Music Streaming Is Degrading Our Songs, and I Don’t Like It One Bit

Music streaming platforms have changed more than how we consume music.
Music streaming platforms have changed more than how we consume music.

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Streaming makes music feel like fast food, not a fine meal.

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Music is now more accessible than ever before. With just a few taps on our devices, we can listen to songs spanning every genre and era imaginable. And this is all thanks to streaming giants like Spotify, Apple Music, and Tidal.

But this convenience comes at a hidden cost. One that’s slowly weakening the very soul of the music we love.

Shorter songs, compressed audio, and passive listening habits are becoming the new norm. And, I’m writing because we need to recognize these changes and fight back to save the true spirit of our music.

The Evolution of Music Storage and Its Impact

To fully grasp how big of a deal the streaming era is, we need to look at the history of music formats and how they’ve shaped music creation and listening over time.

Long ago, the physical limits of phonograph cylinders and shellac discs controlled the length and complexity of musical compositions.

So, artists had to change their work to fit these narrow limits. This resulted in shorter, more concise pieces that could be easily captured and replayed. (Of course, most of them didn’t like that.)

How the phonograph (wax) cylinders looked like from the late 19th century. (From: Art.com)
How the phonograph (wax) cylinders looked like from the late 19th century. (From: Art.com)

But as technology advanced, so did the possibilities for recorded music.

The arrival of vinyl records in the mid-20th century opened up a whole new world of immersive listening experiences. Artists took full advantage of the bigger canvas to make sprawling, conceptual albums that rewarded deep engagement.

Then, the compact disc came in the 1980s. This brought digital audio into the mainstream. Plus, it offered even more storage capacity and set the stage for new creative exploration.

But with the rise of digital formats like MP3s and streaming in the early 2000s, the focus swung back towards short songs and quick access. Suddenly, listeners had close to unlimited music at their fingertips, and attention spans started to shrink.

Why I Think Streaming = Convenience at a Cost

Don’t get me wrong. I love the convenience that streaming services like Spotify provide. Having access to a huge library of songs is a music lover’s dream come true.

But I can’t shake the feeling that this convenience comes at a big price.

You see, artists on these platforms only get paid if a song is played for at least 30 seconds.

The data is clear: 24% of listeners on Spotify skip a song within the first five seconds, 29% within ten seconds, and 35% within 30 seconds.

This has pushed musicians and producers to put the catchiest parts of their tracks right up front. All in an effort to grab listeners’ attention and keep them engaged for at least half a minute.

The result? A noticeable shift in the sound and structure of popular music.

Songs are getting shorter and more predictable. In fact, data has shown that the average length of hit songs has decreased from four minutes in 2000 to just over three minutes today.

Average song length on the Billboard Hot 100 over the years. (From: Washington Post)
Average song length on the Billboard Hot 100 over the years. (From: Washington Post)

But it’s not just about the length. Many hits also follow a standard pattern of quick intros, repetitive choruses, and short verses.

Take, for example, the recent hit “Blinding Lights” by The Weeknd. It’s definitely catchy. But, the song relies heavily on a pulsing, synth-driven hook that repeats throughout, with relatively little change or growth over its 3:20 runtime.

Now, compare that to a classic track like Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody.” I’d say it’s a whole different level not because it’s nearly 6 minutes long. It’s because it features multiple distinct sections, complex harmonies, and a level of musical depth that rewards repeated listens.

Before you judge me, I’m not saying that all music in the streaming era is throwaway or lacks substance.

There’s something to be said for music that can instantly grab your attention and get your toes tapping. And, there are still many artists who make deep, complex works.

But I am someone who has spent countless hours absorbed in the rich, dynamic sounds of genres like jazz, classical, and progressive rock. So, I can’t help but feel that something important is being lost in the streaming era’s rush to make music optimized for quick hits and short attention spans.

If you don’t believe me, perhaps it’ll be more convincing if you hear it from a Ted Talk with Alan Cross.

The Perils of Passive Listening

It's not a lot easier to play a lot of music without actually listening to them these days.
It’s not a lot easier to play a lot of music without actually listening to them these days.

I may sound like a boomer here, but, back in the day, purchasing a physical album was a commitment.

You put in your time and money. So, you want to listen over and over and develop a deeper appreciation, even for the tracks that didn’t grab you right away.

Album art, liner notes, and lyrics also added layers of engagement that streaming just can’t match.

But now, even the album format is under threat as listeners move towards premade playlists and individual tracks that fit specific moods or activities.

Streaming services deliver music without context, which often serves as background noise. There are no liner notes and no backstory. It’s just a never-ending playlist controlled by algorithms.

This “organized noise” doesn’t have the depth and richness of a full album experience.

It makes music feel disposable. We skip more, engage less, and miss out on the deeper, more rewarding parts of music.

So, I would argue that the sneakiest effect of the streaming era is the way it promotes a more passive, disengaged relationship with music.

When we’re constantly flooded with an endless stream of content, it’s all too easy to slip into a mode of half-hearted listening, where music becomes little more than background noise to go along with other activities.

We skip from track to track, rarely giving any one song the attention it deserves.

Algorithms shape our tastes in ways that can feel limiting and predictable.

This idea of egocasting – the tendency to seek out content that reinforces what we already like and believe – is especially strong in music streaming.

By tailoring recommendations to our established tastes, these platforms make it less likely that we’ll come across something truly surprising or challenging. Our musical diets become increasingly narrow, and we risk missing out on the joys of discovery and growth.

There’s Hope in the Vinyl Revival

Vinyl is rising from the dead and thriving over CDs. (From: RIAA)
Vinyl is rising from the dead and thriving over CDs. (From: RIAA)

Now, one thing that makes me believe that I am not alone in this sentiment is the rise of vinyl record sales.

Even as streaming has taken over the music industry, we’ve seen a surprising comeback of interest in this decidedly old-school format.

For example, in 2023, vinyl outsold both digital and CD formats for the 2nd time in a row in the U.S., driven by both nostalgic Gen Xers and a surprising number of Gen Z listeners.

This resurgence reflects a desire to reconnect with music in a more meaningful way.

There’s something to be said for the purposefulness and presence that vinyl demands.

The act of picking out a record, carefully placing it on the turntable, and sitting down to listen from start to finish is a far cry from the fragmented, shuffle-driven listening habits that streaming encourages.

It’s a reminder that music is more than just a product to be consumed on the go. It’s a powerful art form that has the ability to transport us, to challenge us, to move us in deep and unexpected ways.

What Can We Do to Fight Back?

There’s really little we can do about the increasing digital future, especially with the rise of AI, even in music. So, instead, we should find ways to protect and nurture the more engaged, attentive mode of listening.

This doesn’t necessarily mean completely giving up on streaming. These platforms have undoubtedly expanded access to music in ways that would have been unimaginable just a few decades ago.

But it does mean being more aware of how we consume music and making a deliberate effort to create space for deeper, more focused listening.

I'm not saying we should all go and boycott all streaming services!
I’m not saying we should all go and boycott all streaming services!

So, what can we do to push back against this trend?

For starters, we can make a deliberate effort to support artists who are still making albums and songs with depth and staying power.

We can also set aside time in our busy lives to sit down and listen to music with purpose. Give it our full attention rather than treating it as just another soundtrack to our daily activities.

And we can look for chances to experience music in more immersive, communal settings. We can do this by whether it’s going to live concerts or getting together with friends to share and discuss the albums that have shaped us.

In the end, the way we choose to engage with music is a personal choice that reflects our individual tastes and priorities.

But as someone who has been deeply moved and inspired by the power of great music, I can’t help but feel a sense of urgency in protecting and championing the kind of deep, immersive listening that streaming culture threatens to erode.

I call for more of us to push back against the tide of disposability and distraction.

I call for more of us to make sure that the music we love continues to enrich our lives in meaningful and lasting ways, no matter what the future of the industry may hold.

I know not everyone will like this. Not everyone will agree. And it’s highly likely that this article will only get a lot of flak. But it’s a risk I’m willing to take.

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