As the decade comes to a close, what change has it brought for the way we listen to music?As we come to the end of the 2010s, we might wonder what changes the decade has brought for music. It has been a decade of big shifts in media, but what do these changes mean for the way we listen to music? Dave Beer looks back on ten years of transformations in music.

Like many people, back in 2010 I was mostly listening to CDs. I’d also gone through the arduous task of ripping some of my favourite albums to listen to on my iPod Nano. It was a pretty clunky process. By that time music downloading had become popular, I hadn’t got into it. It felt awkward and time consuming, and took up virtual storage space. To me, this felt like a bit of an in-between time in music. The churn of the 2000s had changed things, but the disruption was yet to subside. The kaleidoscope had twisted but the bits hadn’t quite managed to fall into a new pattern. By 2010 it didn’t feel like things could stay the way they were. Music consumption had transformed, yet it seemed obvious that more was on the way.

Music on the move…

Although they seem like they have been with us for much longer, it’s only really around 12 years since social media and smartphones (as we used to bother to call them) became an everyday thing. That isn’t a long time, yet they already seem immovable. Despite being launched in the 2000s it was the 2010s that they really took off. The last decade saw the numbers of users escalate massively. That was when smartphone sales shot up and social media usage statistics jumped. It is a decade that has been defined by the data that we produce and the way that these data have come to underpin new forms of capitalism. These broader changes in media have also brought some big changes to music.

Mobile music devices have been around since the invention of the Sony Walkman in 1979. They have taken lots of different forms over in the 40 years since. The mobile CD and mini-disk players made a brief appearance after the tape Walkman. Then came MP3 players and iPods in the 2000s. The convergence of the phone with other technologies has changed things again. Once the phone became a networked mobile music device, the limits of mobile listening were further unbound. Music listening was less limited. And so too was the music that was available.

More disruptions…

Going back to 2010 there was still some hostility between the music industry and listeners. It had been simmering away for 5 or 6 years by that point. The radical changes in music consumption of the 2000s were still being felt at the turn of the decade. Downloading had already sent big shock-waves through the music industry, it was now time for the fallout. Music sales had dropped as had the revenues gained from them. Attempts had been made to shame people into paying for music, new legal download sites were active and there were even some attempts at prosecutions.

The rise of peer-to-peer sharing through the 2000s had disrupted the way that culture circulated. It wasn’t until streaming that things started to settle a little. The result of streaming was that the music industry no longer felt like it was at war with its listeners (even if the tensions remain between artists, the music industry and these tech platforms). Spotify had launched back in 2006, but it wasn’t until the 2010s that it really became popular, along with other streaming sites (Soundcloud launched in 2008). The number of Spotify user grew dramatically from around 2014. It has continue to rise since then. Once larger music catalogues were available, these streaming sites became worth the subscriptions (or worth tolerating the adverts for). Similarly, in music video Vevo was gaining traction and YouTube and others started to host official videos for streaming.

Change, change, change

The royalties for artists remained a big problem that has yet to be resolved, despite this the music listening practices of consumers continued to change through the decade. Now people had web enabled devices in their pockets, the streaming services could be used through their phones. This helped to increase the use of streaming sites – now people could listen to almost anything provided they had a web connection and enough data left on their phones.

Yet there is more to these changes than I’ve described above, I’ve not gone into the changes that social media has brought about for how people relate to musicians or how artists have been able to bypass the music industry to release their music, but the big change of the 2010s is the rise of streaming. At the same time, the decade has also seen increases in vinyl sales and even cassette tapes. People still cherish the physical music format. So there is not one single picture about how people listen to music, but the streaming numbers are vast in comparison.

From ownership to access

Back in 2001 the media commentator Jeremy Rifkin claimed that we were moving from an age of ownership to an age of access. His point was that we no longer sought to own culture in the same way, we simply sought to access it. This has proven to be an insightful prediction. Rifkin was talking of a broader change, but in music we can see this playing out in the reduction of physical sales and the increase of streams. Music is less defined by ownership of a physical object – although people are likely to still have a strong connection to their collections.

This is not to suggest that no one wants to own anything, people still buy objects like CDs, DVDs, and records, but that these are part of a picture in which ownership is less important to the way people consume. The immateriality of a streamed song has meant that it no longer needs to be possessed. The way people are able to choose what they listen to also makes this quite different to the radio. Perhaps we are no seeing the realisation of this age of access in music. The question is where will this take us.

From scarcity to abundance

When it comes to music, the changes in the 2010s have also led us from scarcity to abundance. Downloading had already had an impact on this, but streaming has radically changed the amount of music we have available to us. Prior to the wide availability of music online we were restricted by our budgets, what we could manage to bootleg and what was played on the radio. Music listening was restricted, it had quite fixed boundaries. For most, this was a state of music scarcity. We made the most of what was available and made choices in accordance with that availability.

Now we are faced with an abundance of music, we can listen to almost anything. The restrictions have been removed – which is probably why even vinyl lovers are also likely to do some streaming. Some might even say that we have an over-abundance of music, where it becomes hard to focus and choose. The media theorist Mark Andrejevic has recently described how we are living in an ‘infoglut’ in which we are overwhelmed with information. Music is part of this. The vastness of the online music archive is hard to fathom.

Loads of music

This increase in access and the abundance of music has led to new music listening patterns and new ways of managing the overwhelming amount of music that is now out there. Inevitably, it would seem, the availability of music has allowed music listening to be more eclectic. The rapid shifts in the charts gives some indication of this, as does the wide range of music genre labels.

We don’t yet fully know how people’s tastes or listening has altered, but the indication seems to be of a widening of consumption. This doesn’t take the form of a completely unconstrained listening. One of the issues with streaming is the sheer volume of music that we can listen to. As with other media, algorithms have taken on a powerful role in managing this deluge of content. In the way that algorithms choose which bits of content appear in our social media feeds or the results that are returned when we use a search engine, in music streaming the algorithm actively shapes the music we encounter.

Musical algorithms

The last decade has been the time in which algorithms have taken on an active presence in shaping our musical landscape. Learning and predicting, as well as using the data of music listeners on the platform, algorithms suggest, recommend and choose the music we might want to listen to. It is also likely that in doing this, algorithms are shaping our tastes as well as responding to them.

Music listening is now, in part at least, directed by algorithms. Trends in music should be seen in this way. Algorithms actively draw our attention to certain songs, and so influence some of what we listen to in these streaming services. The last decade has presented us with questions about what role they are playing and how they might influence musical tastes. So, we have eclecticism but it is a kind of guided eclecticism – guided by a combination of our data, the data of other music consumers, and the choices being made by the algorithms in these systems.

The playlist

Finally, another way that the masses of music is made manageable is through the playlist. Clearly the playlist is a kind of remediation of the mixtape, but it does more than that. The 2010s was the decade where the playlist really took hold.

In the last few years the playlist has taken on a big organising and ordering role in music cultures. The mixtape was shared with someone, the playlist can be shared with everyone. To help us navigate all that music, the playlist is an important means of finding and collectively sharing music. The playlist helps to draw attention to the music we might like. We seek out lists we can trust and rely on. The playlist is also a big part of how genre now gets reworked and communicated. Playlists can reinforce who belongs to what genre. They are also then likely to be a crucial part of how music movements and scenes develop. Playlist are like little focal points in all that mass of music.

The Future

The 2010s have been an era of data and algorithms, of media platforms, user-generated content and mobile devices. As the underpinning media change, music consumption will change. So too might its form and production. As with other platforms like Netflix and Amazon, music streaming will be ever more automated by these algorithmic systems and ever more attuned to predicting our tastes. Those will be the aims of the tech companies at least. The direction this will take might only become clear over the next decade. Following trends in other social media, I’m expecting a more visual musical space to emerge – one where the artwork accompanies ways of selecting music based on colours, pictures, and maps as well as words and labels.

When we look back in ten years time it is likely that streaming will have become even more central to music consumption. Musicians are likely to be shaping and sharing their music to suit the way people listen to it. Songs and albums will be designed and released with streaming in mind. The music made will also be a product of the economy of streaming and the tech platforms behind it, which will bring its own constraints and tensions. This will give music production and consumption a quite different backdrop.

The last decade has seen some big changes in the way people listen to music, things aren’t yet settled. Given the rate of change in our media, over the next decade things in music are unlikely to stay the same for very long. As people seek something tangible in a less material world, vinyl might well continue its comeback.

Words by Dave Beer. His most recent book is The Quirks of Digital Culture. He is on Twitter and more information about his writing can be found on his website.

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