Music Stories

5 March 2017

Last week a new band came in to play us their freshly delivered debut album. There is protocol in these situations. Everyone must sit in rapturous contemplation and laser focused attention. Heads must bob. Feet must tap. After every track you must make some gesture that indicates that, yes, that track was good; a smile, a nod, maybe even a quick, muttered “Great”.

Mid way through the second track, one of them gets up, stretches over to the stereo and turns the volume up.

“So, what did you think?”

The one universal constant shared by all the artists I have come across is the wash of nervousness that descends upon them in the split second of silence that follows that question.

Fortunately the room agrees that it is a great piece of work, and even more fortunately they’re not just saying it to avoid an awkward situation (and potential job loss). In the conversation that follows the band go into the ideas behind the record, the context, and also how much time they spent getting the track listing just so. You can hear it, as well; listening from start to finish the album ebbs and flows, building up tension and weight, only to release it. Light follows shade, loud balances perfectly against quiet.

The question is, though: in 2017, just how many people are going to listen to it like that?

***

This week online publishing platform Medium launched a new product called Series. Medium traditionally hosts content that looks a bit like a blog post or a news article – in fact, you might be reading this on Medium right now – and their new Series format looks to take this in a more mobile friendly direction. Designed for your phone, it takes the form of a series of full screen, portrait slides that you tap through to quickly read the content, on the go.

In other words, they’re Snapchat Stories, but for articles.

Snapchat Stories are fascinating, because they are the first truly mobile native content medium that has emerged. It is no surprise that the format has been rapidly copied by Instagram (who are probably going to be the ones to truly popularise it) and others, and that they’re starting to influence other formats like Medium Series.

There are, of course, other platforms that have only become popular because of their use on mobile devices. Twitter and Facebook are prime examples. But both of them were conceived before the rise of the smart phone – Twitter was launched a year before the iPhone, for example, and hasn’t fundamentally changed all that much since then. We’re even still limited to the character count that was born from its SMS-based beginnings.

You can look at something like Instagram and think that it’s truly mobile native because it only exists due to the presence of smart phones with built in cameras – and that’s true, but it doesn’t mean that conceptually it is designed in a way that is optimal for use on a phone. Like Twitter and Facebook, it has its roots in the first wave of social web apps that focused on connecting people together and typically represented their content as a vertical stream of posts. Instagram is a mobile version of Flickr, with a built in camera, rather then something truly new.

Stories – I’m going to drop the “Snapchat’ now – are something new. They are designed to fit into the 30 second snippets of time you so often get scattered about your day. You can look at them with no interaction at all, or you can skip through the boring bits. They are ephemeral, disappearing after 24hrs, which leads them to being a lot more playful, a lot more risk free. You don’t have to put the perfect shot into a story, like you would an Instagram or Facebook photo, because it’ll be gone soon enough. No harm no foul.

It is a medium designed for how we use our phones, and the social constructs that have developed from that, rather then a medium that has been translated and adapted to fit.

***

The Snapchat Stories of music doesn’t exist yet.

We’re in the Twitter and Instagram phase with the rise of the streaming services. The exploding popularity of playlists is certainly a key part in the adaption of past listening behaviours to be more mobile native. They share some similar properties with the Story format, namely the ease of providing instant content without much interaction; you don’t have to choose what you want to listen to, you can just hit shuffle and be on your way.

But they are still routed in the past. They still have no visual component, and while by their very nature you’re likely to skip through a lot of tracks (ever try listening to New Music Friday start to finish?) the interface is still the same design we’ve been stuck with for years. Every music player still shares far too many elements with Microsoft Excel.

To take a different tack, something like Musical.ly is probably closer. Rather then taking the traditional music format, it has invented something new, and something that really is mobile native. No one is listening to full songs on Musical.ly, and that’s ok. Everything is visual, and nothing is polished in the traditional sense.

But I would argue that while Musical.ly has built a huge user base using a format that is based on music, people aren’t really using it to listen. They are using it to consume the unique pieces of content that are on the platform. If you’re an artist, millions of people hearing you’re track on Musical.ly doesn’t mean that anyone has actually heard it.

There’s space for something else, and a massive opportunity for whoever gets it right. It’s a format that would be interactive, when you wanted it to, but completely passive if you don’t. It would be designed around skips. It would be visual, rather then just purely audio. It would be ephemeral, so you’d engage every day. It would be user generated, but with some of those users being professionals. There’s still not a streaming service that has got the balance between user content and curated content quite right.

This will happen, in some form or another, soon enough.

***

So what about our band for before, and their debut album?

The LP record format is going to be 70 years old next year. It is still a relatively modern invention, born from a specific set of technical constraints that have shaped and defined popular culture. But it is no way absolute or inherently the “correct” way that music should exist in, and I think we are starting to see a significant shift in terms of relevance as people start consuming music in a completely different way.

It is already happening, with the prominence of playlists leading to more of a focus on single tracks, and that only has the potential to increase as this behaviour leads to more significant changes in format as the medium matures and adapts.

This, of course, doesn’t mean the album is going to go anywhere any time soon. The rise of new behaviour does not mean the old behaviour stops. Art is thoroughly adaptable. Some pieces of music will always be best as a body of work, roughly 45 minutes long, just as some pieces of art, no matter what the fashion of the time, will be best as oils on canvas.

The exciting thing is wondering what the pieces of music are going to be like when they’re created for how we listen to music now, but also what they’re going to sound like for however we’re going to listen to music next.

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