Does Spotify destroy the pop scene? A predication made by a text which was published recently by the magazine Pitchfork. With the headline “Uncovering How Streaming Is Changing the Sound of Pop,” the American author Marc Hogan explains why pop songs sound different in the age of digital streaming, and most importantly, why they start differently: more intense, more impatient, more compressed. Songwriters are forced to put everything into the first 30 seconds of songs, Hogan writes, the reason for that lies in a technical detail: the fact that Spotify, (the leader in the streaming market in Sweden) only counts songs after 30 seconds of playing time.
To understand that properly, you have to think back into the past. If you did not like a song back than, while listening to the radio or listening to MTV, you just went to the restroom or the fridge. Today, on Spotify or other streaming platforms you continue to skip and if the next song can not grab you either, then you keep skipping. You can do that 30 million times because there are that many songs on Spotify.
Of course, you can not really “listen” to a song which is played for only 30 seconds. It only ran for a few seconds and was not even liked during that time. That is why it would be wrong to include skipped songs into the pop charts. (In Germany, the Spotify statistics are included into the charts since 2016 and in the US since 2012). Apart from that, there are always attempts to manipulate the Spotify statistics with clickbots. If hackers, record companies or frustrated musicians are behind it, one does not know exactly. In any case: Spotify assumes that a stream that ran for more than 30 seconds, was listened to by a real human. That is when the stream gets counted. Which of course – and here we come to the consequences for the pop songs – leads to a new focus on the crucial first half minute of songwriting. New songs that no-one knows yet and that are supposed to stand out from the other 30 million songs and become a hit needs everything to happen in the first 30 seconds.
The simplest solution from the perspective of the songwriter would be to start each song with “She loves you, yeah yeah yeah”. The Beatles song from 1963 immediately enters the chorus. Maximum intensity and guaranteed sing-along appeal from the first second. That would be tiring in the long run. That’s why there are two other strategies that Marc Hogan outlines in his Pitchfork text and that seems to be tailored to Spotify and its 140 million users worldwide. First: At the beginning of the song, the extremely catchy chorus is already hinted in parts, but only in parts, because not everything should be given away in the first 30 seconds. That operates as a magnet that pulls the listener over the 30-second mark. Second, the instrumental intro and the first stanza – those elements that are usually at the beginning of a song – are kept very short that even within the first 30 seconds the pre-chorus starts, the passage that actually leads to the chorus.
The first strategy is used for example by the current hit of the singer Pink, “What About Us”, which is ranked number 8 in the German pop charts: In the first eight seconds you hear a piano motif and a pitched voice in the background which makes mysterious howling sounds. Then Pink starts with the reveling “La-da-da” which, as it turns out later, is part of a second chorus. Then the first stanza begins. You have just heard 16 seconds of the song yet, what time management!
You can hear the second strategy in the song “It Is not Me” by Kygo and Selena Gomez (2nd place in Germany). A lively guitar theme prepares the stanza for eight seconds. Selena Gomez opens it at second 9 with the words “I had a dream”. At the middle of the stanza bulky synthesizers are pushed into the song, just so that something happens and it is not getting boring. Then at 29 seconds, Gomez jumps into the prechorus with a dramatic “oh-oh”, and those who still want to click away gets drawn back into the song by the impact of the bass drum.
Marc Hogan quotes, among other things, the 25-year-old songwriter Emily Warren from New York. She already has had co-written behind the scenes of the pop industry in collective songwriting sessions for the hit duo The Chainsmokers: “In the sessions people are really saying, ‘We have to do something that sounds like Spotify’. ” But how the Spotify imperative affects the song structure is just one thing. It already has developed a specific Spotify sound, and it’s called “Pop-Drop”.