Music Tech

A College Professor Describes How His Student’s Music Listening Habits Have Shifted


According to professor Aram Sinnreich, author of the 2013 book The Piracy Crusade: How the Music Industry’s War on Sharing Destroys Markets and Erodes Civil Liberties, college students have changed significantly in their music listening habits and overall musical tastes over the last decade, in part due to market forces and technological innovations.

Ten years ago, undergrads typically had a CD collection, perhaps supplemented by a computer hard drive full of MP3 files downloaded from a file-sharing service and listened to using Winamp or iTunes. Students carefully managed their music libraries and strongly identified with one specific genre or group of genres. It’s also likely that they owned an Apple iPod or MP3 player or used an old Sony Walkman.

Today, students with access to a computer or smartphone with an Internet or data connection have millions of songs at their fingertips if they don’t mind sitting through a couple of annoying ads. They’re more likely to experiment with new styles and develop broader musical tastes, because the cost of exploring different artists and songs has become so minimal.

When you read a news story about a new music app, you often wonder if the startup team sanity-checked their product idea with potential users. Did they visit a university campus and ask a classroom of students, “Can anyone here see themselves using this music app? If so, why would it be useful or valuable to you?” It would seem prudent for them to spend a week walking around a variety of college campuses, observing how students listen to, discover, and interact with music. I think it would be an eye-opening experience, as it would give them a view into real music listening habits of a cross-section of the target population, as opposed to, say, people in the San Francisco Bay Area.

This is why I wanted to interview Aram Sinnreich, who is an assistant professor at Rutgers University’s School of Communication and Information. Sinnreich has both a music industry analyst’s insights into what’s happening in the market and a university professor’s view of what’s going on with students in his classroom.

What follows is an edited excerpt from an interview with Sinnreich.

Kyle Bylin: For the past five years now, you’ve been a professor at Rutgers University. You’ve taught class after class of young and older college students. I have to imagine that you spend some amount of your time talking with them about how they currently listen to, discover, and interact with music. Can you tell me about what you’ve learned about the music listening habits of your students? What stands out to you?

Aram Sinnreich: Since 2006, I have been teaching an undergraduate course on musical cultures and industries, and that’s actually the name of the course at Rutgers; “Musical Cultures and Industries.” I think at USC, when I was still a grad student, I called it “Music as Communication.” It’s the course I wish I had gotten to take in college of all the different roles that music plays in human society, and then contextualizes music industry laws and economics within that broader setting.

Because too often I feel like the debate begins with the premise that music is just a commodity, just a form of entertainment, just an industry, then everything becomes subservient to that. But if you begin by saying, “Music is an integral element of human cognition. Music is essential to identity formation, to spirituality, to politics, to sexuality.”

Then all of a sudden, the music industry starts to make sense because you’re talking about this tremendous amount of power encoded into sound and these very powerful interests – corporations, governments, religious institutions – that have the ability to determine who gets to communicate musically to whom, under what circumstances, and via what media.

So every time I analyze the music industry, I really do it from that perspective. And in a way, I was doing that even when I was back at Jupiter Research, although I didn’t have the conceptual language to discuss it at the time. So I teach this multifaceted approach to understanding music to undergrads. And obviously, I’ve changed over the last decade, as I’ve gotten older and I’ve gotten more experienced, and probably a better teacher, but they’ve changed much more than I have.

When I first started teaching a decade ago, the average undergrad was not that different than I had been as a college student. They had a music collection, mostly in CDs. Maybe augmented by a hard drive full of songs on MP3 that they had downloaded from file sharing programs and listened to using Winamp or iTunes. But they were very much in a librarying mode, and each of them really was like, “I’m into hip hop. I’m into country. I’m into modern rock. I’m into metal.” They each really identified themselves in terms of one specific genre or group of genres.

And now, almost without exception, when I ask my students at the beginning of the semester, I’ll say, “Raise your hand if you have more than five different styles of music in your music collection, whether it’s your iPod or your Spotify library or what-have-you.” And they’ll all raise their hands, and I’ll say, “All right, more than 10.” They’ll all keep their hands up. “More than 25,” and most of them will still have their hands up. I’ll say, “More than 50.” And the majority of them will still have their hands up.

So because the cost, both economically and procedurally, to experiment with new styles has become so minimal for these young consumers, for these young music fans, they have much broader tastes than my students did a decade ago, let alone than I did when I was their age. These are students who see no contradiction in having Taylor Swift, John Coltrane, Glenn Gould, Harry Partch, and Hassan Hakmoun all on shuffle in their playlists while they’re studying for a test. These guys are much more all-embracing, and because of that, much less prone to judge each other for their musical taste.

Every week, I have students come up and present songs. Every student in my class has to get up at least once in the course of a semester and introduce a song and what it has to do with that week’s readings and listen to it and talk about it together. And only very rarely are they embarrassed and say, “Don’t judge me for listening to this.” I think the only time it’s happened so far this semester was with a country song. One of the students was concerned that people would think she was, I don’t know, a hick or something for listening to country music.

And then on the class Twitter feed, which I project onto a screen as I’m teaching, all these people were like, “Heck no. I love that song.” Then she was massively relieved. So I’d say that’s the most important change that I’ve seen is not only have people’s tastes become broader, but there are all these kinds of cultural ripple effects that come from them having broader tastes. And it was all enabled by the iPod, basically, by the iPod and by Pandora. By this friction-free access to libraries of tens of millions of songs, rather than having to hoard hundreds of CDs like dragons teeth the way that I did back when I was college student in the early ‘90s. So that’s been important.

There’s also a lot more sophistication and skepticism about the music industry itself.

Back when I was a college student interning at a major label, basically anybody who had an opinion about the music industry, which was the minority of people, either had one of two opinions, A.) They were like the coolest companies in the world, and the highest role that you could achieve would be to work in the music industry, or, B.) They were demons who were inauthentic and exploited labor and turned everything they touched to pabulum (because Negativland got a lot of attention while I was in college), and there were no real shades of subtlety.

But these students have a much more pragmatic and much more sophisticated understanding in part because so many – first of all, there was the massive RIAA anti-consumer campaign from 2003-2008 where they sued like 40,000 American consumers and developed a very, very, very bad reputation to the point where they were voted, RIAA was voted, the worst company in America by the Consumerist about five years ago. So that shaded their opinion, but also, we’ve seen all these artists abandon the traditional major label system and thrive.

Now, we’ve seen the beginning with Radiohead and Nine Inch Nails ten years ago experimenting with putting stuff out at a name-your-own price or for free on the internet. But now, every major album release happens in some kind of unexpected, unprecedented way, whether it’s Beyoncé dropping her album with no advanced press, or whether it’s Beck doing his album without any recordings, or whatever it is. There’s a new kind of approach to artists taking the initiative in defining what the relationship with the consumers is going to look like and determining the kind of economic settings within which their music’s going to be bought and sold and licensed and traded.

So I think my students now are much more aware that the music industry is a spectrum of different smaller industries, with a different range of stakeholders and players, each of whom has a different perspective and different set of needs. And because of that, because they come with that assumption, they might not know the details, but they have a general sense that that’s how things are, I can actually teach them much more effectively because I don’t have to begin by debunking as many myths. I don’t have to begin by taking them through primary colors. I can begin by painting a more sophisticated picture and field some very sophisticated questions from them about, “Well, let’s say you’re an indie band with a hundred thousand fans in a local region. Do you go with a major label contract? What do you do?” And we can have these great hypothetical conversations about strategies that make sense for artists and other creative professionals.

Then I have people from the industry come in and talk to my class. You’ve talked to my students before. I have a very senior A&R person from a major label talk to my class, a very senior strategy person from a major regional broadcaster talk to my class. I have some pretty well known music writers talk to my class about the business of covering in the industry.

So they get not just my perspective on this, but they get to see that what we talk about when we talk about music really varies depending on who’s doing the talking. The version of what makes a pop song successful is very different if they’ve got the head of A&R for a major label coming in than it is if they have an independent musician coming in and talking about his or her personal experiences just being on the road and being online.

KB: Do your students give you the sense that they’ll subscribe to streaming music services such as Spotify, Rdio, or Rhapsody?

AS: Yes. Mostly free though. Those services, I think you’ll agree, are not yet priced for mainstream adoption, let alone by people on student income. The magic price point for a streaming service is virtually universally agreed on to be $5.00, and the labels are not, for a variety of reasons, that is not yet a reality for us economically. It might never be, unfortunately. But most of my students do listen to Spotify, do have Spotify accounts. I actually use Spotify in my class, and most of my students subscribe to a class specific Spotify playlist that I put together with all the examples that I talk through.

So Spotify, Pandora, and YouTube are probably the three dominant platforms that they use. And as you know, those are all revenue bearing licensed platforms. They all have advertising, and especially once YouTube re-launches its music service; they all have a paid dimension to them as well. So these are consumers who many of whom will probably migrate from the free tier to the paid tier as the amount of time they have diminishes and the amount of money they have increases as they become grownups. I have students who are very deeply engaged in SoundCloud and Mixcloud and DatPiff, and all kinds of online music services that I don’t even really know about. They don’t rely on a single channel or even a single format for their music experiences. And I think it’s an important change – this isn’t just among my students, but in our culture. This is a point that I’ve made a few times in a few different ways, but for most of human history, music was a form of communication.

You use music to bless a baby when a baby is born, or celebrate a marriage when people decide to spend their lives together, or to lament the loss of a loved one, or to steel everybody up before a big battle or the big hunt. And it was only with the invention of the printing press and then the development of recorded audio that music became more and more a product and less and less a form of communication. And all of our laws and technologies are built around the assumption that music is just a consumer product; that the function of music is to be produced, transacted, and consumed.

Obviously, copyright laws set up with that assumption in mind, and most commercial music services are as well. But what we’ve seen more and more of in the age of social media is that people have returned to using music as a form of communication, but with a twist. They’re actually using recorded music, which was created as a commodity, in a communicative context. What does that mean? That means when it’s your friend’s birthday on Facebook, you’re just as likely to post a video of Stevie Wonder singing happy birthday from YouTube to their feed as you are to just write the words happy birthday. So recorded sound has become an element of our communicative lexicon in a way that it couldn’t have been 10 years ago or any time before that, and my students have really adapted to that.

So they don’t think of music on Facebook, or they don’t think of music on YouTube, as being the same thing as music on Pandora or music on iTunes. The different formats suit different kinds of social functions for them. If they want to be communicative, they’re going to post a YouTube video, or they might post a streaming link from SoundCloud. But if they want it to be a consuming thing, then they’ll set up a playlist, and they’ll lean back and have that playlist play. Or if they want to fetch a new album before anybody else does, they’ll go directly to an artist’s Bandcamp page and download the album in MP3 format. But the platforms, the technological dimensions, of their engagements follow their social function rather than vice versa, which I think is very different than the much more monolithic, mono-dimensional, relationship to recorded music that older people have.

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Kyle Bylin is a user researcher at SoundHound and author of Promised Land: Youth Culture, Disruptive Startups, and the Social Music Revolution.

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  1. “The magic price point for a streaming service is virtually universally agreed on to be $5.00, and the labels are not, for a variety of reasons, that is not yet a reality for us economically.”
    Her students must not be aware that Spotify already offers a student discount of $4.99/month for Premium.

  2. Excellent and insightful article. Thank you for this.
    A question about pricing. Why would the current prices for streaming services considered too high by students? $10/month (or even $5 for the student discount on Spotify) seems like nothing compared to the cost of collecting CDs, which, as you admit, was the norm among college students before.
    I believe college students can easily afford these subscription services. They pay far more for their cell phone plans.
    The problem is the free tiers, both legal and illegal.
    YouTube, which you mention as a legitimate paying service, actually of course hosts endless copyright-infringing material, for which no one is paid except YouTube itself.

  3. Professor Sinnreich seems strongly against the industry penalizing illegal downloaders. What would he propose instead? Any industry that does not protect its product from theft cannot survive.
    As I see it, the industry was absolutely right to sue infringers. What was wrong was the inconsistency of enforcement, and the impossibly high fines. Reasonable and consistent fines is the way to go. Speeding tickets control speeding; copyright infringement fines can control illegal “sharing”.

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