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What Social Media Is Doing To Music (Hint: It's Not Good)

Social-mediaBy Tony Hymes (@TonyHymes), the community manager at Whyd, a social music community.

Do you remember the early glory days of social media? We started by genuinely connecting with interesting new things on cool platforms, and we received awesome content that we enjoyed. So we subscribed to more and more things in more and more places hoping to get the same satisfying result, but ended up only squeezing our time and attention until what is before us today is illegible. Not only is it less rewarding, but it’s even become bothersome.

Groupon provides an example: it seemed really cool because everyone loves to save money. Everyone signed up for great deals, then they signed up to the Groupon copies to get more deals, until it became so overwhelming that none of the deals were desirable to receive, and it is now essentially voluntary spam that you only wish you could stop. (A fun — yet heavily pessimistic — activity is trying to find anyway that this example is not like drug addiction.)

The crux: social media has exposed us to more than we would ever know about without it, but at the expense of not really getting to know any of it. We are — thanks the spin of Earth — limited to twenty-four hours each day. The more things we have to pay attention to, the less time we can spend on each one. If you follow only a few people on Twitter, you see everything they post, you can learn about them, their interests, their personalities; when you follow 1,000 people, do you really follow anyone anymore?

As all content moves to social media, so has music, and it represents an acceleration in the evolution of the way that people consume music that is harmful for musicians.

Anyone today can create a song and broadcast it to the world. So naturally there are many more “artists” than there used to be. These artists all compete with each other, but they also compete with all of the other interesting stuff being shared on our primary consumption channels in addition to music, which taken together significantly decreases the chances that a fan will make a connection to an artist that is more than eardrum deep, even if — thanks to these same platforms — artists are technically getting heard by more and more people.

A Personal Example

 In my formative high school years, I was smitten by no band more than the White Stripes. It crossed the line of idolatry: I went to all the shows, crammed my way to the first rows, owned multiple t-shirts (that are still in my closet today), posters (which do not hang on my walls today, however), got the new albums the day they came out, left the CD in my car to play for seven months straight, religiously skipping the squirrel song on the album “Elephant” before finally and necessarily switching the music to the next band. I still to this day adore Jack White (particularly Love Interrupted, which contains enough swagger to kill half of Brooklyn’s rappers). Of the money I spent on music and merch, most of it went to The White Stripes, and it never seemed like it was enough.

This morning I've already listened to over 30 different artists, most of whom I don't really know but like their sound. Some of them I chose to listen to, others I didn't. But if something fails to hook me, they will be lost. I will not buy their merchandise, or go to their show. I will be listening to other artists, enjoying music but never spending enough time with anything specific to develop a deep connection to the music, to the personas, to whatever an artist is trying to emit in their music.

Today there is not a minute when I listen to music that I am tired of. As soon as something better or newer or shinier or more interesting pops up, I naturally gravitate towards it. It would take a conscious effort to stop force-feeding myself so much new stuff and focus on what I have now to achieve the same depth of connections that was possible as late as the year 1 BSM (Before Social Media).

In the same whiskey-soaked breath, you could argue that the White Stripes hit me at a time when I was the most accessible to music; in a formational, primordial soup of music tastes yet to become multicellular. Everyone is influenced by their first true experiences with music. But yet there is still the question: would I have been so open to that impression/connection if I had been splitting my attention between thousands of different things?

Music is deep, connections must be developed, and this requires repetition. How many albums can you remember where you were hooked by one track (Seven Nation Army) and ended up preferring another track (Ball & A Biscuit) that you skipped over the first hundred times until it got stuck? What the Internet gives us today is an infinite skip button, a shortcut to instant fulfillment no matter how shallow, and we are always able to effortlessly move to the next song without facing the quite serious consequences — scroll baby scroll.

The Effect

Another question: How likely are you to spend money on something from a band, music or merch, if you’ve only listened to their songs a few times?

The amount of time that people spend with one individual group is always getting smaller because of the above-mentioned trends and because the ever-modifiable and shared playlist is rising in the place of the album, so more fans are increasingly less likely to support the bands they like, because they like more bands. And when they actually do it is in a more limited way, since like their attention and time, their wallets are split too.

Is the trend reversible? Maybe not with the social networks as they are. The overflow of information that comes pouring into our feeds is always about what’s happening right now, and yet it takes our attention away from what we were concentrating on. The very thing that was designed to help us connect to things is new ways is stripping away our very ability to connect meaningfully with any of it.

The counter trend has already begun to rear its head: people who are passionate about certain interests — and by passionate I mean obsessive, not just passive people who say “why not?” when asked if they are into something — are finding refuge among the thousands of topic-specific social networks that are budding around the world today. The passionate people are separating the things they care about from their general social noise. They are finding more satisfaction from connecting to a community of like-minded people, no matter where they are in the world, than trying to push their interests to their physical contacts who couldn’t care less.

Music is no different. The Internet has given us music lovers a direct line to nearly every song in the world, the people who created it, and the other people who enjoy it. The trick is maintaining a separation from the acceleration of content on major networks, and understanding that music is a medium that cannot be taken on the same level as their friends’ other interests. In this way, music lovers take back time and can give proper attention to make a deep and lasting connection to music.

Tony Hymes is Whyd’s community and communications guy helping to construct the filter for the best of the newest music on the web. He paints buffalo, bakes lasagna, rolls sushi, writes poetry, and runs daily, all while listening to great music.

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