Music Consumption and the "Swipe Left" Culture

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I came from the ‘80s.

It’s the one thing I have in common with Alf, Bon Jovi, and Corey Feldman. The ’80s made me what I am today. I broke my first bone, snuck into my first R-Rated move, and experienced my first kiss in that greed-fueled, fashion-challenged, Madonna-loving decade.

Now, so many years later, I’m left with a decade of foggy formative memories, a storage trunk full of embarrassing clothing, and shoeboxes bowing under the weight of my old cassettes. Indeed, the ‘80s was the decade in which I made my first mixtapes.

I’d copy stuff from my dad’s vinyl, which was a hodgepodge of FM titans like the Beatles, Simon & Garfunkel, Billy Joel, and Elton John.

Every pop, click, and skip impressed upon the LP in its late ‘60s/early ‘70s prime was committed to posterity on a dutifully labeled but barely legible cassette in the ‘80s. And once it was on there, that was it. You could copy over a bad song if you felt you had to. But that was a good way to make a mix that sounded like it was recorded from inside an underwater coffee can. Bottom line, there was only so much space on a tape and skipping songs is kind of a hassle so decisions had to be made with care.

Fast-forward to 2015.

I’ve got a Spotify account. Now, when I make a mix, I can jump into the streaming service, drag, drop and go. I can delete songs that start to get on my nerves. I can skip songs that don’t fit my mood at any given moment. I can make snap judgments about artists and resolve that they are no longer deserving of my time.

There are no limits to the space, no degrading audio quality, and no decisions which, once made, can’t be taken back.

I can make a mix but I never have to make a commitment. This is the nature of today’s music consumption technology. You never have to make a commitment.

Technology evolves. That’s just how it works.

Shellac led to vinyl, which presupposed the 8-Track, which begat the cassette, which was outmoded by the CD, which was eventually compressed into the MP3, which has since been supplanted by the streaming subscription service.

The imperatives for convenience, portability, and audio refinement are obvious. But what is perhaps less immediately obvious is the manner in which this evolution transforms the music itself, transforms the way that artists conceive it, and transforms the way that we receive it.

If Marshall McLuhan had been a rock critic, he might have prophesied that the media is the music.

Music has become skippable, dismissible, and disposable. The investment of time, energy, and attention that it took to record a mixtape from a shelf of vinyl is a thing of the past. Perhaps that’s a good thing. It certainly takes a lot less effort to make a road trip playlist these days. But what if your behavior as the end user is forcing artist to change the way they think and create?

But what if our inclination to dispose of music so quickly is casting the full-length album into obsolescence? What if, as a culture, we simply lack the inclination to sit through it? What if all of this means that artists with full length statements may soon also be a thing of the past? And what motivation does that leave for artists to create songs that aren’t radio-friendly? What motivation does it leave for experimentation, creativity, and boldness? How do young, unknown, and innovative artists stake a claim for themselves? Is there an inherent danger to setting yourself apart from that which has already proven itself commercially viable?

Ultimately, the experience of truly indulging in recorded music has been forever altered by the disposability of our popular culture, our terminally shrinking attention spans, and the economic imperatives implicated by both.

And speaking without judgment, without assessment of whether this is good, bad, or neutral, I will attempt to dissect the impact that our ever-shrinking, ever-digitized attention span has on our willingness to hear recorded music and on the ability of artists to be heard.

Disposing of Music

The relationship that each generation has with its media is unique, and of course, that relationship is subject to change over time.

Perhaps the biggest distinction between my teenage experience and the experience that teenagers have today is the cost of music, insofar as there isn’t one.

There was a time when music was kind of expensive. It wasn’t that long ago actually. I was in high school when Pearl Jam busted through, when Nirvana bristled onto the national scene, as Metallica was mainstreaming metal. These guys were responsible for the first CDs I ever bought. Each disc retailed somewhere pretty close to $20. If I had $20 when I was in high school, it was either because I found it on the ground or I stole it.

However I did it, it wasn’t that easy or affordable to get new music. So you can be sure that if I paid money for something, I was going to listen to it. And if it didn’t speak to me at first, I was going to listen to it again and again until it did. I was going to get my money’s worth.

I would listen to the hits. I’d listen to the filler. I’d let the CD run past its completion, tantalized by the possibility of an unlisted bonus track. As I built my music collection, I counted every penny toward the next thing on my list.

When music costs money, you make careful decisions about what you’ll take home with you. If the late John Denver had secretly produced a posthumously unearthed album of spiritual Ragas, you might be a little curious, but probably not curious enough to fork over $20. Odds are that after a few minutes of listening, you’d feel pretty dumb for being parted from that cash.

But once you made that commitment, you might force yourself to listen to—perhaps even eventually feign to like—From Denver to Delhi (which is obviously what this album would be called).

Today’s listening landscape requires no such commitment. Pop on to YouTube for a snippet, or open your Spotify app for a sampling. Read Pitchfork magazine’s snarky online review of the album while streaming its highlights from SoundCloud.

Whatever medium you choose, it will cost you nothing, not even your time. John Denver might have traveled to India and dedicated years of his life to making this thing. Nonetheless, it has 15 seconds, tops, to impress you before you click away from it. Digitalization has rendered music more accessible, to be sure. But it has also rendered it far more disposable. You have no obligation to listen to John Denver past the point that it takes for you to be pretty sure you don’t like him.

Absent the economic imperative, you can judge any piece of music in the space of time it takes to, in the parlance of our times, ‘swipe left.’ You can throw music away without ever feeling the pinch in your wallet, or consequently, in your conscience. No one ever has to know that your curiosity got the best of you when you decided to check out the new One Direction song and nobody ever has to know just how quickly you said, Oh dear God, what am I listening to? before cleaning your ears out with Radiohead and a good antiseptic.

Digital accessibility is a great thing. It democratizes your ability to consume music as though it is somehow being created as a public utility. But this arrangement has changed everything for listener and artist alike. You are now welcome to enjoy or reject anything without pausing to consider the money you’ve spent or the time that an artist has dedicated.

If listening to music was the same as checking a bank statement or scrolling through your friends’ inanities on Facebook, this would be a sensible arrangement. Listening to music has become a matter of convenience and convenience is supposed to be quick.

But what is the cost of convenience? Well, the album format, for starters. Convenience is killing the medium that brought the Beatles to your Hi-Fi, that launched Led Zeppelin into the stratosphere, that made the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack a household commodity as indispensable as a can-opener.

We are no longer programmed with the attention span for a Long Player (LP).

But then, this is what progress looks like. In his book Who Owns the Future?, Jaron Lanier writes about the relationship between technological evolution and the way that we value humanity’s creative output. He considers the role played by Moore’s Law, a guiding tenet of computer science which says that the number of transistors in a dense integrated circuit will double roughly every two years. Taken more generally and outside the context of computer microprocessors, Moore’s Law suggests that technology moves on a continuum of perpetual and exponential advancement.

Lanier warns that the inexorable forward momentum of Moore’s Law very nearly removes human ingenuity from the equation. In the context of our music listening habits, Lanier may well have a point. He explains that Moore’s Law means that more and more things can be done practically for free, if only it weren’t for those people who want to be paid. People are the flies in Moore’s Law’s ointment. When machines get incredibly cheap to run, people seem correspondingly expensive.

This makes a lot of sense. For many, music listening habits are driven by the accessibility, usability, and affordability of emergent technologies. This differs considerably from, say, the 1970s, when you were driven by the star power of specific artists, the social permeation of certain artifacts, and the sense that you had to be a part of a given phenomenon, be it high-minded art or mere popular culture.

The technology in which our listening habits are now couched makes the idea of compensating artists a costly inconvenience. It may also imply that we, as the general music-consuming public, are less interested in artists and their art than we are in consuming media with efficiency, with a minimum of financial output, and with fleeting critical reflection. Either we like it and we listen, or we don’t and we move on just as quickly. We have no time to form attachment or measure nuance. At best, perhaps we have the time to formulate knee-jerk reactions coherent enough to share with others on social media.

The Ever-Shrinking Attention Span

Given that I can recall a time when I would tape songs off of records, it should be obvious that I’m way too old to comprehend Vine or why such an application would ever appeal to anybody. But that’s me. Millennials think it’s awesome.

What is Vine? you ask (because you are also old). Vine is an app that allows you to create and post six seconds of looping audio/video content. Six seconds. About the length of time it takes to flush a urinal.

In April of 2013, just three-and-a-half months after its official launch, it was the most popular download in Apple’s app store. This popularity was almost entirely fueled by users between the ages of 14 and 20.

Adolescents are being trained to make decisions about media in under six seconds. Where does that leave the traditional rock star, raised as he or she was on the LP? Well, it doesn’t leave a whole lot of room for the next Pet Sounds, OK Computer, or Dark Side of the Moon. If you listened to just the first six seconds of Dark Side, which fades in slowly to the sound of a heartbeat, you will literally not have heard a single note of music before succumbing to boredom and clicking forward.

According to DigSin CEO Jay Frank, who spoke at a 2013 New Music Seminar in New York, singles outsell albums 11 to one. The artistic importance that musicians have vested in the full length recording simply does not resonate with younger listeners anymore. Old-timers like myself may still prefer the whole thing—some (mostly older country music fans according to Billboard) may even go out to Wal-Mart and pay money for the CD—but this is not the buying segment that drives sales, popularity, or cultural relevance.

Apologies boomers, but if you just bought that Jackson Browne comeback album on compact disc, you’re as good as dead to music marketers. They care a whole lot more about the 325 million Spotify plays and nearly one billion YouTube views generated by Adele’s Hello in less than three months of existence.

The album containing the British superstar’s new single, 25 has sold 7.6 million copies in just seven weeks. This is an impressive feat, especially in today’s marketplace. But I think the difference here is pretty obvious. When it comes to album sales, even Adele can’t compete with her own singles.

Of course, Adele’s situation is the best case scenario. Adele is setting records. She recently became the first woman since 1987 to place a full-length player at the top of the charts for seven consecutive weeks. For all intents and purposes, Adele is the biggest draw in the game right now. In fact, 25 accounted for 3% of all physical album sales in 2015. This feat is even more remarkable when one considers that it was not released until Nov. 20th.

But Adele’s vocal bravura cannot alone rescue the medium from its commercial purgatory. Adele is a special case. Indeed, she is the rare case of an artist that can afford to bypass streaming media when it comes to album sales. Even as Hello tears up the streaming world, 25 remains unavailable on services like Spotify or Apple Music. If you want the whole record, you’ll have to buy or pirate it. You can’t stream it.

Of course, Adele can afford to eschew streaming, at least for now. (Given its growth, which we will discuss hereafter, steaming music will eventually win over even the big name holdouts like Adele).

Most artists cannot afford this principled stance, and those who make both singles and albums available on every medium are learning just how difficult it is these days to find audiences for their full-length statements.

Services like iTunes have made it exceedingly easy to download a song for 99 cents. In its first year of operation, which was 2000, physical album sales reached an all time peak, with roughly 943 million CDs sold. As iTunes dug its heals into the music industry, every single year thereafter saw a precipitous decline in CD sales. In the first half of 2015, retailers collectively moved a mere 56.6 million compact discs.

iTunes made it easy to narrow down your interest without accidentally hearing anything new. Once you’ve got the banger, evidence suggests you aren’t going back for the rest. Atlantic Records hip hop star Flo Rida found this out firsthand in 2010, when his Top 10 hit Club Can’t Handle Me topped two million in advanced sales. In the two years that followed, the album which contained it sold a comparatively paltry 62,000 copies.

Rap-rockers Gym Class Heroes experienced a similar disappointment that year. Presumably, a guest appearance by Bruno Mars is worth a lot. And indeed, lead singer Travie McCoy’s collaborative single Billionaire moved three million copies with the Hawaiian superstar’s assistance. There was a time when this kind of action would inherently mean millions in album sales and relative wealth for the artist in question. But his solo debut topped out at 74,000 units sold.

The artists who succeed in this environment are those capable of churning out hit singles, one on top of the other. Club-killers like Pitbull, Lady Gaga, and Bruno Mars himself have enjoyed remarkable success as hit-makers. But in each case, it was only the eventual omnipresence and multiplicity of their respective singles that helped their full-length records catch on.

Such is to say that if you are anything less than one of the ten most popular artists of your time and place, releasing a full-length record is largely to the benefit of only your most hardcore fans and your personal vanity.

Esteemed and curmudgeonly rock critic Bob Lefsetz argues that creating music by the album is virtually an act of arrogance in this day and age.

Nobody wants it he says. Make the single, get their attention, then maybe, just maybe, the most loyal and dedicated of your listeners will dig deeper. Back in the ‘70s, and even in the ‘90s, you got to know an artist by their album. Now, who has the freaking time, right?

There isn’t one unilateral source called radio, or MTV, or Tower Records. Media bombards you from every conceivable outlet and your life is saturated by noise. How long are you willing to hear something out before you throw it back into the cacophony?

The Single Cycle

The fact that the single has supplanted the record is actually a fairly recent phenomenon, and one that signals the end of a 60 year cycle. The 33 1/3 RPM LP was invented in 1948 and the 45 RPM single came to be in the following year.

The advent of both coincided with the early rumblings of rock and roll. In some cases, artists had little more to say than what could fit in the space of three or four minutes. The notion of making a full-length player was fairly alien. And because your best outlet (really your only outlet) for becoming famous was the radio, that three minute shot was all that anybody expected from you.

Few if any artists had the motivation or wherewithal to create music with a whole album in mind. The best rock and roll debuts—Buddy Holly’s The Chirpin’ Crickets, Chuck Berry’s After School Sessions, even Elvis Presley’s eponymous debut—were comprised of previously released singles and a few covers thrown in for good measure. Classic though these recordings may be, they were not conceived as whole visions.

But for music buyers, the LP simply proved the more cost effective option. Indeed, Presley’s 1956 debut quickly became both the first rock and roll LP to top the charts and the first to sell over a million copies. Evidence was that the buying public wanted more bang for its buck. For most of their joint history, LPs have bested 45s in the open market.

By the late ‘60s, it was no longer even a conversation. Artists like the Beatles, Beach Boys, Bob Dylan, Pink Floyd, the Doors, and the Moody Blues began creating music specific to the medium. The full-length player drove artists to create albums that were meant to be experienced as wholes, in sequence, without commercial interruption.

Then came psychedelia, fusion, and progressive rock, all fueled by sonic experimentation and instrumental voyaging both beyond what could be captured in the singles format and separate in function from music intended for the Top 40 forum. The free-form FM radio template of the late ‘60s even created a popular outlet where DJs were at liberty to play a live Grateful Dead jam, a spontaneous studio collaboration between Miles Davis and John Coltrane, or the entire flip-side of a 13th Floor Elevators record.

Artists became increasingly conscientious about how the entire album package would be received. This meant an all-killer, no-filler approach to songwriting, a concerted effort to sequence music in a meaningful way, and even the elevation of album art as an important part of both packaging the music contained within and producing the desired visual impression of the artist in question. Indeed, in the era before MTV (which itself is now a bygone era), the face of a successful artist might have been a total mystery.

This made the album the most important strand of a musician’s public identity.

Though the 45 remained the primary medium through which singles were distributed, its province was really the jukebox. Indeed, the commercial proliferation of the 45 multiplied the number of options that you had to choose from when you were meeting up with your best guy or gal at the local Five and Dime.

The 45 became an important but relatively static and unchanging medium. By contrast, the album continued to evolve. The arrival of digital music in the 1980s signaled a gradual change in preferred medium but artists continued to view it as their responsibility to create a full-length experience for the listener. A true masterpiece was rendered in whole-album form. In fact, as the early 90s precipitated a complete changeover from LP to CD—both in our retail stores and our rumpus rooms—no satisfying equivalent was born to supplant the 45.

As memory serves, the price of a CD Maxi-Single in the mid-‘90s was not altogether that different from what a full length compact disc might cost. Artists also weren’t particularly focused on creating CD single packages to entice the dedicated collector.

Back in the day, your 45 RPM disc might actually be the only way to get certain otherwise unattainable bonus tunage. Artists made a point of tucking away hidden gems as B-Sides to radio-bound singles. Even if you already had the full-length player, the B-Side could be enough to make the single a necessary purchase. In some lucky instances, a clever radio DJ might even recognize the commercial potential of a B-Side which has been carelessly overlooked by industry gatekeepers (or by the artists themselves).

Case in point, famous flipsides that ultimately crept out from the shadows of their lead singles include Gloria Gaynor’s I Will Survive, Rod Stewart’s Maggie May, and Green Onions, which began as the undercard to Booker T. & the M.G.’s entirely forgotten Behave Yourself and which ultimately became one of the most recognizable instrumentals ever accidentally conceived.

But as the world flirted with digitalization, singles became an afterthought.

The album was everything. The most important artists of the 90s—be they rockers, rappers, or soul singers—were inclined to treat the album as a whole piece requiring both epic scope and obsessive attention to detail. From Green Day and Nirvana to D’Angelo and the Wu-Tang Clan, artists were fixed on creating one continuous and cohesive experience. In fact, CDs allowed for some dramatic stretching. Moving on from the traditional 40 to 50 minutes that could be contained on an LP, the compact disc allowed albums to swell dramatically in length. To wit, the Red Hot Chili Pepper’s epochal 1991 release Blood Sugar Sex Magik clocks in at a muscular 74 minutes.

Try getting a Vine user to sit through that.

Singles were the songs that radio programmers were instructed to play. But nobody bought singles. They were there to fuel album sales, like commercial jingles (albeit, in the case of the Chili Peppers, commercial jingles with racy titles like Suck My Kiss).

Then iTunes invented the 99 cent single, and with it, a platform that puts the listener in total control. It was thus that online digital music initiated not just the death of the album, but the decline of mainstream radio as well. (According to the Radio Research Consortium, radio listening declined in America’s 30 largest media markets by a sum total of 13.3% between 2010 and 2013).

Let’s say you were fifteen years old when Meatloaf’s Paradise By the Dashboard Light came out and you just absolutely went crazy every time you heard it. (No judgement…ok, maybe a little).

Anyway, the song drove you nuts and you couldn’t get enough of it but you also hadn’t the means to purchase it. So you really had to wait for it to come on. You had to tune in when Casey Kasem counted down the week’s Top 40. You probably had to sit through songs by Rush and the Bay City Rollers to get to it. But when it did come on, it was a truly great moment. You had all kinds of feelings about it. It was the anticipation, the reward for something patiently awaited and wholly satisfying in its eventuality, that fueled your excitement and commanded your attention. Does that experience still exist? Hard to say, and the answer is certainly different for everybody, but it’s a question worth pondering.

It bears noting though that Meat Loaf’s biggest hit rounds up to about eight and a half minutes of sweaty emoting. Perhaps if you waited for three days to finally hear it, you’d sit through the whole thing. But what if it was perpetually available and just a click away. Would it feel special? Would there be any anticipation? And could you possibly scare up enough time and attention to get through the whole thing?

Though Meat Loaf’s backseat, teenage melodrama has been played nearly 10 million times on Spotify, one wonders just how many listeners stuck with it all the way to the end. Evidence suggests, probably not too many.

So implies the impressive collection of data that Spotify maintains on listener habits. This data tells us that a full 24.14% of songs don’t even have the lifespan of a Vine clip. Yup, a quarter of all songs played through the popular streaming music service get the hook before reaching the five second mark.

By the thirty second mark, the odds are just above 30% that a song will be skipped. 48.6% of songs will be skipped before they reach the end. According to Music Machine’s calculations, the average listener will skip a song on average every four minutes. Mobile users tend to skip at a slightly higher rate of 51.5%, but computer users still skip at a fairly impatient rate of 40.1%.

Those can’t all be Creed songs. Something else is happening here.

It has everything to do with the way that we experience, consume, and dispose of media. It’s no wonder the album is dead. The way that we listen to music today, it’d take you roughly 18 minutes to plow through Blood Sugar Sex Magik.

You have too many options. You like making playlists. It doesn’t cost you anything.

And when you break down the streaming service numbers, it seems pretty clear that the full-length player is losing more ground all the time.

According to Billboard’s 2015 mid-year report, audio streaming increased by 74.2%, from 33.7 billion to 58.6 billion in the first half of that year. Video growth moved up 109.2%, from 36.6 billion in the first half of 2014 to 76.6 billion in the first half of 2015.

Simultaneously, album sales declined by 4% from 2014 to 2015. Sales moved from 120.9 billion to 116.1 million. Ironically, this was best year for album sales since 2012.

But this information alone will not tell you just how much singles have come to dominate the marketplace. The way that Billlboard and Soundscan now track sales will, on the other hand, tell you quite a bit.

Because singles have come to dominate streaming and paid downloads (the latter of which were also down by 10.4% in the first half of 2015), sales calculations now include a measure called Track Equivalent Albums (TEA), wherein 10 tracks by an artist are considered equal to a full album, and Streaming Track Equivalent, whereby 1500 streams equals one full album. Basically, singles have so effectively killed the full-length player that we must manipulate their meaning to effectively calculate album sales.

Looking at it from a distance, album consumption was up by 14.2% last year. But this includes both TEA and SEA. At 259.4 million albums consumed, 76% were comprised of SEA and TEA. Full-length album sales comprised 53.6 million. TEA sales made up a nearly equivalent 53.2 million in sales. SEA (remember, that’s 1500 streams per album) accounted for 90.1 million. On the digital front, this means that people are consuming individual songs over full albums at a rate of almost four to 1, that is, if you are willing to consider 1500 streams the equivalent of a single album (which seems dubious from anything other than a monetary perspective).

Overall, CD sales fell by 10 percent during this same period of time.

The Album and Life After Death

While CDs continue their tumble into irrelevance, vinyl stands as the unlikely champion of physical music consumption.

If you’ve been to an Urban Outfitters lately, then you know just how cool vinyl has become. The clothing retailer is just one of many hipster-targeting establishments to seize on the medium’s popular resurgence. It might also give you a false impression regarding the commercial viability of the full-length player.

On the one hand, it is absolutely true that the LP has enjoyed a spectacular and unpredicted rebirth over the last several years.

In fact, the analog format once thought of as extinct saw a staggering 260% increase in sales between 2009 and the first quarter of 2015. While it was hardly the case 20 years ago—when CDs were in their prime—today artists are expected to make a new album available in the vinyl format alongside downloads and streaming options. Yet, we have no reason to believe that artists are actually making music with album-length formatting in mind, nor any reason to think they should. As compelling as the resurgence figures may be, it took that much of an uptick in sales for vinyl to ultimately claim just 3.6% of the U.S. music-buying market.

The long and short of these statistics is the reality that streaming services are now driving the bulk of growth in the industry. Vinyl is selling at a healthier rate than anybody ever had a right to expect but it still exists in its own niche, comprising so modest a slice of all music sales as it does.

We can basically deduce that vinyl is the last bastion for new artists seeking an album-length audience as well as for those listeners who prefer both a permanent medium and an immersive listening experience. The above-noted 3.6%—largely comprised as it is of listeners under the age of 35—is also probably a good ballpark figure if we want to know just how many young music consumers are willing to sit through a whole album.

Do not be deceived by the visibility of this phenomenon. If vinyl sales are largely fueled by those of us who need more than five seconds to know how we feel about a particular piece of music, the numbers suggests there just aren’t that many of us. Even the artists who sell full-length albums must conceive of their music one hit at a time. The album is as subordinate to the single as the artist is to the marketplace.

I swear though, I’m not complaining. Nothing makes you sound older than disapproving of the fact that the world around you has changed.

But speaking with strict objectivity, it has changed. Changing with it are both the artist who is bent on survival and the listener who wishes to remain connected to the world of popular music. Either would be a breed unrecognizable to its counterpart of only thirty years ago.

Those of us who came of age creating and consuming full length records, we are dinosaurs. Technology may be driving the change but our culture has embraced it, which means that artists and listeners alike have increasingly accepted their respective roles in creating and consuming music that is temporary, ephemeral, and unimportant.

Time is precious and music is disposable. And we may never again live in a time when the reverse is true.

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