How long is a song? In the US Top 100 between 2013 and 2018 the average song length fell from 3 minutes 50 seconds to 3 minutes 30 seconds. Between 2010 and 2018 the number of these songs that reached their chorus in the first 15 seconds rose from 20% to 40%.
The battle for attention is a race to the bottom, where artists create shorter songs with earlier hooks to get attention quicker – and hopefully earn a bit more streaming money - because getting to the point matters, especially on curated playlists, where we all swipe away, as if music is an Instagram pose.
But actually, fat chance of this strategy working – 82% of professional musicians in the UK say they earn less than £200 pa from streaming.
There’s fierce competition. It’s cheaper than ever to produce an album from your bedroom. Digital Audio Workstations such as Apple’s Logic Pro can make music-makers of anybody. Whilst most musicians I know mix home and studio recording, the lines are blurred. My friend T has a really sophisticated setup in his flat so he can produce to pro standard. I have fabulous microphones to record my lead vocals here in this room at home. We go to studios to record drums, and tracks where we want to record all instruments at once, as a band. We mix and match, depending on budget, time and what we’re trying to achieve – the sound, the feel – what the song dictates.
There are digital tools to take mixed tracks and bypass the final stage - mastering - to get the sound that will work across different media (like CD, vinyl, streams), different devices (say, record deck, CD player, phone, car stereo) and different speakers (like earbuds, proper headphones, hi fi speakers). Yup, there are cheap automated tools for this most alchemical of processes. It used to be the preserve of real specialists – and Mastering Engineers can still make a huge difference if you care, and know what to listen for!
The point is that ultimately, it costs far less to make music – it’s democratised.
And it costs far less to distribute music too. For a hundred quidlets a year, or on an as-needed basis, you sign up to Distrokid or CD Baby, and see your music magically appear on Spotify, Apple Music, Amazon, Tidal, Pandora and 30 other places you’ve never heard of. And you may or may not get heard…
The result is a huge explosion in the amount of music available to everyone. In the early 1970s about 130,000 albums were released each year in the US. Now, 3,000,000 albums are added to Spotify each year. Loads of it is by unsigned people like me. Most of the tracks are never ever listened to. There’s even a website www.forgotify.com that streams music from Spotify that’s never been heard.
All the data points above come from the article ‘To monopolise our ears’ by Daniel Cohen in the London Review of Books (vol 45, issue 9, 4 May 2023). I recommend it if you’re prepared to hate Spotify for how you’ve become a pawn in their drive to ‘monopolise your ears’ through music and audio, playing as the constant soundtrack, curated for your life.
Personally, I flipped when Spotify congratulated me for what I listened to last year. I hate the fact that algorithms give me playlists and album recommendations based on my habits. I am not a vector, I am a person! I have ‘agency’! I love deep sea navigation in unknown musical waters!
Musicians are people too. (Shock! Horror!) They all have doubts about what they write, what they do, whether anything is of value, whether their friends and families or some undefinable audience will ‘get it’. But most don’t get the chance because all the above combines to mitigate against artists being properly listened to. I’d rather not be heard at all than not be listened to. Maybe!
I don’t believe artists make music to be heard passively, as one track, for 3 minutes and 30 seconds. They curate songs and tracks into a body of work that’s released, a reflection of their artistic journey at a point in time. They fret over running orders, what songs to include and exclude, how to balance an overall sound and feel with distinctiveness in each track - that altogether reflects their artistic identity. The single is an advert, the reminder they exist, rather than the body of work itself. I don’t know a single artist who thinks ‘songwriter’ means ‘a writer of one song’.
I believe music deserves attention, that artists and their work deserve respect for their creativity and commitment.
So at Christmas 2022, I started on my journey, armed only with a Tidal app (maybe some time I will relent on the Spotify thing - shallow, that's me, shallow), a few magazines and newspapers full of reviews, something called a radio, people to give me recommendations, and a bunch of preferences and prejudices…