The Streamer, ‘Top-Down Listening’, and Musical Socialism
By Ben John
The change in music listening platforms from iPods and mp3 devices to online streaming services like Spotify and Apple Music has changed the way in which people listen to music more significantly than any other platform change since vinyl. Whilst it is well established that new technology has allowed more people access to creating music (even easier when most people pirate software anyway – I’m looking at you, Lorde) the way that streaming makes people’s listening habits more egalitarian is not often talked about.
Music streaming means that people are inclined to listen to new music in a ‘top-down’ way. This means that instead of buying an album and listening to it from start to finish, they will search for an artist and when faced with a list of otherwise equal song titles - the modern streamer will differentiate them in a way previously impossible - and that is by the play-count on the tracks. They will begin with the most popular tracks and work their way down from the top.
I know from personal experience, and from talking to other music listeners, that in many cases this ‘working down’ will last only a few songs. This normally leaves the streamer with a broad range of known artists, but only a shallow depth of intimacy with those artists. I may have 1000 artists on my Spotify, but likely only have a couple of songs for each artist (with few notable exceptions).
This is markedly distinct from the listening habits of older generations who listened in what could be described as from the ‘bottom-up’. They would buy an album, and listen to it all, finding their personal favourites by actually listening to all of the songs. They found the best tracks by surprise on their first listen. The streamer won’t stumble across their favourite track - they will let the algorithm find the most popular ones, and take their pick from that.
The digital listener demands: “Give me what you got!”, then takes the best one or two tracks from that artist to add to their ultimate playlist(s) before moving on. A good modern example might be Stormzy. How many lovers of ‘Shut Up’ would really know the name of any of his other songs?
What are the implications of this?
1 - Music listening is shallower
The first and most obvious implication is that digital listeners are potentially missing out on some great songs in the back-catalogues of each and every artist that may, and probably do contain, some potential classics that the algorithms do not bring to the top for the very reason that no-one is listening to them. It creates a cycle where the popular tracks get more popular, and the forgotten gems stay forgotten to everyone other than those who commit to plodding through the hundreds of un-featured songs available beneath the surface.
It is easy to observe this phenomenon in live performances. I can’t count the number of gigs that I have been to where the majority of the crowd is familiar with one or maybe two of the songs, and the rest are new to their ears. I would be lying if I claimed to not have been one of these people many times. From the 2014 Mobb Deep concert that I attended had a crowd that only got truly animated for the last song: ‘Shook Ones Pt. II’ to the 2018 Verge Collection gig that only started grooving for ‘Our Place’.
The scary thing is that this phenomenon actually also seems to be working retroactively: it shapes our taste in older artists as well. A 1970s listener would have been much more likely to have a deeper knowledge of Earth, Wind and Fire’s songs but nowadays your average streamer would be able to name ‘September’, ‘Boogie Wonderland’ and ‘Let’s Groove’.
2 - Music listening is broader
It also means that people listen to a greater number if unique artists. We have wider and more inclusive music consumption habits, and this is where ‘musical socialism’ comes in. More than ever, individuals and smaller off-label artists are able not only to release their music, but to actually be heard, even if it is only one or two of their songs.
Listeners are not only exposed to more artists, but streaming means that they actually listen to more. It is one thing for access to making music to be more equal (like we also saw with punk bands in the late 1970s, for example) but it is another thing for the consumption of music to be more equal. With these two factors, the modern musical landscape looks a lot more socialist than the oligopoly of the past.
3 - Music is more collective: it is more about the genre than the artist
Whereas in the past we saw big, seminal albums by bands like Queen or Nirvana, we now see movements of music made up of hundreds of small artists moving like schools of fish (from Vaporware and Synthwave, to more established electronic genres like Techno, House and Drum & Bass, for example). That is not to say that genre did not exist before, but just that it existed in a different format i.e. led by a number of major artists who more or less dictated the sound of that genre.
Collective listening is particularly salient in electronic music where a question like “who is your favourite house artist?” is sort of a silly question. It is like picking a favourite street in your favourite city: you don’t go there for that street in particular, you go there for the hundreds of streets that make up the whole city. What matters now is the collective movement, not star-studded individual acts.
What might this mean for the future?
It looks like if this trend continues we might see music progress in a more genre-oriented way with thousands of individual acts contributing to more creative and original sounds than would ever have been possible when music was being shaped by fewer, more popular artists.
Top-down listening (along with more accessible music-making technology) will actually insulate music tastes from being shaped by the whims of those artists at the top, and instead will come from the collective tastes of many, smaller music makers. Music genres will become like hives swarming with contributors that have the ability to project our collective cultural consciousness by pooling those tastes and preferences together. In this world of escalating individualism – music seems to be going in the opposite direction.
*The author was given a free CD of the new Courtney Barnett record and he then got so bored he wrote this entire piece before even finishing the album*.