During the pre-show to Sunday’s MTV Music Video Awards, there was an amusing segment in which Best New Artist nominee Tyler The Creator (I’m assuming his name is a reflection of self-created t-shirts, because no one would possibly sell that horrific garb) self mockingly pointed out that he was the least popular attendee in the Twittersphere among the award show’s glitterati. The weird part: it was factually true. How did he know this? MTV had posted multiple flats screen television sets along their red carpet, displaying real time measurements of the most-discussed musicians on Twitter. Later on that night, Beyonce managed to break the Twitter speedometer (Twittometer?) by revealing she was pregnant, leading to a record 8,868 tweets per second. The connection between music and social discussion had never been more apparent.
Summer 2011 will be remembered for the explosion of music-related social networking breakthroughs. This includes Pandora’s IPO announcement, the ingeniously simple concept behind Turntable.fm and the American launch of what may turn out to be iTunes first true competitor, Spotify. Other services such as Rdio, Last.fm, Slacker and of course iTunes continue to gain in popularity (for an in-depth review of these services, check out a post at Brittany’s personal blog here). The Hype Machine, a music blog aggregator, is arguably the most well-known and successful blog database, regardless of topic content. The recording industry may be plodding towards total implosion, yet with the integration of social innovation, it may also be looking at its very bright future.
This all begs the question: Why the steady and strong bond between music and social networking? What is it about this particular form of popular art that makes it relate so well with the social and digital generation, and their methods of communication?
Music is, and always has been, an inherently social art form. Delving into literature is a sole venture (although some are looking at ways of changing that) and both movies and the painted/constructed arts are normally enjoyed in the silent company of a few others. Not so with music. In fact quite the opposite is true. Music is best experienced with a lot of people, often with as many other people as possible, and most of the time it must be experienced loudly. This is why the concert tours have been consistently the most successful facet of the music industry. The “Free Bird” chants, the audience-only sing-along to “Piano Man”’s chorus, the sky full of lighters; they are all examples of a large group socially interacting with a single piece of music.
Social networks have taken this idiosyncrasy formerly unique to the concert and translated it to the digital screen, with other audience members who could be miles away or oceans apart. The most literal example of this is the Turntable.fm platform, which is designed to mirror a dance hall with DJ performers. “You” walk into a room join other amiable avatars in listening to music everyone enjoys. A song is also the only art form that can be listened to and openly discussed at the same time, so on the right hand side of the screen the designers have conveniently placed a scrolling chat bar.
The best part of Turntable is not the exposure to new songs, but the conversation about those that everyone knows. You receive an array of opinions that are bolstered by the strength of anonymity. Along a similar line, there is a recent trend to host a live stream of upcoming records, accompanied by an associated hashtag so that fans can listen and share their thoughts with others at the same time.
(Speaking of… Some have wondered why Kanye West and Jay-Z named their recent single “Otis”. Kanye has sampled countless artists in the past, including other Otis Redding tracks, so why name this particular one as he did? It may be he realized that “Otis” is the most hashtag-able track name possible. It sounds suspicious, but if anyone were to name a track so that it could best be distributed through Twitter, it would be Kanye. Sure enough, on the day the track was released, #Otis was a trending topic. That’s how I and many others first found out about the song. I’m looking forward to the first album title with a “#” as the first character.)
In addition to its power to captivate the collective consciousness, music is among the best indicators of like-minded individuals. Colleges matching freshman roommates will often use musical interests as a primary factor. In the age of digital “friending,” therefore, music has taken on a new and important role. Ping allows users to find new “friends” based on their iTunes library. Spotify automatically integrates your Facebook friends into the UI, and you can collaborate with your buddies on creating new playlists.
If you feel obliged, take a moment and scroll through song comments on Last.fm, or spend a little time in Turntable. Relationships among users develop; relationships with complete strangers whose real-life identities, opinions and histories are rarely ever divulged beyond their love of the song being played. What we are witnessing is the creation of a wholly contemporary type of interpersonal relationship, one that is not nearly as wide as it is deep. It is a sanctioned glimpse through a keyhole into a stranger’s bedroom.
Finally, music fits perfectly into the need of the generation that created online social networks. The blunt truth: music is built for the attention-deprived, instant gratification type. The average length of the modern pop song has surely not grown from the three minute standard, set in the earlier part of last century due to record size limitations, and our methods of communication have shrunk to fit its size. The vast majority of the time, all you need is 140 characters or less to convey your feelings about a song. “Kanye’s new jam is crazy! Classic beat, clever lyrics. But give it 2 or 3 listens. #Otis” does the trick, in 88 characters. Sites like Pandora and Grooveshark have also capitalized on our insatiable need to be targeted to. The more time you spend on their platforms, the better the music is to your ears. All due to the data you are willingly providing.
Spotify will succeed wildly because it decreases the amount of time a user fully pays attention to even one song. Having God’s iTunes playlist at your fingertips will expose you to countless new melodies while also ensuring that you need never listen to more than one minute of any tune until you move on to the next. A blessing and a curse, you might suppose? It is no different than instant friending on Facebook, instant communication on Twitter or instant location on foursquare. We live in a civilization of #instanity, and plethora of prevalent pop music is our anthem.
Among the most followed Twitterers in the world are Katy Perry, Kanye West, Lady Gaga and Justin Bieber. Yes, they are well-followed because of their larger-than-life egos and frequently scrutinized personal lives, yet that is not the fundamental reason behind their popularity. The artists have created music for the masses, and in turn the masses a reciprocal bond with them and eachother, not dissimilar to connections made in Turntable, Last.fm or at a live concert. The future of the music industry is strong, because it lies in all of us.