How the attention economy has changed music and created that TikTok sound you can’t stop humming
We’ve all been there: you’re listening absentmindedly to a song that sounds eerily familiar. Maybe you’re just that tired, or it’s by an artist you’ve listened to once or twice in the past. Then, out of nowhere, a crisp 20-second clip of the song begins to play, and your memory of the song comes into a sharp focus. “Oh! It’s that song from TikTok.”
This phenomenon is just part of a tidal wave of changes in the music industry that stem from diminishing attention spans, changes to market-leading platforms and shifts in how music is consumed.
The idea that we live in an attention economy has become increasingly relevant as we spend more time connected to technology. Our attention is a scarce and valuable resource, making it a sought-after currency among companies and entertainment alike. Take, for example, all the biggest social media giants – TikTok, Instagram and YouTube. All their platforms are free to use. The real value exchange happens as we give more attention (and therefore data) to these corporations. It’s this popularization of attention economics that’s responsible for many of the biggest changes in how music is created and consumed.
“I found a lot of songs that I really like on TikTok because the algorithm is so creepily accurate – I feel like I’ll end up getting music that I can really relate to,” said Kailyn Pedersen of the student band Vuducaravan. “However, I also think there’s been an oversaturation of certain songs and that’s made them become ‘TikTok sounds.’ That can dilute the artistry because it’s turned into a ringtone.”
Jackson Giraudi is a sophomore at Santa Clara, Traffic Director at KSCU and tune enthusiast. His experience with finding music through online media, unlike Pedersen, has been more grounded in streaming platforms rather than TikTok. The move away from traditional discovery by radio and towards streaming services is indicative of how the attention economy now dictates how artists get their start. The short, repetitive TikTok sounds may be prime for algorithmic hits, but not for the thrill of the hunt.
“A lot of the fun of finding an underground artist is the reward that comes with how much you have to dig to find them,” said Giraudi. “Tiktok makes it too easy. It’s not about flexing, it’s more like how it feels to you. It’s more special if you actually had to put in effort to find that artist. I miss when I was more focused on this song as a whole and not just how catching the hook is like a 15 second clip.”
In an October 2019 article, James Shannon, CEO & Co-Founder at XONE, noted some of the facts about the attention economy that could be attributed to the extreme popularity of TikTok sounds. He cites a study that analyzed top 10 singles from the past several decades. Turns out, song intros have become considerably shorter. Shannon writes that in the 80s, “the average intro ran 20-25 seconds. By 2015, it had shrunk to a mere 5 seconds.” At first glance, it’s easy to theorize that shorter attention spans have condensed the intro. While this has some truth to it, the real changes have been in the platforms that govern the industry.
Evidence is as obvious as early tracks from The Beatles and The Beach Boys in the mid 60’s. Most songs on the bands’ wildly popular albums never cracked three minutes. This decision ultimately boiled down to radio time. Interested in maximizing their potential for a #1 hit, these bands knew that shorter songs were much more marketable.
Today, instead of the radio working as the primary influencer of musical proliferation, streaming giants like Spotify and Apple Music stand in as the keepers of popular music. For example, Spotify only counts a streaming “listen” if a song has been played for at least 30 seconds. This heavily incentivizes artists to get to the chorus or main hook of the song quicker, so as not to dissuade listeners with a near 30-second intro.
Shannon also points out the need for music to adapt in a video-dominated market. A visual component is now instrumental to virality. Look no further than the emergence of TikTok dance challenges as primary identifiers for a song’s relevance.
The emergence of social media platforms as widely-used common spaces has had a deep effect on how music is consumed. Santa Clara musicians use socially-driven music platforms like TikTok, Bandcamp and Soundcloud to promote their music in addition to listening to and sharing other artists’ work.
Student musician Gonzalo Chun, lead singer and rhythm guitarist of Pluie, also notes how TikTok has been a big contributor to many smaller artists’ explosive fame.
“TikTok has become a huge marketing tool for musicians. I know this one band that hadn’t released any music, but had so many followers and people wanting to hear the music,” said Chun. “And then they put out their song and went viral because people already knew about it from TikTok.”
While the attention economy has been the cause behind significant changes in the music industry, it has also spurred a growing passion in young people for music appreciation and creation. This leaves the future of music at a strange crossroads. Increasingly short songs may not be a welcome transition, and the true artistry of music is, perhaps, fading. Or, progressive structural equity means that music is more accessible and the industry no longer has the same barriers to entry for small creators. Whichever side you believe in, it is clear that music will never be the same.