Our changing relationship with music and its new practical function

Music executives need to understand how shifting context and function have changed music consumers and their expectations.

So, the music industry has changed. If you haven’t been living in a cave for the past 15 years you probably noticed. For those who need to catch up, here are the 3 main points that summarize it:

  • increased access to the means of production;
  • increased access to information;
  • democratization of distribution channels.

But some things remain unchanged by this digital revolution. Royalties distribution, for example. The correct distribution of copyright royalties is still a headache for composers, musicians and labels. Despite music having been practically dematerialised and living on networks where everything is trackable. Companies like Kobalt are trying to change this game, but we still have a long way to go until we get this right. This is an issue that deserves its own article, so I’ll leave it for now.

Among the lasting habits that have been practically untouched along these 15 years, my personal highlight goes to a mantra I hear in every conference, article and talk about music. It goes something like this: people’s emotional/behavioural relationship with music hasn’t changed. We still love music the way we always did.

A couple of weeks ago I was reading a report published by Vevo where in its introduction Erick Huggers, Vevo’s CEO, once again repeats the mantra:

Vevo's report on millennial's music consumption behaviour.
“Music creates transformative experiences. It has the power to connect people in personal and meaningful ways unlike any other medium. For music fans, it’s an essential part of how they live their day-to-day lives. Finding the songs and melodies that speak to them directly and reflect their unique personas isn’t so much a desire, but a need.”

Well, I don’t know where Huggers and others are looking, but I can’t believe that they still don’t see something that it’s in everyone’s face. This relationship has changed! C-H-A-N-G-E-D. I would write it upside down if I could.

Before we move on with the subject, I just want to make one thing clear: yes, music still moves crowds of people. Yes, it is more listened than ever. And yes, artists still have a lot of influence. However that doesn’t mean people still relate to music the same way they used to.

Probably there is no other cultural activity that is so universal, that permeates, affects and shapes human behaviour as much as music, said Alan P. Merriam in The Anthropology of Music. However, music’s own definition evokes a variety of philosophical, cultural and even political questions. Musicologists suggest that its definition is directly related to the social context and function of certain behaviours in a particular culture. In my opinion, these two words — context and function — define a fundamental element, so many times forgotten, of the discussion: the formation of our musical preferences. The changes in the way we build our tastes and preferences are the things that should be analyzed, so that we can understand why today music has a new function and also why we can no longer blindly support ourselves on arguments like the one above by Huggers, especially if it is presented in an music industry context. To understand context, function and how today these issues have altered people’s relationship with music, we must go back in time.

Music always had context and function. In the early days, when we were still just tribes, music used to have spiritual functions. Variety didn’t exist, neither was music entertainment. One’s tribe music was all that there was to listen to and it was directly related to celebration of the tribe’s beliefs. In other words, music was attached to religion. In this context, forget about music preference. People will listen to what the Chief says.

We evolved into more complex societies where we began to be divided into social classes. There were the nobles, the bourgeois, and the clergy. Then came everyone else. At this time the culture each one of these groups had access to, was a fundamental tool for social distinction. For the rich there were good instruments, good musicians, and concert halls. There was classical music. For the rest there were rudimentary instruments, self-taught musicians and taverns. There was folk music. In that context, musical preference was a status symbol and it showed to which social class one belonged.

Music had a fundamental roll in the formation of the hippie culture, being a tool for the creation of a collective identity.

During the 20th century the development of consumer societies gave new meaning to all goods produced. Especially after World War II, we started living in a society where for the first time supply was greater than demand. At this point there were a great number of companies offering very similar products and services. The technical differentiation between these goods gave space to brand personality construction and so we began consuming products not only for their quality but also because we identify with them. We started to use consumption as a way to build individual and collective identities. In this process, cultural goods —especially music — were extremely important. Musical preference was a key element in defining ones personality, particularly among the youth. It was what defined which group a person belonged to, which ideology he or she followed, and in what values he or she believed in, independent of what was his or her social-economical background. In that context, music preference was about identity.

We arrived at the beginning of the 21st century and all these functions — spiritual, social and identity building — still exist. The difference is that now they’ve lost strength and no longer are the pillars that define our musical preference. The 3 key elements of the digital revolution (access to the means of production, access to information and democratization of distribution channels) created a new context to music consumption having a direct impact in the way new generations are building their musical preferences.

Never before in history have we had access to so much music, for such a low cost and at such a high speed. The access difficulty, which in my opinion was a key element in keeping our preferences so narrow, was eliminated from the equation. At 15 (in 1998) I had a proud collection of roughly 100 CDs as a result of the musical choices I made. Today a teenager with the same age has access to humanity’s music library only a few clicks away.

The platforms in which we consume music have also changed. The introduction of the iPod started transforming music consumption into a private experience which allowed people to try out new music genres without worrying about their social image.

Music consumption habits were strongly impacted by the introduction of digital portable devices and headphones.

Through the ease of access and popularization of new platforms, music started being ubiquitous. The frontiers to experimentation were then opened and brought new tastes and the permission for listeners to break up the social identity chains of each genre allowing the free flow between a variety of different styles of music. It was the beginning of the process that freed music from its function as an identity building tool. At this point a new function for music emerges: the practical function.

Music started to be used according to the activities and tasks that listeners were performing during their daily routines. Like this, music preference that before was an almost immutable passion built through context, today looks like a chameleon changing from moment to moment. We are living the age of “I love this music, but at the right moment”, we see the creation of a generation of eclectics that use music in very practical ways, a generation where the mood related to an activity is more important than genre. Need to study? Downtempo or classical. Going to the gym? EDM or hip-hop. Time for cooking? Indie folk or jazz. Going to a party? Techno or trap. In other words, the experience is not in the music itself, but in what we do while while listening to it. In this context it is interesting to realize how we can look at today’s music services with new eyes. Last.fm is a great example.

Last.fm was one of the first social networks to use music to establish connections between users based on their music preferences. It identifies all tracks and the related artists played by its users and utilizes this data to build a personal music history. The initial goal was that from this list of most played artists the user’s musical preferences would arise. If a person listens to Beethoven, Mozart and Bach a lot then classical music must be his or her preference. But following the aforementioned argument, that music today has a practical function in people’s life, we can not accept this conclusion so fast. Classical music today is consumed a lot by people while they work and, in this case, we have to also consider that classical may not be their preference, but just the genre that follows her main daily activity: work. If the tasks we perform during the day are what are going to define what we will listen, and not our musical preference for a specific genre, then we can say that today, Last.fm does not present the musical preferences of its users, but a list of the activities they engage the most in.

While in Last.fm’s case we can consider that this data is generated “accidentally” as a service sub product, to Spotify the perception of the new practical function of music was fundamental to the development of its UX.

Spotify was one of the first major services to understand that to this new generation of listeners, the stars of streaming services are not songs and artists, but playlists and moods. Spotify’s user experience is built around these two elements, because the company understood that its users do not solely use the service for contemplation, but use music as a fuel for another activity. It was the first time I saw a service put together moods and genres side by side, presenting a perfect mirror for this profound change in music consumption behaviour. By focusing on moods and playlists, Spotify helps its users to quickly find a perfect selection of music to whatever activity he or she is engaging in, without having the headache of searching through 30 million songs to find the perfect ones for the moment.

Spotify and its long list of mood and activity playlists.

Now that we‘ve gone through the new practical function of music, how it changed the formation of our musical preferences, how it changed our relationship with music and finally how we can have a new look on services and business strategies, I want to go back to the focal point to this article which is the mantra “we still love music the same way we always did”. I’ll once again quote Vevo’s CEO Erick Huggers to present my counterpoints:

“Music creates transformative experiences. It has the power to connect people in personal and meaningful ways unlike any other medium.”

No, it is not music that creates the experience. Music is the background that helps to set the mood. The activity which people are engaging in is what connects people (with themselves or others). It is the Saturday lunch with friends, the picnic at the park, the music festival with 40.000 people in the middle of the desert.

“For music fans, it’s an essential part of how they live their day-to-day lives.”

I believe this statement is true only if we understand that music is an essential part of this new generation of listeners, because it gives the key to the activities they will engage in and not because — like in the past — it was used to build their personal and collective identities.

“Finding the songs and melodies that speak to them directly and reflect their unique personas isn’t so much a desire, but a need.”
A Spotify chart presenting the most loyal fans by music genre. Knowing a little bit about metal it‘s obvious that its fans are the most loyal ones. What's important to notice is how all the other genres are pretty even, showing that people are not attached to them.

Here is the big issue. Music for new generations is not about reflecting their unique personas, but a mirror of the activity he or she is performing. Music was once a question of loyalty and identity. Today it’s a good consumed according to moments. So the musical preferences of these listeners is much more flexible and no longer the reflection of their identities.

Whether this new perspective is something bad or good for music is not up to me (or especially to this article) to say. What is important here is that this revolution cannot be stopped. It is a continuous process of gradual transformation where the individual is in charge. It is a self regulating revolution where it is not up to industries and businesses to control it, but to really understand its culture, values, rules and players. We should not perceive this new listener from a conservative viewpoint or as an enemy to the music establishment. We should analyze it from an evolutionary standpoint where the listener is the transformation agent in a radical change in the social consumption relations.

Futurism is a science that usually gets its predictions wrong because it is done in large by people who look at technology and numbers (and because it is just damn hard to see what’s coming). Technology can change people’s behaviour, but only if it is the right time for it, in the right context. Numbers can sometimes be misleading. If you only look at the big numbers you might miss the small ones which are the real indicators of transformation. The real challenge in futurism is to predict how our behaviour is going to change. Borrowing from Tom Vanderbilt’s excellent article:

“When technology changes people, it is often not in the ways one might expect.”

Technology changed the way we listen to music and as a result we changed the way we feel about it. We should start considering that people are no longer loving music, but that they just like it. Or are even just using it. But what is more important is that only when we understand these changes, will the music industry be able to create services, products and business models that are in tune with this new listener.