The age of Spotify

How streaming shaped the music industry

By Soncirey Mitchell
Reader Staff

For the most part, Gen-Zers who grew up using streaming services like Spotify understand music in terms of individual songs and moods rather than traditional albums, which has shaped the music industry in unforeseen ways.

The Swedish streaming service Spotify came to the U.S. in 2011 after years of financial uncertainty in the music industry. Digital music began to surpass physical mediums around the turn of the century, leaving musicians vulnerable to piracy sites like Napster and unable to rely on their conventional income stream.

Beginning with the first iPod in 2001, Apple moved to  monopolize the industry, accounting for 69% of all digital sales by 2009, according to Variety. With copyright infringement lawsuits taking out the larcenous competition, Apple proved that the industry could still be profitable as long as music was as easily accessible as it had been on file sharing websites.

Spotify took this idea a step further, opening a global music catalog for a fixed price (or free with ads), rather than selling individual items.

Streaming revenues surpassed those of downloads by 2016, with Spotify accounting for 44% of the global market, according to Variety. The Michigan Journal of Economics estimates that Spotify still maintains control of 30% of the market, meanwhile piracy rates continue to drop.

Not only did this supercharge the industry, it affected what kinds of music people listen to. Audiences could afford to be more experimental because they didn’t have to commit to buying an entire album, allowing unknown artists and obscure genres to find their audiences.

Listeners are exposed to new artists through personalized or public playlists, which means they’re only likely to hear one song off an album at a time. This change in listening practices shifted artists’ focus away from creating cohesive albums and toward tailoring each song to suit certain types of playlists.

Playlists can be categorized by genre, but Spotify’s curated playlists like “Feelin‘ Good,” “Villain Mode” and “Getting Ready” are preorganized by ambiance, vibes or their associated activities. In order to reach “Feelin‘ Good’s” audience of 3,622,793 users, musicians have to embody the target emotion well enough to be picked up by Spotify’s algorithm or team of editors, who essentially function as international DJs.

Editors create those playlists by analyzing music trends and location-based data while the service’s algorithm generates personalized recommendations based on users’ Spotify search history, time spent listening, saved music, skipped songs, age, language and approximate location — as well as the behavior of similar listeners.

Targeted playlists give musicians the freedom to seek out extremely niche audiences rather than attempt to conform to a particular genre.

With the skip button quite literally at their fingertips, users are far less likely to listen to a song that doesn’t immediately resonate with them. Therefore, in order to achieve the number of plays needed to make a profit — defined by Spotify as a user listening to a song for at least 30 seconds — modern musicians tend to frontload their songs, as seen in Billboard’s Song of the Summer contender “Espresso” by Sabrina Carpenter, which opens with the chorus.

The Michigan Journal of Economics estimates that entertaining a listener for those coveted 30 seconds still only turns a profit of $0.003 to $0.005.

The intros and overall lengths of songs have also grown shorter. Only 23 of 50 songs on Spotify’s “Today’s Top Hits” playlist breach the three-minute mark, and the ones that do are largely produced by superstars like Taylor Swift, Ariana Grande, Billie Eilish and Beyoncé, whose name recognition attracts listeners.

In the ’90s, before the rise of streaming, songs averaged around four minutes and 14 seconds, according to The Washington Post.

Meanwhile, the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry’s “2024 World Music Report” revealed that streaming accounted for 67.3% of the industry’s global revenue in 2023 — an increase of 10.4%, or approximately $19.3 billion, from the previous year. By comparison, physical sales made up 17.8% and performances accounted for only 9.5%.

One day the question, “What’s your favorite album?” might stop haunting Gen-Z altogether because artists could exclusively release singles and EPs in an attempt to appeal to multiple types of playlists in the shortest amount of time. When the day comes that releasing full albums is considered “retro,” though, I’ll know it’s time to shuffle off this mortal coil.

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