Once upon a time, it was comparatively easy to make predictions about where music was headed, thanks to decades-long cyclical flips of rock and pop.
Over a period of about a dozen years, one genre would achieve dominance while the other would slip into the doldrums. Then, thanks largely to demographic and social trends, the polarity would reverse and the two genres would change places in the zeitgeist.
READ MORE: (March 18, 2018) Alan Cross on the theory of the 13-year rock vs. pop cycle
The 12- to 13-year pop/rock cycle proved very reliable from the 1950s through to the middle aughts. But here’s the rub: it only worked while music was governed by radio, record labels, music stores, and music magazines. Together they formed a bloc of cultural gatekeepers that regulated what music made it through to the general public.
But then came the internet and everything got turned on its head.
Instead of a few gatekeepers guiding public consensus on music, individual music fans, empowered by technology like file-sharing and streaming, could access humanity’s entire music library. We all became our own music directors, greatly eroding the power and influence of the old guard. Today, with billions of music fans free to go their own way, the old patterns and cycles have broken down. Making predictions about the future course of music have become devilishly difficult.
On the bright side, though, we have more user data than ever before. Is there any information we can tease out of the noise when it comes to the future of music? Let’s try.
The COVID-19 Fallout on music sales will be bad
Nielsen’s mid-year report on Canadian music sales and streaming stats makes for some interesting reading.
CDs and vinyl sales have cratered since 2019 but have shown signs of life in the last couple of weeks, moving up 5.7 per cent, year-over-year.
But music fans continue to shift to streaming as the preferred delivery system with consumption up by 16.7 per cent since last year.
Prediction: Compact discs will continue on their journey toward a niche format. And the vinyl boom seems to be over — for now, anyway. Meanwhile, Canadians will continue to adopt streaming at an increasing rate.
The Incredible Shrinking Pop Song
An analysis of hits in the top 10 of the Billboard Hot 100 singles charts from the last 20 years shows a trend toward brevity.
Back in 2000, the average length of a top-10 hit was four minutes and 22 seconds. Today it’s three minutes and 42 seconds. This trend has picked up in recent years. If we look at hits from 2013 to 2018, the average running time dropped from three minutes and 50 seconds to three minutes and 30 seconds. About 6 per cent of the Hot 100 songs were less than two minutes and 30 seconds.
What’s causing this contraction? Streaming. The new delivery system has decreased our attention spans, meaning that the easiest way to get more streams (and thus paid more) is to make songs shorter.
Shorter songs have been proven to rise up the charts faster. Plus a dozen short songs will get more plays than six longer ones. Artists are thus incentivized to keep things nice and tight.
Prediction: Running time of pop tracks will continue to decline. It’s a return to the 1950s and 1960s when hits were three minutes or less.
Pop songs are getting sadder and more depressing — or are they?
In 2018, scientists using machine learning determined that pop music was getting slower, sadder, and more depressing. They even assigned a number to the phenomenon: pop music was “20 per cent less happy.”
Apparently, 2015 was especially sombre. Pop in North American dropped in tempo to an average of 90.5 beats per minute. Over the next few years, the mood created by the Trump administration, Brexit, and other negative socio-political conditions contributed to this prevailing attitude.
But then this year, in the midst of COVID-19, outrageous Trump shenanigans, Brexit uncertainty, and global civil rights protests, the BBC reported that pop was getting faster and happier. Tempos and positivity are up.
Counterintuitive? Maybe. Or perhaps with everything bombarding us today, we just need some escapism.
TikTok might be another factor. You can’t really go viral by dancing to a sad song.
Prediction: People will dance into the Apocalypse.
Rock is poised to do … something
When Donald Trump was elected and the U.K. started moving toward Brexit, I predicted a rise in angry and aggressive songs, leading to a big resurgence in rock music. Young people, angry and afraid of what was happening in their world, would soon look to music that reflected how they felt. Wasn’t the early ’90s recession, the first Gulf War, and Republican administrations big factors in the rise of grunge? Absolutely. History would repeat itself.
Well, it didn’t. Instead of fighting against the establishment, rock and alt-rock got slower, sadder, and more introspective, resulting in an abundance of mid-tempo songs with woe-is-me themes and desires to go back to less stressful times. (See Stressed Out by Twenty One Pilots and Wish I Knew You by The Revivalists). And no matter how weird life got, no one showed much interest in protest songs.
But then the coronavirus hit and millions lost their jobs. This could be a tipping point for rock. Research published this month in the journal Psychology of Popular Media suggests that the intensity and frequency of anger in song lyrics increases with the unemployment rate. Losing your gig has a terrible effect on your mood, which influences your choices in music. At the same time, musicians pick up on the mood of the public, creating songs that reflect how society is feeling. The situation then begins to feed on itself.
This may already be occurring. A 2020 version of nu-metal, the polarizing mix of rap and rock from the late 90s, has reappeared in the form of something called “glock rock.” Keep an eye on artists like Machine Gun Kelly, Dominic Fike, Lil Uzi Vert, and Post Malone.
Prediction: Rock is really good at being angry. So is hip-hop. The fuse may have already been lit.
WATCH BELOW: Machine Gun Kelly, Bloody Valentine
More Distrust in the What the Charts Tell Us
For decades, the North American music industry has kept score by watching the charts published by Billboard. In the old days, chart position was determined by a combination of sales and radio airplay. Today, though, people get also get music from streaming (Spotify, Apple Music, etc.), YouTube, Facebook, and other online platforms. That consumption isn’t being adequately reflected in today’s music charts.
Complicating matters is the ongoing manipulation of the charts by record labels and artists. If we can’t trust Billboard to tell us what’s hot, then what do we do?
Yes, hip-hop/rap is the dominant genre when it comes to streaming, but that doesn’t tell the whole story. Hip-hop/rap doesn’t move much in the way of concert tickets or merch when compared to rock acts. If we’re to gauge the popularity of music, shouldn’t that be part of the equation?
Another point to consider is how pop music fans listen to their favourite new songs on streaming services. A subset of these people will put songs on repeat, listening to them many times in a row at one sitting. That type of listening makes it difficult to determine how the general public listens and distorts chart results.
Prediction: Nothing much will change. As long as chart position can be used for bragging rights within the industry, there will be no rush to change the existing system.
Alan Cross is a broadcaster with Q107 and 102.1 the Edge and a commentator for Global News.