, SDR transitioned their streaming platform from SoundCloud to Spotify with the goal of building lasting careers for AU artists. Although SDR already works to locate potential venues and produce tracks, Spotify is the next step.
“In the past it was a glorified playlist,” Carlson said. “With this you have your own account, it’s your music. You can release however much you want, it can be an album, it can be a single.”
Dale’s own music, under the name Landward Edge, can be found on Spotify. Other artists choose to upload their tracks elsewhere. SDR artists Shane Gardener and Catherine Brennen advertise their music on Instagram while uploading to YouTube.
Regardless of individual efforts, researchers at Tilburg University found that Spotify homogenizes listening by steering consumers towards similar content even while the company works to individualize listening behavior.
Carlson argues that the homogenization of the modern listening experience is a symptom of social media’s grip on music streaming algorithms.
“They satisfied the popular demand at the moment,” Carlson said. “When it comes to longevity, I think there’s a difference between popular and then what actually has the capability to be good for a long time.”
Carlson believes these short clips speak to why many artists have short careers. He used the example of Lil Pump and Smokepurpp, whose careers began and peaked in 2017.
“Back in high school they were the cream of the crop, they were the biggest artists in the country,” Carlson said. “It was because they had a sound that satisfied the popular demand at the moment.”
The demand for what Dale and Carlson call “catchy” and “gimmicky” songs has changed the act of song-making. Hubert Léveillé Gauvin, a doctoral student at Ohio State University, discovered that technological advances affect our attention span which in turn changed compositional practice. In the mid-1980s, song introductions averaged more than 20 seconds; they now average five.
Allie Schnur, a junior in the School of Public Affairs, is the lead singer of the band “Cesium.” She believes that song creation is a complicated technical and emotional process, and that ultimately, songs are only one piece of the story.
“When you’re producing an album, there’s a huge thought process that goes into the order and how you want it to come across as a story,” Schnur said. “We miss a lot of that as listeners on streaming platforms just finding the song we like and clicking on it.”
Album creation is about storytelling. “The Wall” by Pink Floyd chronicles bassist Roger Waters’ self-imposed isolation after his father’s death. Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now” captures the phases of romance, from early flirtation to limitless enthusiasm and beyond.
Hallie Brannick, who hosts a radio show for WVAU and is a junior in the School of Communication, says she is less likely to listen to the whole album when she discovers an artist through Spotify.
“If I discover something new on Spotify, I’m not going to listen to the whole outro,” Brannick said. “I’ll just listen to one song and then skip through and see if I like any others.”
Brannick calls it her bad habit and notes that her peers are more inclined to do the same when using streaming services.
“If you listen to their hit singles or top songs on Spotify, it’s not the same as listening to the full album,” Brannick said. “That binds you closer to the artist because you see their whole work.”
Dale and Carlson both said that being an informed consumer is important. They advise listeners to hit ‘like’ on every song they enjoy so the algorithm can accurately avoid conforming the individual listening experience.
“It’s hard to be informed about everything you’re listening to because sometimes you just want to listen,” Dale said. “But with such a huge tool like Spotify, you really have to put some thought into it and not get sucked in.”
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