Don't bore us, get to the chorus? How streaming is changing songs

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At the Grammys this Sunday, the top-nominated artists also happen to be the most-streamed artists in the world. Drake, Post Malone and Kendrick Lamar have cracked the formula for a streaming-platform hit, in an era when streaming is quickly becoming the most important measure of an artist’s popularity.

According to the Recording Industry Association of America, 75 per cent of music industry revenues now come from streaming. Canadians streamed 59 billion songs in 2018, a 47 per cent increase over the year before. 

Researchers and people in the music industry say that the importance of having a song do well on Spotify or Apple Music is changing the way songs are written. It’s especially top-of-mind for younger artists — such as Canadian pop-electronic singer-songwriter Willa — who are trying to hook their young listeners in as few seconds as possible before they hit “next” on the playlist. 

“The way that streaming has affected my writing is: trim the fat. I just shorten intros,” Willa said during a break from writing a new song with producer Michael Goldchain at the Toronto offices of Canada’s songwriters association, SOCAN.

Singer-songwriter Willa, left, and producer Michael Goldchain, right, work on a new song at the offices of SOCAN in Toronto. (CBC News)

 “I try to make sure that there’s no wasted space. Everything that’s in there is like 10 out of 10.” 

Intros down by 20 seconds

Her instincts — that streaming calls for a different type of song — are backed up by the work of Canadian musicologist Hubert Léveillé Gauvin. While completing his PhD at the University of Ohio, Léveillé Gauvin looked at 303 top-10 singles released between 1986 and 2015. He found that the anatomy of pop music had changed significantly, especially in terms of the length of the instrumental introduction. In the mid-1980s, the intro ran 20 to 25 seconds. By 2015, it had shrunk down to a mere five seconds. 

“So the time it takes before … the main singer comes in has almost disappeared. So we’re talking about an 80 per cent decrease in 30 years. This is huge!” Léveillé Gauvin said from his Montreal home.

He attributes this change to streaming’s particularly competitive environment, where a song has to stand out quickly among millions of other offerings.

“One way to do that is by being front-loaded, by making the voice come in a little bit earlier, by making the chorus come in little bit earlier, trying to get a little bit of an edge in this competitive environment.”

Dan Kopf, who writes on economics and statistics for online news publication Quartz, reached similar conclusions last month, when he looked at chart-topping songs released between 2015 and 2018. He found that on average songs are getting progressively shorter, even songs by the same artists released on older and more recent albums.

For example, tracks on Drake’s Grammy-nominated Scorpion, released last year, are on average 11 per cent shorter than tracks on his 2016 album Views.

No chorus required

Then there’s the matter of the chorus. While Léveillé Gauvin’s research has shown that the chorus in streaming hits appears much sooner than in the pop songs of yesteryear, the streaming era has also been kind to songs that actually have no chorus, at least not in its traditional sense. 

Think of the flat melodic beds of indie rock artists like Bon Iver or the so-called mumblecore rap of Post Malone: no fist-pumping chorus to be found.