How Has the Internet Changed Pop Music in the 2010s?
With 2019 firmly in the rear view mirror, we can appreciate what a strange time it was. This decade saw the internet affect everything from news and dating, to politics and media. In general, the smartphone revolution of the 2010s has touched all aspects of our lives.
In some ways, popular music is the most pure expression of these trends. Teens spend more time on phones than with their families, so we might expect the soundtracks of their lives to reflect these changes. To get a sense of how pop is changing, I analyzed the Billboard Hot-100 chart data from the last year. Just as in 2018, it’s clear that pop music is just one facet of a broader online culture that has taken over everything.
Trend #1 — TikTok Takes Over
If there is one chart that shows the dominance of TikTok in 2019, it’s this.
Old Town Road went from a quaint TikTok challenge to the longest running number 1 song in Billboard History. The evolution of this hit highlights all the big changes in music over the last decade. It began as an open-sourced Nine Inch Nails instrumental, was then sampled by a teen in the Netherlands, and from there the beat bought online by Atlanta rapper Lil Nas X for only $30. After smashing through genres and traveling around the globe, this song became a catchy earworm, attracting the attention of country rock veteran Billy Ray Cyrus and then everyone else.
The internet enabled the creation of this song, but its greatest role was in the track’s marketing. TikTok spread the country-rap mashup and made it go viral with incredible speed. By the time the remix came out, Old Town Road was #83 on the Hot-100 and the story of how it was removed from the Billboard Country chart was making headlines across the world. Lil Nas X is just the latest and most obvious example of how the internet has modified the record label A&R game. With social networks, fans can catapult artists to stardom long before any label rep gets to them. Alternatively, A&R folks can use the internet for discovery while meticulously planning the steps of an artist’s rise.
Still, it does seem that the labels should have less to do now. The internet can handle music creation, discovery, and distribution. In fact, if we look at the all the artists that had number 1 hits in 2019, most of them began their careers online.
The biggest artists of the decade generally started on SoundCloud or other social platforms. The ascent of TikTok is just the logical culmination of this trend. A few examples of how Tik Tok took over in 2019.
- Mariah Carey’s 25 year old hit “All I Want for Christmas is You” was catapulted to number 1 on the strength of a tik-tok mashup.
- Blanco Brown’s “The Git Up”, spent 10 weeks at the top of the Hot Country Chart. It got there through TikTok challenges. Here’s the TikTok compilation of users putting their own spin on the song.
- Y2K & bbno$ song “Lalala” made it to # 55 on the Hot-100 on the strength of tik-tok challenges. Here’s a sample.
- Saweetie’s “My Type” made it to #21 on the Hot-100. The song had all kinds of TikTok promotion. For example see this and this
- Young artist Ant Saunders got to 81 on the Hot-100, but more importantly, he got 50 million streams via TikTok
In the future I expect to see more and more artists leveraging this platform. The SoundCloud rappers are already migrating, realizing the potential for music and video to combine in ways that old MTV programmers could never even imagine. I expect that over time, TikTok will be more popular with hip hop fans than Soundcloud.
Trend #2 - Hip Hop is Pop (Again)
Speaking of hip hop, 2019 was another banner year for the genre. If we look at the top twenty artists in 2019, eight of them are rappers.
Rapper Post Malone had the best year. His songs collectively spent 200 weeks on the Hot-100, longer than any other artist. In fact, 37% of all Hot-100 artists in 2019 were rappers and over a third of the songs that made it onto the chart were some variant of hip hop.
And Rock is Still Dead
The least popular genre of 2019 was rock music. In total, rock artists only had 108 weeks on the chart (out of 5200 total — 100 songs * 52 weeks). As the old rockers age out of music, they are clearly being replaced by younger hip hop and pop artists.
Trend #3 — Country is Surprisingly Popular (and Old)
One surprise in the billboard data is the enduring popularity of country music. While the rock stars of the 80s and 90s have faded away, country has made room for musicians both young and old. Plotting the age of Hot-100 artists by genre, we see that most rappers and pop stars are in their 20s, but country artists are generally over 30 years old.
Despite being full of elder Millennials and Gen X-ers, country remains surprisingly popular. In total 24% of all Hot-100 musicians make country music, more than even pure pop acts (22%).
Trend #4— SoundCloud Rappers Live On
Unlike 2018 which saw the death of prominent SoundCloud rappers XXXTentacion and Mac Miller, 2019 was a relatively quiet time (Beside Nipsy Hussle who was tragically shot in March). In 2019 rappers — especially the young Xanax-popping SoundCloud variety — proliferated. In total there were 12 ‘Lil’ rappers on the Hot-100, including breakout start lil baby who spent 81 weeks on the charts.
The popularity of ‘lil’ artists doesn’t seem to be slowing down. In fact, the letter “L” is by far the most popular first letter in an artist’s name.
Trend #5 — Women Are (Still) Underrepresented in Music
The popularity of hip hop is one of the defining characteristics of this generation. Unfortunately this popularity has a major side-effect — it leads to fewer women on the charts.
If we look again at the top artists of 2019, we see that only 20% of them are women.
The overall makeup of the Hot-100 is scarcely better. Taking all Hot-100 artists from 2019 into account, only 21% were female.
The cause of this discrepancy can be seen by breaking down the gender makeup artists be genre. It’s clear that while women make up a small majority of pure pop acts, they are horribly underrepresented in Country, Reggaeton, EDM, and Hip Hop.
Surprisingly, the paternalistic Country Music industry has actually tried to embrace gender equality. This year the Country Music Television channel committed to ensuring that half of all music played on the network was made by women.
The younger powers in the hip hop world have made no such commitment. If this new generation of youth takes social justice seriously, they might start by asking why so much of the music they listen to is made by men.
Trend #6 — American Music is Made By Americans
As an experiment, I thought it would be fun to see how much of the music on the U.S. Hot-100 chart is actually made by Americans. It turns out that the vast majority of it really is.
Despite the global nature of music and culture, America still dominates the US charts. The closest competitors are similarly Anglophone countries Australia, Canada and Britain. Together they have 18 artists which made it onto the US Hot-100, with noticeable contributions from canucks like Drake and Shawn Mendes, as well as brits like Sam Smith and Ed Sheeran.
Another notable subgroup of Non-Americans on the Hot-100 are Puerto Ricans. With the rise of reggaeton, they are well-represented with 7 major artists on the charts.
Any worthwhile review of the last decade should center around the tectonic shift that the internet and smartphones have wrought on society. In pop, we see how these changes are exemplified. Music is now made, discovered and distributed on the internet. Most of this is hip hop, which seems especially tied to internet culture. The dominance of hip hop has crowded out rock, but has left country music as strong as ever. And yet, the two most popular genres, country and hip hop, still don’t do a good job representing women. Finally, the global nature of internet culture hasn’t changed the fact that American music is mostly made by Americans.
In the next decade, with the internet firmly established as the dominant business, cultural, and entertainment medium of our time, it will be interesting to see how these trends change.