Music Listening: Limited Attention, Abundant Choice
By Kyle Bylin of sidewinder.fm.
When we talk about music, these two questions always come up: 1) Has music listening become a background activity? 2) Are music listeners overwhelmed by the plethora of options available online? In this interview panel, three thinkers in music and tech — Wesley Verhoeve (Family Records), Amber Horsburgh (Big Spaceship), Refe Tuma (music blogger) — provide extended thoughts on these challenging questions.
sidewinder.fm: Can music ever move to the foreground of the casual listener’s attention? Is the reality that most listeners are doing something else and listening to music, often to enhance the activity at hand?
Wesley Verhoeve |Founder of Family Records: Music can be both at the core of the listeners activity, or merely have a supportive or contextual role. We should be okay with that fact. We can serve the customer in either situation, and have these activities support our artists' livelihood.
Background use will generate less income than times when music becomes the core activity, but at the same time we can build products and services around the core activity to further monetize the relationship with the fans. Wearing a t-shirt isn't even about listening to music, but it does signal musical preferences that generate a sense of belonging related to the music the shirt was inspired by.
We shouldn't discriminate between all the different ways that music can play a part in people's lives, but rather embrace them all and focus on generating income for our artists and products and services to please the customers.
Amber Horsburgh | Strategist at Big Spaceship: I don’t think I agree with the notion that casual listeners are always doing something else and only using music to enhance the activity at hand. That is only one way of listening to music.
The use cases for music are inherently linked to personality traits. People listen to music in three different ways and their personality traits predispose them to use music in one way more than others. People use music to either regulate emotion, i.e. playing a sad song about an ex when you’re feeling sad and nostalgic about them; using it as background noise to other activities like working or dinner party noise; or appreciating the score or artist through assessing the music in a rational way, the way you would judge new albums.
If you look at the use case of using music as background noise to enhance the activity at hand, then music cannot be at the foreground of the listener’s attention. That is not the function it is serving. However, when the casual listener is using music to regulate emotion then that is another story. The piece of music is absolutely essential to that moment. As is when the listener is appreciating music as they’re analyzing it and making decisions about what they hear.
Perhaps one way for the casual listener to be more in-tune with what they are listening to as they do other activities is through cultivating playlists? Perhaps they would be more invested into what they play when they create a playlist themselves. But that is just an assumption.
Refe Tuma | Writer and occasional music blogger: I wrote an article asking this question back in 2010. I didn’t have a clear answer then. Now, I think the answer is that it really doesn’t need to. Music is powerful, whether in the foreground or the back.
Sometimes I want to dissect the smallest details of an arrangement, other times I just want Eye of the Tiger to play from the loudspeakers when I walk into the office. In either case, my life experience is improved because of music.
If your business depends on having a listener’s primary attention, then sure, it’s in your interests to convert as many casual listeners into active listeners as possible. More demand equals better sales, higher prices, and more revenue. But as an art from? Music should be enjoyed in whatever way the listener wants.
sidewinder.fm: How do you believe the paradox of choice in music culture is playing out? Is there really too much music and listeners are overwhelmed? Have shrinking shelves and stations lessened the burden?
Wesley Verhoeve: I'm not sure why this question is all that relevant to our business, because no customer is asking themselves that question. So why should we? It’s pointless. Yes, there is way more choice now, of course, but who is to say there is too much music? Are listeners overwhelmed?
I don't feel overwhelmed myself and I never really hear people say: "I just had to stop listening to all of my music, because I couldn't make up my mind as far as which music I wanted to listen to." It's our job to reach the customer, and currently that means cutting through way more noise than we used to have to cut through in the past.
Those that say there is too much choice aren't paying attention to the customer. Music business people are much too narrow in their analysis. Does the fact that every day millions of new websites, blog posts, and videos are created and published mean that the internet is suffering from a diminishing level of attention and excitement?
Clearly this is not the case. Does it mean that filters, curators and context becomes more and more important? Yes! And in music the system of gatekeepers (labels, magazines, blogs) has been destroyed and it will take some time before that is back in the right place. We don't even know what curation is going to mean. Algorithms? Friend recommendations? A handful of powerful blogs? It’s a totally open market.
Amber Horsburgh: I think the danger zone is in cultivating relationships between artists and fans. Thanks to infinite choice, music is more disposable than ever. Whether music listeners are overwhelmed is hard to say, I think people are generally really excited at the prospect of having stupid amounts of music available at their fingertips, but still trying to feel out the best ways to navigate through all he piles of crap to the good nuggets.
I think services that do a good job to guide listeners to the northern star to find future favorite artists are those that give context as well as editorial background. Services like Songza that team playlists with real human emotion provides some clarity; and branded Spotify apps like Pitchfork that give users an idea that the bands that are recommended have the Pitchfork kiss of approval, which has more context than a simple ‘similar artist’ suggestion spat out by an algorithm next to whoever you’re streaming at that time.
In any case its exciting to see what comes in the coming years.
Refe Tuma: I don’t believe the way people find their music has fundamentally changed in the digital age. They are still relying on curation (in its various forms, radio and otherwise), friends and family, and serendipity. More music is more accessible, and music discovery is faster, easier, and cheaper, but the new channels are, for the most part, parallel to the old, not completely other-than.
Excessive choice is overwhelming, but there are — as there have always been — ways that good stuff cuts through the noise.