How Social Media and Streaming Services Are Changing our Understanding of Good Music

21 Jun 2024

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Social media has made it possible for us to communicate with people from all over the world and share our thoughts, ideas, photos, and art with them. An amateur musician living in a small town somewhere in a very remote corner of the world can post their song online and find an audience that will love it. The opportunities arising from the widespread digitalization are truly inspiring. However, social media and streaming services, like Spotify and Apple Music, also create a lot of new challenges for musicians, both professional and amateur, as well as music lovers. Sound designer and composer Roman Ponomarenko, whose extensive experience includes creating soundtracks for movies and working with A-list pop stars, explains how digitalization has changed the process of music production and our idea of good music.

How Digital Platforms Make Music More Diverse and Simple at the Same Time

The advent of social media and widespread digitalization have radically changed our understanding of what good music is. The digital revolution has made music more accessible but also changed the ways it is produced, distributed, and consumed.

The wide availability of low-cost tools for composing and recording music, as well as the emergence of platforms like YouTube, SoundCloud, and Bandcamp, has made the process of music production and distribution available to a considerably larger number of people. Many independent musicians gained the opportunity to make their own music and share it with others.

This led to the explosive widening of the array of musical genres, styles, and subcultures. On the one hand, it's great, because now every person can find the very music they like. But on the other hand, the concept of good music has blurred. There is no more standard for everyone.

Social networks like TikTok and Instagram have played their role in the process of music transformations. They emphasize short and visually attractive videos with catchy sounds, so the viral potential of music has become more important than its depth and complexity. The quickly gained worldwide popularity of these platforms became the catalyst for the growing simplification and commercialization of music.

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How AI-based Algorithms Influence Our Musical Preferences

A University of Minnesota study found that TikTok users sometimes find themselves in a situation where they just can't stop scrolling the newsfeed once they open the app. One of the study participants jokingly referred to the For You page as a 'dopamine slot machine.’ They said that they would keep scrolling just to find a good post because they didn't want to end on a bad or dissatisfying post. And this can take a lot of time! The very design of the platform, with its endless newsfeed, becomes addictive for the users. Today, this kind of news feed is adopted by Meta and other social media platforms.

In this context, the definition of good music has changed. It became more flexible and subjective. Some people can say that a good song gets a lot of attention on social media and goes viral. However, others will probably argue that these metrics only reflect the popularity of the music, not its artistic value.

Recommendation algorithms on streaming platforms also contribute to the changes going on with music. For example, Spotify and Apple Music use complex algorithms to compose personalized playlists, often prioritizing songs with catchy melodies and formulas familiar to a large number of listeners. As a result, unique and authentic content often gets left out. These algorithms influence listeners' tastes and expectations, contributing to the process of musical simplification.

What role does AI play in this? It's quite simple. All For You playlists have long been made with the help of AI-based algorithms, which — not without the help of advertising money — choose who exactly should be featured in these lists. And it's extremely difficult for an unknown artist to make it onto them.

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Streaming Platforms Taking over Independent Artists

The production of music began to change with the advent of affordable personal computers with internet access. A lot of large old-fashioned recording studios could not compete with 'amateur producers' working directly from their homes anymore. The expenses of maintaining a full-fledged music production were incomparable to the costs of a powerful laptop set in someone's bedroom.

However, major players in the music industry have successfully adapted to the new situation. People still use the services of recording studios when they want to make high-quality music. Musicians still go touring and play live shows. Moreover, tours and concerts remain the main source of income for musicians, as streaming services don't make a lot of money for anyone except their owners.

Last year, Snoop Dogg said that he only got $45,000 from a billion Spotify streams. It's literally nothing, considering the number of streams and the artist's popularity!

Credit: Roman Ponomarenko

Independent artists can hardly earn anything on streaming services. Moreover, Spotify has now officially demonetized all songs on the platform with less than 1000 streams. According to Spotify data, there are around 100 million songs on the service, yet only around 37.5 million meet the new requirements to generate revenue. This means that around 60% of tracks will not qualify for the new threshold.

That's what Nieborg and Poell call the platformization of cultural production. The penetration of large online platforms into the web affects the production, distribution, and circulation of artistic content, including music. This has changed the balance of power between platform companies and creators, empowering the platforms and letting them, not in the least, restructure cultural marketing and monetization.