The Music Industry’s Race to The Bottom

Streaming services have changed music forever.

How do you listen to music nowadays? Most likely, you subscribe to some sort of music streaming service (Spotify, Apple Music, Tidal, etc). These platforms have revolutionized music for consumers. You are able to search and listen to millions of songs in a heartbeat without paying anything more than a monthly fee. Personally, I’ve used Spotify Premium for over six years.

However, there are some disturbing trends happening now within the music industry. Listening to Spotify’s Top 50 or the Billboard Hot 100 throughout this year, you may have noticed that a good chunk of songs seemed to be quite short. And you would be right.

A study was done earlier this year revealing that hit songs are becoming shorter and shorter. Meanwhile, artists are cramming an increasing number of brief songs into their albums. One of the main reasons that artists have gone this route is the growth of the streaming industry.

Seventy-five percent of all US music revenues are now derived from streaming services, based on data from 2018. Compare that with 2013, when streaming revenues were only 21% of the total. This trend shows no sign of slowing either. Similar to the movie industry, owning physical copies of media is becoming more infrequent every year due to advancements in technology. There aren’t many out there who are still buying CDs, DVDs, and Blu-Rays.

Observing the Billboard Top 100, we notice an increasing number of songs under 2 minutes, 30 seconds. The percentage of these songs has steadily increased since 2015, rising from 1% in 2015 to over 6% in 2018. The current Billboard chart has 11 songs that are 2:30 or less, almost doubling last year’s average. If we expand our range to 3:05 or less, that’s over 40 songs. The median song length on the chart is 3:09.

The percentage of songs that are 2:30 or less. This number will probably rise again in 2019.

Artists now have the incentive to focus on quantity, not quality. The more content(songs) you put out into the world, the better. Artists routinely release 20 song albums where almost all of the songs are under 3:00. Singles that are very short tend to be played over and over on streaming services.

Every song on these platforms earns money at the same rate. A full play of a 5-minute song pays the same as a full-play of a 2-minute song. Spotify does not reveal the exact amount they pay to the rights holders, but reports say that it is around $0.008 per play.

Using our example, 1 million plays would pay $8,000 regardless of song length. However, one song was played for 2 million minutes while the other played for 5 million minutes. Is that fair? I’m not sure. But we can see without a doubt that the incentives to make shorter songs is working.

Although the quality of music is technically subjective, you can make a strong argument that the quality has gone down quite significantly. There was no strong “Song of the Summer” this year, outside of “Old Town Road” by Lil Nas X, possibly. By the way, the original version of the song clocked in at 1 minute, 53 seconds. In the genre of hip-hop, there aren’t many memorable albums in 2019 and the top hits are overloaded with two-minute songs mostly about nothing. Artists like Taylor Swift and Ed Sheeran failed to deliver on their high expectations for their albums.

The technology of streaming has its positive aspects, such as allowing less well-known bands to achieve more exposure than previously imagined. On the other hand, record executives and some of the artists themselves have cracked its code. Don’t experiment too much with the instrumentals and production and keep the songs short and simple.

As a person who streams music daily, I hope these trends do not continue much longer. Sure, I love digging deep for new music but I also enjoy throwing on the Top Hits playlists. I prefer the songs are not the same cookie-cutter formula that end in 120 seconds.

M.A. in Applied Economics. I'm here to talk about economics, politics, and life. Follow me here and on Twitter @FrankLukacovic

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