Music and Attention Spans

by William Vance

We, as human beings, have access to almost every detail and soundbite known to man, all within only a few clicks of a few buttons on a touchscreen. To call upon beautifully crafted recordings of twenty-minute concertos done by century-old composers can be done in less time than it takes to say most of the composers’ names.

So why, with all of the sounds of human history in all their thoughtfully-crafted excellence just waiting to be devoured, does so much new music struggle to extend past the three minute mark?

Streaming services, such as Spotify or Pandora, give us the ability to change our experience with hardly a second thought. Compare this to the listening experience you might have had listening to a 1950’s radio. Would you turn the radio dial on the station just because you didn’t like the Perry Como song that suddenly shattered the airwaves? Probably not. But in today’s world, close to 30% of songs streamed on Spotify are skipped within the first ten seconds.

There’s an infinite number of new songs being released on any given day. When it comes to which songs catch our attention, it is truly survival of the fittest. Records have only a few short seconds to grab the listeners attention, or else they run the risk of being skipped (or worst, disliked). If listeners can simply reach for a touch screen when finding something they might like more, why wouldn’t they? It’s merely the nature of the beast. 

Streaming services allow us to listen to our favorite artists without any monetary commitment. All we need to give up is a small amount of our most precious resource we have: our attention. 

Micro songs (considered to be any song under three minutes) are the artist’s answer to this new business model offered by streaming platforms. It allows for easy accessibility to their music with a minimal time commitment, which leads to fewer skips. Lil Pump’s least expected breakout track of 2018, “Gucci Gang,” runs a little under two minutes — and it took the world by storm.

Lil Pump – Gucci Gang

It is also essential to understand how artists are financially compensated for their streams. On Spotify, it only takes thirty seconds of streaming of a track for the artist to accrue a play, for which they can get paid. Drake’s double-album, Scorpion, was chock full of short snippets explicitly designed with this in mind. A 90-minute album, comprised of twenty-five tracks, will bring in more money to the artist than a 90-minute album with fifteen. 

The sad truth means that everything past thirty seconds of a song is seen with a lot less value. Artists and labels will pull out all of their tricks to keep you engaged for that first half minute. This has even led to new structures and arrangements in pop music. Starting the song with a subdued version of the imminent chorus might just sufficiently engage the listener, with the hopes they will continue listening for that prized few more seconds. 

When I say less value, I do not mean completely worthless. Spotify’s algorithm tracks which songs are listened to all the way through — just over 50% of them — and helps those songs get featured on their massive playlists. This indirectly leads to more income through increased plays, which is a definite boon for the artists. 

Technology has ballooned at such rapid speed in our lives that it can be challenging to understand just how ingrained it is in our culture and psyche. Music is such a part of our daily lives that it can be easy to lose sight of the forest through the trees, amidst the ongoing evolution of such a complex industry. 

Evolutions in technology have changed how we do just about everything in life. From literature, news, entertainment, art, movies, and more, the digital era has become as much a part of our lives as just about any other major shift of the past half-century. As many things change around us, it is always essential to understand just how it affects what we hold so dear. 

Music has always been a sign and representation of the times. It must rarely, however, be a victim of the time in which it exists. 

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