I miss my Sony boombox.
Now a vintage adornment, my boombox and I were inseparable growing up. I still vividly remember frolicking about the rows of CDs in my local public library, my fingers shuffling through stacks of rap and Bollywood albums as I mused over which ones to check out that week. Rushing home, I’d plop one in the CD player, eagerly awaiting the musical journey I was about to embark on. Each song was an evocative and eloquent four-minute anecdote in an album-long storyline.
Then iTunes came along. I discovered the thrilling unpredictability of shuffling, reveled in the digitization of single tracks that enabled me mobility and multitasking, and was perplexed by the “playlists” I supposedly could curate — what a useless feature, it seemed like.
In high school, I joined Spotify, a music service that instantaneously plays songs, seemingly out of thin air. It marked the advent of “streaming music,” a completely new technological paradigm that instantly delivers audio in packets to your device instead of downloads, which require time and space.
Nowadays, with Twitter to track drops, AirPods to listen on the go and TikTok to post music memes, the music landscape has been completely transformed. Frequently delivering abbreviated content that is optimized for streaming platforms with creative social media rollout is the new holy grail.
The attention economy has driven artists to abandon the traditional album release cycle for a waterfall strategy, which is incrementally, almost episodically, releasing singles before repackaging them into an album or EP. Drake hopped on the rebrand wagon, marketing More Life as a 22-song “playlist” rather than an album and releasing three of its songs afterward. Charli XCX released half her album in individual singles before baring the bundle.
Hungry users are much more likely to discover a single song on a playlist, so artists hope that when users click on the artist’s name, their profiles readily appear fresh with new tracks they were on. Spotify’s “Discover Weekly” playlist pioneers this same consumption model, repopulating a custom playlist for every always-expectant user come Monday. And with at least 30 seconds of listening required to trigger a payout for the artist, creators are snipping and shearing their tracks, ostensibly shoving their catchy bits into the introductions to avoid being skipped by young users.
Even Bollywood music has departed from the close association with Indian film in such production of shorter singles. While three-minute “Vaaste” was a decent borderline-EDM listen and one of the top 10 streamed YouTube videos for months, it pales in comparison to the rich imagery, dances and storylines I immediately recall upon hearing the harmonium and tabla in five-minute “Ghagra” from the Bollywood movie “Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani.” The beautiful song weaves through ethereal hues of Indian garments, from turmeric yellow to rani pink to saffron orange, bouncing between playful exchanges of male and female dances, even featuring iconic actress Madhuri Dixit. I’ll never not finish the song.
Whether it be Bollywood or rap, five-minute “Ghagra” or six-minute “Monster,” as music becomes more readily available on multiscreen, digital platforms — and physical experiences (hi there, Alexa) reform the art as a mere background experience — lyrical concision and repetition are unfortunately being rewarded. Lil Pump’s barely 120-second track “Gucci Gang” parrots its title 53 times. Its brevity broke a 42-year record in making it to the top 10 of the Billboard Hot 100 chart. How Gucci (Gang). Fifty-four!
This isn’t unusual. Analyzing my rap playlist of more than 760 songs, I found that the average length of rap tracks in 2008 was 270 seconds, which has steadily reduced year by year to 2019’s average of 184 seconds. With playback value driving creative effort, artistic forethought comes into question. Was Kanye’s Famous released as a test run intended to be edited after fan feedback? Was making it onto Spotify’s RapCaviar weekly hits catalog its predefined metric of success?
SoundCloud rap is becoming a genre in itself, with artists releasing barely-a-song songs, simply because with a few clicks and within a couple of seconds, they can. And while I can’t personally relate to the ostentatious riches or gaudy narcissism in many popular rap songs, ambient awareness — an artificial source of intimacy from incessant online updates — makes me feel like I understand. In September 2010, Kanye put it best when he tweeted that this exclusive, personal content had “no manager, no publicist , no grammar checking… this is raw.”
The real-time ability to fill musical gaps with “personality,” and alternative personalities in some cases, on Twitter is leading to avalanches of social media posts. In the case of Meek Mill and Drake, an action-packed tweetstorm that had way too many people involved directly spurred new music, giving us Drake’s pretty epic diss track “Back to Back.”
The origin point for music is shifting to social media. R&B singer Kaash Paige’s track “Love Songs,” with 19 million streams on Spotify, surprised her with its popularity after initially blowing up on TikTok. Yet what seems like a democratization of discovery and musical fame is anything but, as pro-rata systems on streaming platforms distribute money to the highest-grossing streamed artists. It doesn’t matter if I only play Kaash Paige on repeat — Ariana Grande and Billie Eilish will undoubtedly receive more of my money than Paige does. This is especially concerning after Spotify Wrapped told me that I discovered 833 new artists this year, most of whom are not Billboard hit superstars.
As personalized recommendations and streaming data insinuate, music is now a digital identity and our consumption is to be shared. And despite the fun of it, the profusion of digitized music exchanges is overwhelming. I miss sitting next to my boombox, listening to songs from start to finish without a digital device in sight, for no other reason than pure auditory enjoyment.
Divya Nekkanti writes the Friday column on tech, design and entrepreneurship. Contact her at [email protected].