The way we listen: is tech is changing how we listen to music?

The way we listen: is tech is changing how we listen to music?

Formats have long informed or influenced the way we listen to music but while more than 20,000 songs are uploaded to Spotify every day vinyl and cassette sales are seeing a resurgence – so, is technology really changing how we listen to music? 

Vertical turntable and cassette machine - how we listen to music - CC BY 2.0These days music has become ubiquitous. On Spotify alone there are now more than 217 million monthly active users worldwide, and they listen to an average of 25 hours of music on the platform a week. But in many cases it is a background noise to which little attention is paid most of the time.

It is the tinny lounge music in the background of offices, the generic MOR fighting against the onslaught of frothing and gurgling coffee machines of every cafe, the sighing acceptance of the blaring beats from someone else’s phone on the bus home, or the low-effort of picking pre-curated mood music to help us ‘chill’ or soundtrack our ‘Sunday Brunch with Friends’ or ‘Run Daily’. Music is still everywhere and against all the feelings and moments of our lives, but the way we listen is changing all the time.

There is little active effort needed to listen, we hear what is around us whether we want to or not, so music seeps in around the edges of our life even before we begin to purposefully play it in ways which are background. For most of us listening intentionally is a luxury we don’t allow ourselves, or are aware of as something we could or should pursue at all. Music is just there: pretty much the whole back catalogue of recorded music, on demand and searchable, conveniently playable and matched to our mood, with little effort or cost expected from the listener. We can be passive and yet hear exactly what we need, when we need.

But is it the digital music format alone which has driven this behaviour toward passive listening or does it represent a wider change in the way we experience and engage with culture in current times?

Format wars

Until the digital format came along there has always been an amount of effort involved in listening to music, a certain amount of being proactive to hear what you needed. From recitals to gigs to physical formats to radio, for those who wanted to hear music there was planning and expense involved – even listening to music in your own home meant (until relatively recently) you needed to make a trip to a retailer likely after research through the press, or hearing something on TV or radio. You needed a degree of patience, a curiosity tolerance toward the things you weren’t waiting to hear but which you heard anyway.

The Internet, and particularly the advent of streaming platforms, changed the effort needed to listen but also to discover and find music. Now it was not just about the newly released but everything from across the history of recorded music. While easier more convenient access to music, and greater availability of choice, has been seen as a boon to the listener it’s presented a challenge to artists, and a re-shaping of our relationship with music.

For now everything is available all the time, and 24,000 new tracks are added to the Internet daily to increase the feast of choice we have in our hands, and you don’t need to pay to hear any of it as long as you’re able to get online. At no or low cost, you can listen to what you want, when you want. It’s all there – whether it was recorded 60 years ago, or released in the last hour, whether it’s a chart-topper or an obscure cut from deep within an artists back catalogue, whether it’s an original or a remix or a parody, whether you prefer audio or you want a visual accompaniment.

In the UK we’re listening to an average of 17 hours of music a week (so slightly below the figures Spotify quote for their user base overall), but nearly a third of this is still on radio. The figure, from IFPI’s 2019 Music Listening Report, show our radio listening in the UK is higher than the global average but more than ever we’re accessing the medium through our smartphones rather than a dedicated device.

The report also provides an insight into the part devices play for digital music access and listening generally – smartphones account for nearly a quarter of all listening (23%), and 6% listen via smart speakers or digital assistants (such as Amazon’s Alexa or Google Home). Digital has lowered the effort needed to find and hear music, as well as the cost of doing so, but for many physical formats are still part of how they listen. The convenience of digital, and the investment in physical is a complementary relationship for many listeners – in the UK 30% say they buy music on at least a monthly basis, which is above the global average.

That recent statistic echoed the sentiment of Jack White, musician and founder of Third Man Records, who told Rolling Stone in a 2018 interview he sees a mixed-format future for music saying, “I definitely believe the next decade is going to be streaming plus vinyl — streaming in the car and kitchen, vinyl in the living room and the den. Those will be the two formats”.

Whether this mixed-format future comes to pass it’s fair to say the attachment to physical formats has been less than steady over the last 40 years.

Records saw their sharpest decline against the emergence of CDs in the eighties but in the last decade have made a remarkable comeback. In the first half of 2019 8.6 million records were sold, compared to under 1 million in the whole of 2006. Vinyl may only account for around 4% of music sales across all formats – streaming rules the roost – but its certainly made a comeback which is more mainstream than collector.

Vinyl has always had the claim on ‘sounding better’, and now has nostalgia (sales figures are pretty evenly split between under-35s and over-44s) as well as being tactile and ceremonial as a format. Tom Corson, CEO of Warner Records, told Rolling Stone vinyl is, “a sexy, cool product. It represents an investment in music that’s an emotional one” and Dr Jennifer Otter-Bickerdike echoes this in her 2018 book Why Vinyl Matters, stating the conversations in the book prove the format has as much to do with our connection as the music. She said she had found from the conversations with musicians, industry folk and fans captured in the book, “how identity, friendships, careers and lives are created and shaped by records.”

But as fast as vinyl sales are growing, so CD sales are in decline – in fact they are dropping three times as fast as vinyl is growing. In 2018 sales of CD tumbled by around 45% and while High Street brands like Urban Outfitters and Sainsbury’s are stocking records and playing on the nostalgia factor as much as the sound quality offered by the format, retailers are limiting or stopping the stock of CDs. While once touted as the future of music listening, your forever format, CDs never seemed to generate the emotional attachment which listeners had with vinyl – although one genre, Classical, is bucking the trend. Here CD sales are double downloads and streams of the genre, and discovery is more driven by radio and word of mouth than algorithms.

Summer of 88 by MacQ shared under CC-BY-NC-ND 2.0

What of the humble cassette? A clunky format even when it was at the cutting edge it too has started to bounce back a little – albeit in a more cult, collector, or perhaps even novelty setting than vinyl. In fact there has been such a growth in demand for cassettes – partly driven by DIY labels and artists pushed out of the vinyl market by increasing production costs and timescales as it becomes more popular again – cassettes are now facing production delays due to a shortage of materials. Overall sales volumes are minuscule compared to other formats but are on the rise. According to the BPI in 2019 sales in the first half of the year doubled overall sales in 2018, with a prediction of 75,000 cassettes sold by the end of this year.

While cassettes are still a cult item – the emergence of the first Bluetooth player will help many move beyond the aesthetic appeal of the format to having a means to actually play them – major artists are committing to cassette. Sales in 2019 are likely to be driven by mainstream artists Sam Fender, The 1975, and Royal Blood according to the Official Chart Company while cassette only labels and DIY bands are finding a niche with short runs.

There are more ways to listen than ever before, more choice of what to listen to also, and this ushers in changed behaviour and attitudes to music – even if our love of listening is still high. Geoff Taylor, CEO of BPI and BRIT Awards commented on IFPI’s 2019 Music Listening Report saying, “There are now more ways to access and enjoy the songs and albums we love – whether on radio, our smart phones and speakers and, of course, on turn-tables and CD players. And with all this choice, we are giving more people across all ages the opportunity to engage with the music they love the way they want to.”

Whether tape, record or CD despite the growth and ubiquity of digital music it seems we’re still drawn toward the physical format. Speaking to Wired John Kannenberg, director and curator of the Museum of Portable Sound, described the growing fondness for physical formats, “we’ve been detached from music as a physical thing for long enough now that vinyl and cassettes don’t just feel nostalgic, they feel almost otherworldly.”

From performance, to personal, to personalisation

The emergence of different formats over time has not only changed access, convenience and portability of music but also the public to private nature of the way we listen.

From live performance to recorded music there has been a move from communal to private listening, and with digital the personal has become personalised too. The move has not been quick – where once you needed to go to a recital to hear music played and listening with others at the event, to being able to bring music into your home via records to being able to take that music with you via a Boombox it was when Sony released the Walkman in 1979 it ushered in an era of private listening in public places, as this article on The Verge describes. Now we may take it for granted that the devices we carry have the ability to play music through speaker or earphone but 40 years ago the ability to internalise what you wanted to hear while on the move was revolutionary.

Peter Hirshberg, writes of the additional personalisation which is happening via digital platforms, and the part the audience now plays in the creative process. In his essay First The Media, and Then Us: How the Internet Changed the Fundamental Nature of Communication and Its Relationship With the Audience he writes, “In the heyday of the album, the exact flow of one song to another and the overall effect was the supreme expression of overall artistic design and control. It wasn’t only the songs—the album represented 144 square inches of cover art and often many interior pages of liner notes in which to build a strong experience and relationship and story for your fans. It was a major advance over the 45, which provided a much smaller opportunity for a relationship with the band. With the arrival of MP3s, all of this was undone. Because we bought only the songs we were interested in, not only was the artist making less money, but he had lost control of what we were listening to and in what order. It didn’t much matter, because we were busy putting together playlists and mixtapes where we (the audience) were in charge of the listening experience.


So this proliferation of music, and the ease with which we can pick and choose what we listen to, has played a part in nurturing a ‘skip’ culture where we favour the song over the album and in the song we want our gratification instantaneously. We want playlists already filtered to our mood or tastes, or to be able to create our own and dump whatever tracks don’t hit the spot for us in a given moment. For rather than leading masses of us to exciting scobbles through the mountains of music, ears ringing with new sounds and heart swelling for each new band discovered this proliferation is mostly ignored, with the narrow tastes of casual listeners arguably reinforced and only tentatively expanded (and some might say manipulated) over time. As music journalist Laura Snapes puts it in this Guardian piece marking 10 years of Spotify, “Its model doesn’t code for surprise, but perpetuates “lean-back” passivity. There is no context on the platform, merely entreaties to enjoy more of the same: “You like bread? Try toast!””

It seems we’re less inclined to be curious and more likely to be passive – whether this is encouraged by digital or digital is reflecting a behaviour inherent in us. Nostalgia is big business – not only are classic artists such as The Beatles, Elton John, Pink Floyd and Queen driving record sales in large numbers but we’re more able than ever to keep indulging in the music of our youth thanks to the huge archive online. Neurologists know music and memories are very closely linked, and the music of our teenage years remains hugely important to us as our developing brains become hooked to formative music, and the memories from these years become the ones we want to relive the most. We can find that music online with ease, even digging out YouTube clips of Top of the Pops or live performance, and for certain periods (*cough* Britpop) we’re forming communities on social media, making each other playlists on streaming networks, and meeting up at specialist events.

Sheet music by Gord Bell shared CC-BY-ND

Yet while digital has made listening to music convenient – whether that is new or from years ago – the flip side to that convenience is the sense of disposability. As a species our attention spans are getting shorter – they’ve shrunk by a quarter in 15 years, coinciding with the rise of social media, and are now at around 8 seconds (so yes, if you’ve made it this far in the article, you’re hitting way above average). Whereas once we might have sat and listened to an album from beginning to end while drinking in the art and liner notes, now we’re more likely to skip through several songs while doing an unrelated activity.

There is much debate about whether albums are still relevant in the digital age and even a day in the calendar encouraging the music community in the UK to come together and take time out to listen and celebrate the format. The length was once dictated by the medium (how many songs you could fit on a slab of vinyl) and yet has endured once these limitations have been lifted in the digital sphere. Still National Album Day say on their website, “albums mean different things to different people – but there is no denying the huge impact they’ve not only had on our lives but on British pop-culture as we know it.”

While this may be so people are now listening to more curated playlists than artist created albums in full, and their behaviour is in some cases shaping how artists sequence their tracks to try to make sure they hook listeners in and keep the ‘skip rate’ low. Once this wouldn’t have mattered – you paid your money for a record whether you kept returning the needle to one groove or let the whole thing play through – but digital means income is linked to length as well as volume of streams of each track. In this way digital has changed the way we listen, and driven a change to the way some artists think about presenting their music as a result.

Does how we listen matter?

What’s good for the listener may not always be so for the artist but does how we listen to music matter, as long as we are still listening? The format may be less important to fans than it is to musicians (not just on a preference for how their work is presented but on their ability to make money from their creative work) but our listening behaviour is interesting in how it may impact in the years to come.

Does a future of shortened attention spans and demand for instant hooks, the skip-skewed move toward single over album, bode badly for work which needs more thought and time; that music which is the ‘slow burn’ rather than the instant grab. Will niche artists and genres find an ever more hostile environment across core platforms where although their music can sit, it is rarely surfaced or sought out and if it comes up in a playlist is easy to skip. How will the relationship between streaming and physical formats play out over time and what do record shops and labels need to do to remain relevant on a scale which enables them to survive.

There are perhaps far more questions than answers about the longer term impact of digital on listeners (as opposed to the music industry, which is a different lens through which to view) but what is emerging is how it is already creating or supporting change in our behaviour and preferences. For better or worse the majority of music listeners are now passive through the convenience offered, and (probably mostly unknowingly) penned to a narrow furrow of music by the algorithms around them – the risk involved in surprise discovery phased out by platforms in favour of the safety of serving up the familiar. Social media platforms and other art forms can drive our listening behaviour – social network Tik-Tok played a part in the success of Old Town Road, the nostalgic moments from Quill’s mixtape in the Guardians of the Galaxy films are thought to have contributed to revived interest in cassettes as a format.

Music remains important to us not only culturally but psychologically – it can nurture creativity, it is linked to our memories, it helps us connect with others yet also explore our individuality, can become cultural moments around which we cluster or incredibly intimate soundtracks to the most personal moments of our lives. It’s not only digital which has changed our listening habits, but formats which came before also influenced changes in us – technology does have a hold over us as music fans even if we aren’t always aware of it or become attached to the medium as much as the music. Technology plays a part in how we hear the music even if the means seems secondary or unimportant to many listeners and as tech changes our habits will too – what we don’t know is whether time will show those changes to be beneficial or detrimental, and how artists and music overall will be affected alongside our listening.

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“Analog to Analog”by cogdogblog is licensed under CC BY 2.0

“summer of 88”by MacQ is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

“Sheet Music”by Gord Bell is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0

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Sarah Lay

Sarah Lay is editor of Popoptica.
A long-standing music journalist she's also co-founder of independent record label Reckless Yes, an author of novels, and when not messing around with words and music, a digital strategist.
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