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Let’s rethink how music streaming culture is shaping our listening habits

According to data collected through the Spotify analytics team, you’re 49% likely to skip a song before it has ended, and nearly a quarter of all song plays will be skipped within the first five seconds of its running time. Our casual listening habits seem to corroborate this. You skip songs all the time; songs that don’t quite fit the mood; songs kept in streaming libraries that have lost their preference; songs recommended to you by an algorithm that don’t quite hit the mark. With access to a near compendium of all produced music, we seem to want nothing but the best at exactly the right time.

Most people have mastered the art of knowing what to think about a piece of music relatively quickly. All music recommendation services work on the assumption that the consumer trusts the artists they already listen to to lead them onto others they probably will like, and streaming services are made much more marketable to consumers if their discovery feed is consistently reliable at doing so. Hubert Léveillé Gauvin, a doctoral student in music theory at The Ohio State University spent a couple of months “listening to and analyzing songs that hit the top 10 from 1986 to 2015” and found not only “a dramatic shift away from long intros” but also “a marked increase in tempo”. It’s easy to mark this correlation and argue, as Léveillé Gauvin does, that we’re “operating in an ‘attention economy,’” where “attention is scarce and valuable.” This seems to suggests that not only has skipping songs become a symptom of smartphone culture but that the music industry itself is reacting in an imperative way, where the creative approach for artists and musicians involves competition with countless other possible hits in the battle for some level of instant gratification. In Léveillé Gauvin’s words, “If people can skip so easily and at no cost, you have to do something to grab their attention.”

This talk of diminishing attention spans when it comes to consuming popular entertainment isn’t new, and it isn’t specific to music either. The Guardian has argued that the rise of more complex television series and novels means that due to the multiplicity of our digital distractions, we demand something more compelling and engaging to keep us from checking our updates, which can only be a good thing. When it comes to music, taste and what we find compelling is an ever-developing thing. The charts are a good snapshot of the sort of things people are listening to for a particular stretch of time, but often aren’t indicative, or provide a very skewed perspective of what carries cultural currency in the long run. There are multiple factors that could contribute to the diminishing of intros in the charts, and it isn’t necessarily some sort of indicator for a wider, cultural impatience with what we consume. Technology is undoubtedly changing the way (and how much) music is made, listened to and distributed, and whatever form chart music takes as a result is simply the momentary peak of its commercial success.

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