READ MORE: (March 18, 2018) Alan Cross on 13-year-old rock vs pop cycle theory
The 12 to 13 year old pop / rock cycle proved to be very reliable from the mid 1950s. But here’s the catch: it only worked when the music was ruled by the radio, record companies, music stores and music magazines. Together they formed a bloc of cultural custodians who regulated what music managed to do to the general public.
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But then the Internet came and everything changed.
Instead of a few guards guiding the public consensus on music, individual music fans empowered by technologies such as file sharing and streaming could access the entire music library of mankind. We have all become our own musical directors, greatly eroding the power and influence of the old guard. Today, with billions of music fans free to go their own way, the old patterns and cycles have collapsed. Making predictions about the future course of music has become devilishly difficult.
On the bright side, however, we have more user data than ever before. Is there any information we can get out of the noise regarding the future of music? Let’s try.
COVID-19 fallout on music sales will be bad
Nielsen’s biannual report on Canadian music sales and streaming statistics offers interesting read.
CD and vinyl sales have increased since 2019, but have shown signs of life in the past two weeks, increasing 5.7% year over year.
But music lovers continue to switch to streaming as their preferred delivery system with consumption up 16.7% from last year.
Prediction: Compact discs will continue their way to a niche format. And the vinyl boom seems to be over – for now, anyway. Meanwhile, Canadians will continue to adopt streaming at an increasing rate.
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The incredible shrinking pop song
An analysis of the top 10 hits on the Billboard Hot 100 singles charts of the past 20 years shows a tendency towards brevity.
In 2000, the average length of a hit in the top 10 was four minutes and 22 seconds. Today is three minutes and 42 seconds. This trend has accelerated in recent years. If we look at the hits from 2013 to 2018, the average uptime has dropped from three minutes and 50 seconds to three minutes and 30 seconds. About 6% of Hot 100 songs were less than two minutes and 30 seconds long.
What causes this contraction? Diffusion. The new streaming system has reduced our attention span, which means the easiest way to get more streams (and therefore pay more) is to shorten songs.
Shorter songs have been proven to move up the charts faster. Also, a dozen short songs will get more songs than six longer ones. Artists are therefore encouraged to keep things well.
Prediction: The playing time of pop songs will continue to decrease. It is a return to the 1950s and 1960s where the blows lasted three minutes or less.
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Pop songs are getting more and more sad and depressing – or are they?
In 2018, scientists using machine learning determined that pop music was getting slower, sadder, and more depressing. They even assigned a number to the phenomenon: pop music was “20% less happy”.
Apparently 2015 was particularly bleak. Pop in North America dropped at an average rate of 90.5 beats per minute. Over the next few years, the mood created by the Trump administration, Brexit, and other negative socio-political conditions contributed to this dominant attitude.
But this year, amid COVID-19, Trump’s scandalous shenanigans, Brexit uncertainty, and global civil rights protests, the BBC reported that pop was getting faster and happier. Tempos and positivity are increasing.
Counter intuitive? May be. Or maybe with everything bombarding us today, we just need some escape.
TikTok could be another factor. You can’t really go viral dancing to a sad song.
Prediction: The people will dance in Revelation.
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Rock is ready to do … something
When Donald Trump was elected and the UK started to move towards Brexit, I predicted an increase in the number of angry and aggressive songs, leading to a big resurgence in rock music. Young people, angry and afraid of what is going on in their world, will soon turn to music that reflects what they are feeling. The recession of the early 1990s, the first Gulf War and the Republican administrations were they not big factors in the rise of grunge? Absolutely. History would repeat itself.
Well no. Instead of fighting against the establishment, rock and alt-rock became slower, sadder, and more introspective, resulting in an abundance of mid-tempo songs with themes of doom and lust for. return to less stressful times. (See Stress by Twenty One Pilots and I wish I knew you by The Revivalists). And no matter how bizarre life was, no one showed much interest in protest songs.
But the coronavirus struck and millions of people lost their jobs. This could be a tipping point for rock. Research published this month in the journal Popular media psychology suggests that the intensity and frequency of anger in song lyrics increases with the unemployment rate. Losing your concert has a terrible effect on your mood, which influences your musical choices. At the same time, the musicians capture the mood of the audience, creating songs that reflect how society feels. The situation then begins to feed on itself.
It can already happen. A 2020 version of nu-metal, the polarizing mix of rap and rock from the late 90s, reappeared in the form of something called “glock rock.” Keep an eye out for artists like Machine Gun Kelly, Dominic Fike, Lil Uzi Vert and Post Malone.
Prediction: Rock is really good at being angry. Hip-hop too. The fuse may already be on.
Look below: Machine Gun Kelly, Bloody valentine
No more distrust of what the charts tell us
For decades, the North American music industry has kept a score by looking at the charts published by Billboard. In the past, position on the map was determined by a combination of sales and radio broadcasting. Today, however, people also get music via streaming (Spotify, Apple Music, etc.), YouTube, Facebook, and other online platforms. This consumption is not adequately reflected in today’s music charts.
To complicate matters, the continued manipulation of cards by record companies and artists. If we can’t trust Billboard to tell us what’s hot, what do we do?
Yes, hip-hop / rap is the dominant genre when it comes to streaming, but that doesn’t tell the whole story. Hip-hop / rap doesn’t move much in terms of concert tickets or merchandise compared to rock artists. If we are to assess the popularity of music, should that not be part of the equation?
Another point to consider is the way pop music fans listen to their new favorite songs on streaming services. A subset of these people will repeat songs by listening to them several times in a row. This type of listening makes it difficult to determine how the general public listens and distorts the results of the graphs.
Prediction: Nothing will change much. As long as the position on the map can be used for bragging within the industry, there will be no rush to change the existing system.
Alan Cross is a broadcaster with Q107 and 102.1 the Edge and a commentator for Global News.
Subscribe to Alan’s New Music Ongoing Story podcast now on Apple Podcast or Google Play
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