By: Martin Connor
Online streaming today is popular, quick, and cheap. Because of this, streaming is changing how songs are structured. Here are 7 ways the Internet era and consumer trends have changed today’s hits:
Albums used to be like movies, with characters, settings, and climaxes. But the data that labels now use to make hit songs is changing that. More and more artists are starting to follow the trend set by songs like Lil Uzi’s 2017 “The Way Life Goes.” The song starts on the first beat of a chorus, and ends on the very last beat of a chorus. There are no instrumental intros, bridges, or even beat drops. This ruthless efficiency is only expected when artists know at what exact point you fast-forwarded past their newest underwhelming single.
Communication on social media is short, quick, and popular. As a result, social media is now changing the way that artists’ communicate with us. This unpolished style can be heard in the opening track of Kanye West’s recent “ye” album. “I Thought About Killing You” sounds like an Instagram story that Kanye let run for too long. He’s not in time to the beat and he’s not rhyming, as if he’s really just thinking his lyrics out loud. It’s no surprise that this trend started with young millenial rappers from a rap genre that’s actually named for a social media site: SoundCloud rap.
Streaming pays artists much less than sales from CDs, tour tickets, or merchandise. Lil Uzi Vert made only about half a penny per listen for the 1.3 billion times that his song “XO Tour Llif3” was streamed. When streaming pays such small profits, musicians have no reason to release long songs. The average length of a song on Lil Pump’s self-titled 2017 album is less than two and a half minutes. Its hit single, “Gucci Gang,” barely clocks 2 minutes, coming in at just 2:04.
Online streaming gives listeners the power to change an album’s volume, song order, and even lyrics (explicit, or censored.) Some artists have even created albums that purposefully leave such decisions to their audiences. The songs from Kanye West’s 2016 album “The Life of Pablo” are full of blank silence, alternative versions, instrumentals without vocals, and a cappelas without instruments. With so much of the canvas yet to be filled, Kanye’s listeners become much more than fans: they become collaborators.
Artists used to reach audiences by picking a small part of the public and blanketing them. Today’s artists can reach audiences by picking a large part of the public and making something for everyone, because people now have much more options to choose. Artists can do this by releasing albums that include as many genres as possible, whether soul, R&B, rap, hip hop, country, Motown, new wave, rock, emo, or punk. Albums like 2017’s “Beautiful Thugger Girls”, by rapper Young Thug, is a perfect example of this. The standout track “Family Don’t Matter,” is a country ballad on which Thugger’s amazing wail is all blues. In the future, such albums won’t be described as “genre-bending,” because this kind of variety will be taken for granted.
Artistic competition is so fierce nowadays that artists need to constantly release music. One way to do this is to make songs shorter and simpler; another way is to get a producer to make the beat, a singer to make the chorus, and another rapper for the second verse. This leads to Migos member Offset, DJ Khaled, Justin Bieber, Chance The Rapper, and Lil Wayne all appearing on the same 2017 song, “I’m The One.” It also means that fans start to see credits like those from Cardi B’s new album “Invasion of Privacy”. The 13 tracks on the album features 104 total writing credits, meaning 8 people per track. Its single “Be Careful” has 17 alone.
If you heard Childish Gambino’s new song “This Is America” before you saw its video, you might not have guessed that it would debut at #1 on the Billboard charts. Its changing sound and sections makes it very hard to sing along with, or dance to. But if you watch the video once, you’ll realize that each musical section is like a mini-soundtrack to a film called “This Is America.” This new Childish Gambino song finishes a movement that The Buggles’ began in 1979 with “Video Killed The Radio Star,” and that Michael Jackson continued in 1982 with “Thriller.” The first made a video that supported a song, and the second made a song and its video true equals. “This Is America” makes a song that supports a video, a good idea when YouTube records over a billion hours of viewing every day.
Martin Connor is a writer & musician whose work, such as his recent book “The Musical Artistry of Rap,” unearths the musical abilities of modern pop musicians. In addition to bylines at BET, MTV, HipHopDX, XXL, and The Source, he’s also a regular guest on the Emmy-nominated Vox series “Earworm,” and writes weekly articles for RapAnalysis.com, where he is Editor-in-Chief.
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