Millennial Are Making The Music Business Bite-Sized
Guest Post by music industry consultant Cortney Harding. Her new book How We Listen Now: Essays and Conversations About Music and Technology is available on Amazon.
With no offense intended to anyone involved, what triggered this was one of those throw-away, top-of-the-year NPR segments that I just happened to catch a few days ago. In the midst of a short piece on the “big food trends” for 2016 (spoiler alert: we’re getting really into vegetables!), the subject offhandedly said “millennials like to snack.” And more than anything else, those four little words struck like a thunderbolt, encapsulating an entire generation’s taste in food and culture — millennials like to snack. It’s brilliant.
Some of this has to do with the fact that millennials are still generally young enough to have metabolisms fast enough to withstand snacking. And if your social life still revolves around happy hours and parties instead of sit down meals with the spouse and kids, then you’re bound to consume more small bites. But even as they age, millennial consumption patterns might not shift all that radically, because not only do they snack on food, they snack on content.
Beyond that, they’re not just snacking on content, they’re snacking on content platforms. As recently as fifteen years ago, there were two primary outlets for music consumption — radio and records. Theoretically MTV, VH1, and BET could be included as well, although they captured a smaller set of eyeballs than the other two. If you wanted to listen to music, you either turned on the radio or bought and then listened to a CD or cassette. Some people only did one or the other, but generally most people were a spectrum between two poles.
Now everyone has their own personal blueprint for listening, and it can be all over the map. You can still listen to radio and buy albums (and many people do) but you can also cherry-pick any number of other outlets and customize them based on time or activity. I might listen to Pandora at the gym, Spotify on the subway, Soma.fm at work, and use YouTube to check out an artist if I see something about them on Twitter. Someone else might stick to Soundcloud and Apple Music or use a specialty app like Spring when they work out. There are a near infinite number of combinations to come up with, but they all mean that users generally engage for shorter periods of time that add up to a constant graze over the course of a day.
There are also more bite size options for listening, not just in terms of the sheer number of tracks released but in terms of all the podcasts that have exploded in the last few years. Depending on the length of a run or a commute, a half hour to 45 minute long podcast can be perfect to quickly consume and be done with. Many podcasts seem to be created with the idea that people will be a little distracted while listening, and adjust accordingly — you don’t need to understand every part of Adnan’s trial, for example, to find Serial addictive and compelling. I like a current-affairs show called To The Point, and listen every day, but if I get distracted and miss a salient point about the gun-control debate, another guest will likely reference it later, or I can follow along without it.
Finally, there’s a whole ton of snack-size video content that can be easily consumed on the go, not while driving (seriously, kids, not while driving) but certainly on a bus or while waiting in line somewhere. All of this also competes with music for the in-transit listener — before YouTube, it wasn’t like you could carry your TV around while you sat on a train.
On one hand, music is already far ahead of the curve in terms of serving bites of content — it doesn’t take much to hear and digest a three-minute pop song, and the industry has been cranking those out for years. It does seem to spell doom for the album format, a fate that has been foretold by the rise of the playlist as a means of listening. But even if the length is right, how can music be compelling enough to compete with video and podcasts, not to mention Twitter and Snapchat and Crossy Road?
I predict that in the next few years, the mantra for content creators will become “the story takes as long as it takes to tell the story.” Meaning, if a story can be told in fifteen minutes, it will be told in fifteen minutes. If the story takes ten hours, it takes ten hours, but you should really think about the story you’re telling. Too often we take a story and try to fit it into a prescribed number of minutes or hours to fit a format, and that does a disservice to the story. I’m not saying we need to TL;DR the world — “boy meets girl, drama ensues, girl jumps under train” sort of sums up Anna Karenina, but you leave a hell of a lot out when you do that.
But maybe it’s time to kill the three minute pop song and experiment with even smaller bites on content. Flipagram and Vine are both doing some interesting stuff in this space, especially because the music is paired with visual content, but they’re still mostly using clips of pop songs, not songs that are seven to thirty seconds long and that’s it.
Many younger artists, especially in pop and hip-hop, are starting to create a universe of snackable content — “Hotline Bling” is a few minutes long, but the videos and memes are shorter and still drive home the branding. More artists need to start making Vines and short videos and putting them out on a regular basis — if you want a snack and can’t find the M&Ms, for example, many people will just move to the Snickers bar and might not go back. If your fans can’t snack on your content often and easily, you’ll wind up at the back of the pantry.
Overall, artists just need to release more content to compete in the bite-sized world. It doesn’t all have to be great, it just has to be good enough and enjoyable to consume, if only for a minute. It’ll be fascinating to see who can produce the best little bits of content that can add up to a full meal of a career. Pass the Pingles.