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Music streaming does not create shared cultural moments, but it can

Music streaming does not create shared cultural moments, but it can

In the bygone era of live radio, music often met the moment. A rainy day, a national tragedy and the death of a celebrity were often played by the perfect song. The shared musical moments are missing from streaming, but they do not have to be, writes MIDiA’s Hanna Kahlert

Of Hanna Kahlert from MIDiA blog

“music does not appeal to rational dialogue or scientific evidence”

Listening to music is and has always been an inherent emotional experience. Music does not appeal to rational dialogue or scientific evidence; it directly evokes the emotions below. It can be coveted by the listener to evoke an expected response – to be uplifted, reassured or comforted. Or even expressing anger and frustration inside. In the same way, the right music that is pressed at the right time can literally change the world: watch the likes of Elvis, the Beatles or “War” by Edwin Starr.

With world events as they are, listening to music in recent weeks is likely to be heavy on power ballads, revolutionary guitar riffs and angry metal tracks. Maybe a sidebar with mournful songs, which express the grief of millions. Beyoncé’s ‘BREAK MY SOUL’ undoubtedly became a hit anyway – but the timing for the release is about as good as it gets. If music has become a soundtrack to listeners’ daily lives, it may be time for both streaming services and music marketers to become more attuned to what they play.

“have streaming services made the most of these opportunities to amplify shared moments in the context of world events?”

When music gets the context right, success follows in terms of numbers, popularity and “hits”. Glass Animals’ ‘Heat Waves’ was a lockdown success because it managed to embody the feeling of isolation in the first summer of 2020. The sea shanty moment in early 2021 was partly triggered by the genre’s common sense of pulling endlessly towards a difficult tide (puns) meant) – the kind of encouragement, or “soul food”, that the listeners did not even know they needed. Still, streaming services have made the most of these opportunities to amplify shared moments in the context of world events?

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Video streaming services are better at suggesting what they know will appeal. Netflix has always been proactive in recommending series that will appeal to viewers, but it came into its own during the blockchain period, proposing for example zombie K-Drama Kingdom in early 2020 for current entertainment and Tiger King for fast food help. Queen’s Gambit came out at a time when people were re-integrating social routines “in real life”, which triggered a resurgence of chess. Good content is one thing, and good marketing is another – but nothing beats being in the right place at the right time.

Music has a good chance of getting this right intuitively, as artists have a habit of writing about the world they live in (funny it) and the audience will listen to the right tune that pops up at the right time on repeat. Live events, such as Glastonbury, generate massive cultural moments on their own, with performers who can connect with fans and the world at large at the moment. For recorded catalogs, radio has always been an ideal platform for sharing contextual songs in a curated way – but the emergence of streaming has somewhat diluted the power to create moments on your own without outside help. The conscious serving of what makes sense at the right time has been developed into an art form by the likes of Netflix, but in music, streaming services have lagged behind.

“Streaming lets the new sit next to the not-as-new, which means that what is relevant may reappear”

The overbearing nature of larger teams overwhelmed by digital can also get in the way. Look no further than the (ironically) viral TikTok from Halsey about how their label would not let them release a song until they could “fake a viral moment on TikTok”. Streaming lets the new sit next to the not-as-new, which means that what is relevant can reappear – but the large amount also rotates the ether, making it harder for the audience to find it. Synchronizations, such as “Running Up That Hill”, and collaborations, such as doing concerts in Fortnite, have been solutions to compete with TikTok’s (mostly) organic viral moments, shooting certain tracks to fame overnight. Nevertheless, this may be more effort than necessary.

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Streaming platforms, such as Spotify, already categorize playlists by mood, but they follow fairly standard groupings: optimistic, slow, moody, and jazz. Some become more specific, such as “Stay in Bed” and “Surf Rock Sunshine”. Optimally titled for voice search, for the most part, and fits into the audio track role that music streaming has mostly taken. Yet, if anything, the streaming platform has become almost too personal, taking society and society out of listening, instead of increasing the human connections in which the power of music is rooted. Instead of connecting, too many playlists become isolating for the listeners.

“What would happen if Spotify, for example, took a more Netflix approach”

But what would happen if Spotify, for example, took a more Netflix approach – recommending playlists relevant to real-life events shared by people around the world, instead of just “making dinner”? Offers “top near you” tracks and albums, to provide a more social aspect to listening. Even opening the discovery algorithm to promote playlists created by users who have signed up, instead of just the platform’s own, would make playlists and music listening a digital social activity: perfect for the slim nature of consumption today. Spotify has already shown a certain belonging to this with its immediately divisible annual Wrapped posts, and it has moved tentatively in the more curated social listening direction with the likes of Spotlight – but there is much longer to go.

It is true that listening to music has been dramatically changed by streaming. But it’s clear that the audience is still hungry for the songs that evoke shared cultural experiences – from “Heat Waves” in the lockdown, to “Running Up That Hill” from the shared hype to Stranger Things, to “Bohemian Rhapsody” sung together at parties, to Lily Allen’s ‘F * ck You’ played not only at Glastonbury this week but also in many homes around the world. TikTok allows the generation of these cultural moments on the platform, which underpins the success of music marketing. Far from regretting the “loss” of the cultural significance of music, both music marketers and streaming platforms should lean into its undiminished power to unite and inspire in difficult times.

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