art is change

The (short-term) evolution of music

There are at least two overall trends that can be identified in modern music during the last few years and decades. Both of them directly influence the way music is “designed” nowadays and therefore have direct impact on the overall structure of newly created songs. These structural changes don’t seem to be too obvious at first sight but cannot be denied once recognized.

1. Repetitiveness

1.1 Lyrics

The first trend can be observed in the evolution of modern lyrics for more than five decades now. As Colin Morris found out in his more than impressive approach to analyze music and its lyrics in a machine learning supported way. His overall question is: Are pop lyrics getting more repetitive over time?

As the leading question as well as the title of his TEDx Ttalk already suggest the answer is “Yes”. Pop music is really repetitive and it’s getting more and more repetitive year by year. But the point is that whether you want to admit it or not everyone loves repetitive music. Song writers are just giving us what we want!

In addition to the TEDx Talk check out his beautifully designed article on this topic. The best thing is that Colin even grants access to his similarity tool SongSim which he uses to visualize patterns and sequences of recurring words and phrases in song lyrics. While he provides plenty of examples by various artists such as Adele, Ariane Grande and Drake you can also use the tool to analyze the lyrics of your own favorite song.

Who would have thought that Billie Eilish’s 2019 Billboard #1 song Bad Guy would look like that:

billie eilish bad guy song sim
Billie Eilish – Bad Guy seen through SongSim

1.2 Music Production

To take things one step further not only the lyrics are getting more and more repetitive but also the whole way modern (pop) music sounds. The act which was once known as composing is now increasingly becoming a process of “copy and paste” converging music into a pablum or as Andrew Thompson and Matt Daniels put it in their formidable article:

The obvious trend is that the Billboard Hot 100 will continue to musically converge, a path that might just be the natural progression of popular culture. Give it enough time and we’ll all be listening to the same thing.

The insights necessary to come to a conclusion like that are mainly derived from the echonest. EchoNest is using eight central dimensions within a piece of music to determine the similarity between songs. These dimensions are:

  • acousticness
  • danceability
  • energy
  • instrumentalness
  • liveness
  • loudness
  • speechiness
  • valence

Based on those eight dimensions it is possible to compare individual songs by calculating the average distance in between these datapoints of each track.

The result is a trend toward similarity, with smaller distances among songs. To date, songs that charted between 2012 and 2016 were the most similar, according to EchoNest data.

The underlying reason for that accelerated effect is pretty much drilled down to one major development described by Thompson and Daniels: more and more songs are composed by less and less writers. In between 2010 and 2014 a whopping 43% of all Top5 hits in the Billboard Hot 100 have been written/created/composed/copied/produced (however you want to call it) by a cohort of top 10 producers.

Even though this peak value went down to something around 33% in the following years it still is quite obvious that a few top producers and writers are dominating the market by (re-)using their knowledge about favourable patterns that seem to work well again and again.

2. Commercial Terms

2.1 Revenue Distribution in Music Business

In many markets total music consumption is on the rise for more than just a few consecutive years now. What strikes the eye even more is the fact that streaming is growing even faster. In the U.S. streaming is accounting for 80% of all music industry revenues in 2019 as the latest RIAA report shows. Streaming in that context is defined as a compound of paid subscriptions like Spotify, TIDAL and Apple Music as well as digital radio services and ad-supported on-demand streaming services like YouTube, Vevo or ad-supported Spotify.

Why is that overall development in music distribution important when speaking about the evolution of music itself? The reason is rather simple and can be found in the way artists are compensated whenever their songs are played through one of these streaming services.

The defintion and calculation of artist royalties in conjunction with streaming are far away from being trivial. Actually they flactuate a lot as the rely on quite a few input factors. Therefore they cannot be easily destilled to a certain amount per play. The main factors defining the payout for an a single stream are:

  • individual payout terms with labels and/or artists
  • the location of the listener
  • the relative pricing of the streaming service within the given location
  • ad-supported vs. premium/paid subscriptions

In the end this leads to ever changing payouts per play which can only be estimated. Check out the graph below by “information is beautiful” to get an idea of how much a play can be worth in average across the usual suspects in the streaming business.


2.2 Definition of a “stream”

This still doesn’t answer where the impact on the way music is created nowadays comes from. It actually lies in the definition of a single “play” or “stream”. Music playback on any given streaming service is usually taken into account for payouts whenever a song is played for more than 30 seconds. This definition of a stream is key when it comes to music creation. This magic 30 second mark creates major impact in two ways:

Music creators are eager to push the listener across that 30 second mark.

Anything in the timeframe of 0-29 seconds will result in no payout at all. Therefore artists/labels/writers aim for a song structure that leads to maximum attention within these first 30 seconds of the song. The goal is to catch the listeners attention and keep them interested in whats coming up next (in this case after the first 30 seconds). This concept in its essence is very close to what Google established as a well accepted standard within the advertising space centered around video. The so called TrueView in-stream ads:

Viewers can choose to skip the video ad after 5 seconds. If they choose not to skip the video ad, the YouTube video view count will be incremented when the viewer watches 30 seconds of the video ad (or the duration if it’s shorter than 30 seconds) or engages with your video, whichever comes first. Video interactions include clicks to visit your website, call-to-action overlays (CTAs), cards, and companion banners. If view counts on YouTube are a concern, it’s a good idea to make videos at least 12 seconds long. YouTube analytics doesn’t track views less than 10 seconds.

If you follow that idea and you want to maximize your revenues you have to make sure that you get the full attention of your listeners early and keep them engaged at least up until the magic payout mark. This concept certainly has impact on the way contemporary music is structured. It will be catchy from the very beginning on and will quickly move on to a section (the chorus maybe) that the listener is interested in.

Overall song duration is going down.

Simple math is leading to this conclusion. In a commercial setup where you are paid after 30 seconds of playback it is simply more attractive to deliver shorter songs. Whatever is coming after the first 30 seconds of the song is not taken into account any more. Therefore it doesn’t matter if the track will last for three or ten more minutes. When aiming for maximum revenues it makes so much more sense to trigger a three minute playback three times than a single playback of a ten minute track.

This whole approach is not exactly new as the idea of the “radio edit” has been around for quite some time now. The underlying concept of the radio edit (or 7″ mix) is optimization of the track for airplay and commercial success. By making the song shorter chances of getting played more often more easily are higher. Even though the idea is not new at all it seems like the predominance of streaming and its specific payout terms will take the reduction of song length to another level. Assuming that music creators will have these payout terms present in the process of music production it is somehow expectable that they will put focus on the optimization for commercial success which is then reflected in the overall song structure and length.

Photo by Peder Cho on Unsplash