Nothing defined music this decade as much as the way it was consumed. In the 2010s, streaming services changed the way we interact with music, the industry’s standards and the music itself.
Spotify as a music streaming service began in 2008, but it didn’t really hit its stride until this decade. The most prolific of the current lot of streaming services, Spotify has 248 million monthly users listening to its library of over 50 million tracks. Alongside it are a crop of streaming competitors, from Apple Music to Tidal to Pandora. YouTube is of extreme importance in this space as well, with almost half of all music streaming coming from the video sharing site.
Just as formats like vinyl have transformed the musical landscape, so too has the cloud. And just like radio changed how people interact with music, so too have streaming services.
Easily the biggest impact of this has been lowering the barrier of entry to the music industry. Due to advances in recording and studio equipment, it is easier than ever to make music. Bedroom pop and lo-fi genres owe their names to this low-cost, low-barrier production. The rise of trap can also be attributed to this, with beat-making and selling allowing for anyone to make earworm-y tracks. However, all of these advancements would be useless under previous styles of digesting music. If someone can’t even afford proper studio time, how could they afford to create, distribute and market their music by traditional means?
This is where streaming services come in. Even digital platforms, heavily restricted as they are, could not allow for so much independent music to spread. With YouTube, Spotify and Soundcloud, though, there is almost no cost to putting music out there. Then, it’s just a matter of leveraging the internet and the services’ auto-recommendations. It is easier than ever before for anyone to become not just a musician but a well-known one.
This is a double-edged sword, though. While it is easier than ever to make money off of music, it’s more difficult than ever to make a lot of money off it. The days of superstar musicians selling millions of physical copies are behind us. Unless your name is Adele or Taylor Swift, most of your listeners will be coming from YouTube or Spotify, both of which give much smaller payouts. The fire has been lit underneath the feet of the traditional music industry.
That is why you have seen moves like Taylor’s team pulling her music from Spotify for years. Artists like Kanye and Frank Ocean have played around with delayed releases to streaming. Jay-Z even created Tidal to get a better pay-out for his and fellow artists’ work. However, in all of these cases and more, the industry has eventually caved. All of them are now on Spotify. Why? Because it’s just how people listen to music now; the exposure is more important than some extra coin.
Streaming has also changed how we define and rate music. The definitions of pop and indie music have become increasingly muddied – when any sound could come from an independent artist, what does indie music mean? What does pop mean when the streams disagree with traditional outlet? This is an issue the industry still has not come to a good conclusion on. Billboard, the company behind the definitive pop charts, is completely stuck in the past, vastly overrating the impact of legacy formats like radio. Radio having a higher weight in the Hot 100 than streaming leads to a lot of the this decades disconnect between the charts and the zeitgeist, notably the underrepresentation of genres like trap and international music. The same is true of the Grammys, which are constantly laughed at now for being out of touch.
Streaming also just changed how music is approached by artists. It used to be that music was mainly bought as albums. Radio was the main hit-maker, and singles were used to advertise the album. Now more than ever, music can be made and put out in any size. Lil Nas X revolutionized this best, with “Old Town Road” riding out its fame as a viral track first, then a standalone remix, then the centerpiece of a small EP. This sort of roll-out wouldn’t be possible from anyone, let alone a random 19-year-old, before streaming.
The longer albums of the decade (from the likes of Migos and Drake) show the other side of this coin: Long projects are often highlighted by a few standout tracks padded with filler. The labels putting out this garbage know what they’re doing – it helps to pad streaming numbers immensely. And with how easy it is to make playlists on Spotify and Apple Music, the hits can still be kept alive for a long time while the filler fades, boosting album sales far off. Streaming has served to stratify popular music projects.
Lil Nas X also exhibited another possible shift in music-making. In addition to his debut being short, so too was his mega-hit. “Old Town Road” is less than two minutes! When streaming is king, though, tracks that leave you wanting more are better than those that are too long. As many listeners can attest, it’s so easy on Spotify to just let a short song loop another time or two if you’re not quite sick of the sound. Music spreads like a virus now, with catchy sounds and lyrics propagating from ear to ear and burrowing in each tightly. Streaming isn’t alone in helping this spread, but it certainly lays the groundwork for it.
The grass isn’t entirely green, though. There is some fear that streaming may railroad tastes. It is no secret that Spotify’s mixes and playlists are taste-makers. Millions of people will be finding new music through these algorithmically, curated means. This means that popular music can be gamed and skewed a lot. If one artist or track hits just the right notes in the algorithm, it can skyrocket to stardom. Music has always been a popularity contest, but it’s a bit weird to let a program have so much sway in the system.
Looking forward, there is a lot of uncertainty in the musical landscape. As silly as it sounds, TikTok is driving a lot of new hits, with viral song segments leading to worldwide popularity. As the music industry becomes more emaciated, we may see more lashing out against Spotify, similar to how video streaming has become so fragmented. No matter what, though, there’s never been a more exciting time to be into music. The internet and the cloud have allowed for so much innovation and discovery, and streaming has let anyone produce bangers. Whether it follows us through the 2020s, Spotify can take a lot of credit for transforming the musical landscape this past decade.
Peter Fenteany is the associate opinion editor for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at email@example.com.