Welcome back for the second half [Part 1] of my intuition – or brain splurge, whatever you wanna call it – about a rift in today’s music making. There’s a faultline, y’see. Not that it’s anyone’s actual fault but ours. And at that, I don’t see anything wrong with albums swelling to the proportions of Lily Allen’s vodka cabinet or, contrarily, shrinking to a nugget that lasts for half of the time of an old-skewl LP.
It’s just a symptom of our age. Maybe. That’s why I needed some professional help to silence the insistent caw of my bullshit with, like, stats and such. Hubert Léveillé Gauvin is a man for the job. He’s a doctoral student at Ohio State University, working in the field of ‘cognitive and systemic musicology.’ Last year, he wrapped up a study on popular songs from 1986 to 2016, curious (like me) as to whether the form of our listening – streams, downloads and phone jacks – has steered the content of the music we’re presented with.
In short: have we become more fickle? Are artists taking the hint? If so, what explains the super-long record from those who don’t blink at an arena tour? Here’s what he said, after a clammy two weeks of emails . . .
Hey, Hubert. Your research has fascinated me somewhat, as you’re quantifying trends across two generations. Could you explain the crux of the study to our readers?
HLG: Certainly. The one-sentence-takeaway is this: music listening in the streaming era is governed by the principles of ‘Attention Economy’. Specifically, our attention is scarce, valuable, and subject to supply and demand dynamics as modelled in a microeconomic society.
The main study was designed to evaluate if (and how) music has changed in the last three decades. Based on my theory, I was expecting music to become more attention-grabbing. I analysed the top 10 songs in that time. The results were as follows:
The number of words in titles has dropped from 3.1, on average, to 2.2 words.
Average tempo rose from 94bpm to 101bpm, giving an 8% increase.
Instrumental intros have followed suit – from 23 seconds to 5. That’s a 78% decrease.
Likewise, time has dropped before the hook tends to enter, from 60 to 49.
Those results were really exciting! Composers behaved exactly as predicted: the more competitive the musical scene is becoming, the more attention-grabbing is becoming. The biggest effect was on instrumental introductions, which have virtually disappeared in the last 30 years. This suggests either that listeners don't want to listen to songs with long introductions anymore, or that artists believe that listeners don't want to listen to songs with protracted openings.
I’ve read the report summary, and it seems that ‘self-focus in lyrical content’ is one of your variables. Does this relate to a question of whether modern artists are more ego centric? That to talk about oneself, lyrically, is now more popular than singing about other things? Perhaps we’re getting more narcissistic as an audience too . . .
HLG: Actually, that was only my hypothesis. I was expecting songs with a high content of self-related words to become more popular overtime. I didn’t see this trend in the data though; the proportion of self-focused words per song was statistically stable over the three decades of music I analysed.
So in line with the Attention Economy context, do you believe that individual songs on albums are getting shorter? I’m also aware this is driven partly by how Spotify has changed chart music eligibility.
HLG: I haven’t really thought about that specifically, but it would make sense. With online streaming services, the idea of a single (i.e. a song being promoted by a label to get airplay) is perhaps less important than before, at least with more indie artists. Really any song can be included on a Spotify playlist, not just the ‘official’ single. So in that sense, one might expect all songs – and not just hits – to be influenced by the Attention Economy principles. On the other hand, digital music also affords artists to produce very long songs which might appeal to their core (maybe niche, you’d say) audience . . . Not sure I actually answered your question here. I guess I don’t know is what I’m saying.
Cool, some ambiguity will get our readers fired up, we’ll have to change address just in case they pitchfork us. What I keep returning to is the groundswell of six and seven-track albums in recent years. But also, big artists have made some prodigiously epic records. Might that oh-so-valuable attention currency be facing an impasse i.e. ‘either you get excited about a little, compact album, or a massive one – the middle ground is boring now’?
HLG: That’s interesting. I’d say that, traditionally, attention as a currency is a theory that works best when applied to mass culture. On the other hand, genres that’ve tended to be associated with drawn out music were usually more niche (think of hip hop for example). So it’s possible that, for crossover artists, such as rappers producing massively popular songs, creating a very long album is a way to establish yourself in a sustained tradition of seminal albums. For example, when might argue that Drake’s overwrought Scorpion is a way to establish himself as a ‘real’ hip-hop artist. A win-win situation here could be to have short, attention-grabbing songs embedded in a large, ambitious oeuvre.
I see where you’re coming from here. Yes – magnificence and sheer size have often gone been synonymous in the past, in so many art forms, although a peppering of little records shows maturity and restraint. But with vinyl selling so well in the West, this must only affect commercial artists, right? I’d like to hear your views on whether niche or indie acts are cutting their songs/albums down, or whether they don’t care, as the chart incentive doesn’t really affect them.
HLG: Oh I’m so glad you’re bringing this up! This is just a conjecture and I don’t have any data supporting this, but I suspect that indie band who primarily release their music on vinyl are more immune to the Attention Economy than others. It would match the theory; since the medium (a vinyl) doesn’t afford easy skips, the economic market in which the songs live is less competitive. For example, there are less songs to compete with one another on the A side of the last Belle and Sebastian LP than on Spotify’s whole catalogue. Again, I don’t have any data to back this up. Just a theory.