Recently, I spoke with Jay Frank, who is the author of Futurehit.DNA: How the Digital Revolution Is Changing Top 10 Songs and currently the SVP of Music Strategy for CMT. Jay shares his thoughts on the “new” rules that have emerged with the digital revolution, the ways in which our listening habits have altered during these times, and why artists may need to align their music with these changes.
It seems to me that today there are many mechanisms of making music that artists accept as the natural laws of the universe – when in reality, these “rules” were established at very specific moments in history, for reasons that had nothing to do with creativity or artistry, they were just technological adaptations.
Why do you think it’s important for artists to understand that “technology dictates creativity, not the other way around,” that many of the “rules” that are in place today weren’t actually made with them in mind anyways?
Jay Frank: There are a lot of basics in songwriting that are considered natural laws. These are your essential music theory rules such as chord structures, etc. Plenty of other people cover those theories. The role technology has had in shaping music, however, has never gotten due credit. Whether it was piano rolls a hundred years ago or MP3s today, the technical parameters of each have a profound impact on how people respond to the music contained on it.
Even sounds largely came about from technology. Metal music developed from new innovations at the time with amplification. Rap music came from the development of the portable, cheap DJ mixer. Then the creativity came with the technological tools.
The difference this time is that the technology is centered around distribution, not necessarily music creation. So it feels like a time where artists don’t have to question these rules because the main music genres haven’t shifted significantly. But in actuality they have. The last ten years has seen tremendous shifts in the listening patterns of music fans. An entire generation has now grown up knowing nothing but this method of music consumption. To ignore that digital music is writing new rules for creation is at the artists’ own peril.
Finally, you add the fact that this new paradigm comes with dollars attached in the form of royalties for streaming and new formats such as ringtones. Playing into the inherent strengths is crucial for both popularity and revenue streams. The sooner the music creator embraces this, the sooner they can channel their creativity towards success.
What new “rules” emerged during the digital music revolution and in what ways has technology came around again to dictate creativity in ways that many of us are only now beginning to realize – that affect the ways artists create music?
Jay Frank: The biggest new rule is keeping the intros as short as possible. I say 7 seconds max mostly because that’s just slightly less time than most people give a track. The key reason for focusing on the intro is also because the paradigm of discovery has changed. People used to get hooks of songs thru flipping thru radio stations, stumbling upon MTV in the middle of the video, or just hearing a station in the background and not consciously recognizing a song until it’s at the hook. Now, nearly every music discovery listen is coming from the same point: an active listen starting at the song’s beginning. This includes legal and illegal downloads, streaming from most websites, video views. Google’s new music search is only reinforcing this as it offers even more discovery opportunities from the zero second point.
What the technology has done is made music discovery a more unified, active pursuit. The good news is that the artist or songwriter doesn’t have to second guess how the audience will first discover their music. If there is any doubt, all one has to do is see the average length of intros in #1 songs throughout the last decade. It dropped dramatically, further reinforcing how much impact the intro length has on a song’s success.
Given that the history of recorded music, as we know it, only accounts for approximately the last 100 years, why is it significant that during the fifty of those years music has become the background to nearly every portion of our lives and how did that change the ways in which people perceive music?
Jay Frank: Music creators fashion their own music consumption as being typical of most people. In actuality, that consumption pattern mirrors mostly hardcore fans. Average music fans are content with music being a casual, mostly background activity. This is significant because in the scope of history, this is a relatively new paradigm shift. Prior to 125 years ago, you had to experience music live, either at a venue or in a home. That’s not a background activity. Then, the early records could only hold one song per side. This meant that you actively had to be part of the process by changing songs every five minutes. It’s only after World War II when car radios started popping up and DJs played records instead of live radio shows did you have a moment where music could be in the background.
Music in the background is only increasing. The endless airplay of playlists, streaming radio and the like coupled with the listener’s targeting of only songs they like means that the user can pay less attention to what’s coming over their speakers. This, along with the easy access to so much music, has helped create that vibe of disposability around music. The fact that it’s more often a background activity, though, just reinforces that lack of permanence.
So for the artist, you can play into this by finding some ways to make music comfortable in the background. This can help to insure those songs are not eliminated from playlists and the like. But it’s also crucial because it can now become a moneymaker as well. There used to be songs that played great on radio but never sold, commonly referred to as “turntable hits”. Now, those songs that stream a lot but don’t sell well could be huge moneymakers for the artist.
“Song-mapping” is a term I use to describe the psychology behind how people attempt to create playlists that align their environments and maximize the satisfaction they get out of each listening session.
How have recent technological developments in music enabled people to adopt drastically different listening habits and in what ways do these behaviors differ from how people consumed music previously?
Jay Frank: One major shift as we’ve moved from an album based economy to a singles based one is that the artist is now rarely in control of setting the mood. Because playlists are so much easier to create than mixtapes of old, more and more people want to only have music that is suitable for their moods or environment. This can ultimately be a good thing. However, this also requires the artist to recognize what moods are people going to create playlists for and make music for that. I actually have a whole chapter on more songs with a walking beat will likely be created. This is because as portable listening experiences dramatically increase, people want music that’s comfortable. They will naturally gravitate to music that is at their heart rate, which usually matches a natural walking speed.
Background music will also become more popular and desirable. This will likely take off drastically when more experiences end up in the cloud as these songs tend to be listened to, but not purchased. But the signs are already there. Sean Ross, who writes the Ross On Radio column, described the biggest impacting songs of 2009 as “nu mellow”, specifically citing Taylor Swift, Jason Mraz and Owl City. These songs are all viable to teens, yet aren’t aggressive like other hits in past years.
Overall, this hasn’t differed from how people used to WANT to consumer music. But the ease at which it can be done now has allowed the amount of perfectly situated environmental music experiences to increase exponentially.