Mobile internet, news feeds, trending topics and more: over recent years, I’ve become increasingly aware of the sheer volume of headlines, opinions and trends we’re exposed to on a daily basis. And with a multitude of sites and channels requiring new content every minute, the pace of the onslaught shows no signs of slowing.
In the music, art and cultural realm, this appetite for novelty has resulted in more than just an increase in new releases or festivals. (The Covid-19 pandemic has stifled this trend on a temporary basis, at least for live events, but has in no way changed its general direction). Perhaps the starkest changes have been in the music industry, where, over the last 20 years, new technology has altered our listening habits in an unprecedented and radical fashion. It is not only the production and distribution of music that has become easier and cheaper as a result of technology: since listeners have been able to access an endless variety of music via streaming services for a few euros each per month, the value of music also seems to have decreased.
Napster: a place for music discovery and exchange
The seed for the current trend was planted all the way back in 1999, when then 19-year-old college student Shawn Fanning launched the first peer-to-peer music exchange in Boston in the form of Napster. As the first service of its kind in the world, it fundamentally changed the way we access and manage music. Contrary to what you might believe, however, the idea behind the program was not to enable file sharing, which is problematic under copyright law. (Indeed, there would have been no demand for such a service: such unlawful file sharing was already in full swing via the servers at the universities.)
Instead, what rendered the program so attractive was the opportunity to search for and manage music without any knowledge of the inner workings of a computer. It was the first time users had been able to search for songs they knew – and discover new ones – among an expansive library of music files.
iTunes and the short, but triumphant reign of music downloads
It didn’t take long for U.S. hardware and software developer Apple to cotton onto the trend. In 2003, it opened the iTunes Store, paving the way for convenient, mass-market access to music via download. (The opening of the store was timed to coincide with the launch of the iPod, its iconic portable MP3 player.)
The effects didn’t take long to trickle down. According to the annual report of the Bundesverbandes Musikindustrie (Federal Music Industry Association), the number of blank CDs sold annually in Germany rose from 58 million in 1999 to 303 million in 2003, while the number of pre-recorded music CDs fell from 210 million to 146 million over the same period.
Streaming: millions of songs, whenever, wherever
Millions of songs are now available for a monthly fee of a few euros via streaming providers such as Apple Music, YouTube Music, Deezer or Spotify. But if we look back 20 years to the turn of the millennium, few people would have imagined that they would ever be able to access such a vast amount of music on their personal devices.
According to the Federal Music Industry Association, two thirds of profits from the sale of music in Germany (made up of CDs, vinyl, DVDs, downloads and streaming) now come from digital sources. In 2019, only six percent of this was accounted for by downloads; over half was earned via audio streaming.
I can hear something you can’t
In my view, it is the availability of on-demand streaming – as well the decreased cost and, above all, the decreased value of music – that has driven changes in listening behaviour. When I saved for months as a teenager to buy my favourite artists’ new releases, it was only natural that I would – much to the chagrin of my parents – listen to the entire album dozens of times in a row. Music had an obvious value to me. Every release was something special, and my precious, newly-acquired recordings were deserving of my time. Today, however, I can access millions of different songs instantly and from anywhere for less than the price of an audio CD.
For one thing, this new way of engaging with music means that it is becoming more and more difficult to draw listeners’ attention to individual tracks. For another, it confronts both listeners and streaming providers with the question of how music should best be categorised in the future .
Are playlists the new mixtapes?
One possible answer to this question lies in Spotify’s playlists. Here, music is grouped and categorised according to:
- The atmosphere or mood it complements or engenders
- The purposes it fulfils
- The occasions for which it offers the fitting ambience
It would appear that the notion of an individually tailored music mix is becoming more important to listeners and, indeed, that it is now a central element of music consumption. It is worth noting that the concept is nothing new: as early as the 1980s, mixtapes on audio cassettes and later on self-burned CDs (despite the retention of the word ‘tapes’ to denote the concept) were an identity-defining facet of youth culture. For me, these individual CD samplers served as a kind of business card, providing a multi-faceted reflection of my taste in music and my personality at the time. In the age of streaming, playlists have taken over this function and run with it.
Inevitably, the importance of individual songs has decreased. Music has become an on-demand resource that can be adapted to one’s taste and mood at any given time. Whether for sport, for relaxation, for concentration, for the party or as background music in a café: today, artists and styles that would previously have been separated by genre-based classification systems exist side-by-side in perfect harmony. (Not that that’s a bad thing, mind: each of us has our own mental picture of the music that goes well with certain occasions, and genre boundaries usually have little to do with it!)
Metal, punk or country: genres persist despite playlists
Given this development, are conventional music genres also set to lose their relevance? Not quite. For one thing, it is likely that labels, music journalists and promoters will uphold the convention of genre classification for its ability to broadly indicate to listeners what a new band or a new album might sound like. For another, the musicians and bands themselves will inevitably continue to invoke certain defined styles and conventions.
Of course, there will continue to be individual artists – like David Bowie – who change styles several times in their careers. Similarly, there will continue to be new music that transcends genre boundaries, or new albums in which each song takes a different style (a la the White Album, if not the same quality!).
That said, it seems unlikely that musicians will arbitrarily begin creating songs in ‘Shuffle mode’ with the sole aim of cracking as many Spotify playlists as possible. Rather, I anticipate that previously standard classification criteria – genre as one of them – will begin to play a less well-defined role than before. (This can be seen, for example, in the line-ups of large music festivals such as Lollapalooza in Berlin, where a rap and EDM-dominated lineup appears to be well received by attendees.) Further examples of such genre blending include the collaboration between Linkin Park and Jay-Z on the 2004 album Collision Course or Blanco Brown’s smash hit The Git Up.
Music as recreational fun, not as subcultures
For me, the one thing that seems undeniably clear is that the days of musical genres as identity-defining subcultures are over. Influential youth movements like the hippies and mods of the 1960s, punk in the 1970s or grunge in the 1990s have little relatability to younger generations. Has music lost relevance as a result? I would say not. According to the Shell Youth Study, almost 60% of young people still cite listening to music as one of their most frequent and most-enjoyed leisure activities.
Staying curious, discovering new music
It might also be the case that genre boundaries are dissolving due to the sheer availability of different music from streaming providers, which means that young people are exposed to a much greater range of styles than before. As a result, I find that adolescents are much more open-minded in their musical tastes than they were 10 or 15 years ago.
Indeed, this is the advantage of modern media use: just as we often come across interesting tangential topics when searching for a term on Wikipedia, when we use Spotify playlists and the Autoplay function on YouTube, we are introduced to a much wider range of musicians and bands than we would have been able to discover alone (after all, no matter how hard they try, magazines, blogs and radio stations cannot cover the music market in its entirety). If one thing is for certain, it’s that this way of engaging with music will have far-reaching consequences in the future – for artists and consumers alike.
What do you think? Are genres still a meaningful way of categorising music? Are Spotify playlists really helping audiences to engage with more new music and a broader range of genres than before? Let me know in the comments!