May 11

Economics, Algorithms and Singlehood

There’s an ongoing push in some music circles to declare that the album is either dead or irrelevant, given the preference in consumers to absorb music by individual tracks versus by albums.  The argument, at least as its been trotted out lately, has been something to the effect of, “well, if the consumer absorbs music that way, then that means something”, or something else essentially reducible to this argument.  Which is a terrible argument for just really basic reasons.  You can figure out what those are.  I really shouldn’t have to tell you.

But setting those basic reasons aside, these very same consumer preferences have similarly pulled down the amount of money that musicians get from a typical transaction with a consumer.  Way back when, the stock transaction between musician and artist was the purchase of an album, which netted the musician a fair sum (say in the ’90s, about $10?).  Whereas now, given how consumers absorb music, the stock transaction between musician and artist is by way of streaming.  And the stock transaction here nets the musician about $0.00397 on Spotify.

There are a probably a lot of reasons why streaming rates are so low.  It turns out all of those CD purchases in the ’90s and ’00s never really netted that many listens.  I can tell you, if I’m honest, that I’ve purchased around 100 CDs at local musician shows and actually opened only about 10, and listened to even less than that.  (I have, however, listened to many of the musicians on Spotify).  And I know from talking to other people, that this practice isn’t uncommon.  Which means that the vast majority of those CDs that I purchased at local shows weren’t actually music sales, but sales in merchandise – effectively t-shirts, if you will.  At the same time, I know many people’s listens on Spotify and other streaming services aren’t really listens.  Maybe someone left the music on when they went to work.  Maybe I just needed background music for the party.  Maybe another song I didn’t ask for started playing after the song I wanted to listen to, because the app auto-plays another song after the one I picked.  Maybe I needed some noise in the house in order to keep burglars from visiting while I was away.  Maybe someone left a song streaming all night with the audio off in order to game the algorithm.  All of this counts towards streaming numbers, but maybe shouldn’t count as a sales transaction in the way that a CD purchase does.  This isn’t to say that $0.00397 is a fair price for a stream of a song, but album transactions are a pretty poor comparison for determining the price for a stream.

I digress.  What I mean to point out is that the same consumer preferences that are shifting consumption towards streaming singles are the same preferences that determine the amount of money you get per transaction as a musician.  And it’s silly to highlight customer consumption practices with regards to the reification of singles (versus albums), while also ignoring customer consumption practices when it comes to the value of a music stream.

But actually that’s not what I’m here to talk about, though it’s singles related.  Despite people arguing that we are no longer in the era of the album, but in the era of the single, it strikes me as a little odd that I can’t recall the last honest-to-goodness single that I listened to.

When I refer to a single, properly, I refer to the standout track on the record, that more or less immediately hooks the listener into listening.  What counts as a single will probably vary from person to person.  But single-hood is determined by the properties of the song, and not on the de facto sales of the track.  For instance, Ariana Grande’s song “break up with ur girlfriend, i’m bored” is not a single.  It may have been released as a single.  It may have been streamed more times on Spotify than many successful musicians’ entire back catalog.  But it’s not a single.  Ariana Grande’s song “thank u, next” is probably a single.  Ariana Grande’s song “god is a woman” is not a single.   Ariana Grande’s song “no tears left to cry” is probably a single.  The Future Islands song “Seasons (Waiting on You)” is definitely a single.  The remaining tracks on Future Islands’ release, Singles are not singles.  The War on Drugs released one single some years back and has kept releasing it under different song titles for as many years.

Singles at their best are a marvel of songwriting craft, where songwriters and musicians present hooks – whether they be melodic, rhythmic, chordal or conceptual – in a way that grabs the listener and holds their attention, purely through sonic representation.  Because single-hood relies on sonic representation, it’s possible that many local songwriters have written singles.  And in fact, many have.  You just never hear about them because of the enormous amount of effort it requires to get music into the ears of music consumers.

Now, my suspicion is that despite the shift from albums to single tracks, we are also simultaneously out of the era of the single.  Much of this, I think, is because algorithms, instead of our actual intentional listening decisions, are playing a much bigger role in determining what we listen to.  In a similar vein, much of our streaming doesn’t *really* count as listening to music at all, but use of music to fill out the background in our lives. Finally, much of our exposure to music is now being more heavily affected by money, which social media entities happily take in order to affect the passive algorithms that give us exposure to music. This is all to say that much of the way in which music is consumed, for the purpose of streaming transactions, is a lot less intentional than it used to be.  As a result of this, much of the writing is a lot less intentional too.

Say, Joe needs a party mix to fill in the background of his get-together.  If it were the ’80s, he may have made a mixtape of his favorites that he carefully recorded one-by-one.  Now Joe flips through his app for a generically-titled “Indie House Party Mix” and plays it on.  As far as he concerned, it doesn’t matter what songs are being played as long as they fit the general vibe he is going for.  Both his intention as a listener and the intention of the musicians who write the music on the list are rendered irrelevant.

This is problematic, because I think already-successful musicians are less driven to actually try to write singles.  They are already assured a place in the algorithms, much of what they write isn’t of particular importance, as long as it fulfills a certain general vibe, which the algorithms categorize appropriately.  And much of this passive writing and listening takes up a greater and greater proportion of streaming revenue.  And if musicians can make bank on that, why be motivated to do anything more than that.  And more importantly, why take a risk and write something that could be vetoed by the algorithm?

I mean, looking at it from a macro perspective, a higher percentage of the music that is transacted in streaming sales is for the purpose of background music.  And music makers are actively making money off of, and writing music for, this expanded market of non-intentional background music.  One would expect the type of music generated to approach something closer and closer to Muzak, no?  My suggestion is that these forces are broadly what is behind the dearth of singles in popular music lately.  Or, tell me what the last undeniable blindingly good single you heard?