Listening to Music while Sheltering in Place

The world is, to varying degrees, sheltering-in-place during this global coronavirus pandemic. Starting in March, the pandemic started to affect me personally: 

  • I started working from home on March 6th. 
  • Governor Gavin Newsom announced on March 11 that any gatherings over 250 people were strongly discouraged, effectively cancelling all concerts for the month of March. 
  • On March 16th, the mayor of San Francisco along with several other counties in the area, announced a shelter-in-place order. 

Ever since then, I’ve been at home. Given all these changes in my life, I was curious what new patterns I might see in my music listening habits. 

With large gatherings prohibited, I went to my last concert on March 7th. With gatherings increasingly cancelled nationwide, and touring musicians postponing and cancelling events, March 27th, Beatport hosted the first livestream festival, “ReConnect. A Global Music Series”. Many more followed. 

Industry-wide studies and data analysis have attempted to unpack various trends in the pandemic’s influence on the music industry. Analytics startup Chartmetric is digging into genre-based listening, geographical listening habits, and Billboard and Nielsen conducting a periodic entertainment tracker survey.

Because I’m me, and I have so much data about my music listening patterns, I wanted to explore what trends might be emerging in my personal habits. I analyzed the months March, April, and May during 2020, and in some cases compared that period against the same period in 2019, 2018, and 2017. The screenshots of data visualizations in this blog post represent data points from May 15th, so it is an incomplete analysis and comparison, given that May in 2020 is not yet complete. 

Looking at my listening habits during this time period, with key dates highlighted, it’s clear that the very beginning of the crisis didn’t have much of an effect on my listening behavior. However, after the shelter-in-place order, the amount of time I spent listening to music increased. After that increase it’s remained fairly steady.

Screenshot of an area chart depicting listening duration ranging from 100 minutes with a couple spikes of 500 minutes but hovering around a max of 250 minutes per day for much of january and february, then starting in march a new range from about 250 to 450 minutes per day, with a couple outliers of nearly 700 minutes of listening activity, and a couple outliers with only a 90 minutes of listening activity.

Key dates such as the first case in the United States, the first case in California, and the first case in the Bay Area are highlighted along with other pandemic-relevant dates.

Listening behavior during March, April, and May over time

When I started my analysis, I looked at my basic listening count from traditional music listening sources. I use Last.fm to scrobble my listening behavior in iTunes, Spotify, and the web from sites like YouTube, SoundCloud, Bandcamp, Hype Machine, and more. 

Chart depicting 2700 total listens for 2017, 2000 total listens for 2018, and 2300 total listens for 2019 during March, April, and May, compared to 3000 total listens in that same period in 2020.

If you just look at 2018 to 2020, it seems like my listening habits are trending upward, maybe with a culmination in 2020. But comparing against 2017, it isn’t much of a difference. I listened to 25% fewer tracks in 2018 compared with 2017, 19% more tracks in 2019 compared with 2018, and 25% more tracks in 2020 compared with 2019. 

Chart depicting total weekday listens during March, April, and May during 2017, 2018, 2019, and 2020 with total weekend listens during the same time. 2017 shows roughly 2400 listens on weekdays and 200ish for 2017, 2000 weekday listens vs 100 weekend listens for 2018, 2100 weekday listens vs 300 weekend listens in 2019, and 2500 weekday listens vs 200 weekend listens in 2020

If I break that down by when I was listening by comparing my weekend and weekday listening habits from the previous 3 years to now, there’s still perhaps a bit of an increase, but nothing much. 

With just the data points from Last.fm, there aren’t really any notable patterns. But number of tracks listened to on Spotify, SoundCloud, YouTube, or iTunes provides an incomplete perspective of my listening habits. If I expand the data I’m analyzing to include other types of listening—concerts attended and livestreams watched—and change the data point that I’m analyzing to the amount of time that I spend listening, instead of the number of tracks that I’ve listened to, it gets a bit more interesting. 

Chart shows roughly 12000 minutes spent listening in 2017, 10000 in 2018, 12000 in 2019, and 22000 in 2020While the number of tracks I listened to from 2019 to 2020 increased only 25%, the amount of time I spent listening to music increased by 74%, a full 150 hours more than the previous year during this time period. And May isn’t even over yet! 

It’s worth briefly noting that I’m estimating, rather than directly calculating, the amount of time spent listening to music tracks and attending live music events. To make this calculation, I’m using an estimate of 3 hours for each concert attended, 4 hours for each DJ set attended, 8 hours for each festival attended, and an estimate of 4 minutes for each track listened to, based on the average of all the tracks I’ve purchased over the past two years. Livestreamed sets are easier to track, but some of those are estimates as well because I didn’t start keeping track until the end of April.

I spent an extra 150 hours listening to music this year during this time—but when was I spending this time listening? If I break down the amount of time I spent listening by weekend compared with weekdays, it’s obvious:

Chart depicts 10000 weekday minutes and 5000 weekend minutes spent listening in 2017, 9500 weekday minutes and 4500 weekend minutes in 2018, 14000 weekday minutes and 2000 weekend minutes in 2019, and 12000 weekday minutes and 13000 weekend minutes in 2020

Before shelter-in-place, I’d spend most of my weekends outside, hanging out with friends, or attending concerts, DJ sets, and the occasional day party. Now that I’m spending my weekends largely inside and at home, coupled with the number of livestreaming festivals, I’m spending much more of that time listening to music. 

I was curious if perhaps working from home might reveal new weekday listening habits too, but the pattern remains fairly consistent. I also haven’t worked from home for an extended period before, so I don’t have a baseline to compare it with. 

It’s clear that weekends are when I’m doing most of my new listening, and that this new listening likely isn’t coming from my traditional listening habits. If I split the amount of time that I spend listening to music by the type of listening that I’m doing, the source of the added time spent listening is clear.

Depicts 11000 minutes of track listens and 1000 minutes of time spent at concerts in 2017, 8000 minutes spent listening to music tracks and 2000 minutes spent at concerts in 2018, 10000 minutes spent listening to music tracks and 3000 minutes spent at concerts in 2019, and 12000 minutes spent listening to music tracks and 9000 minutes listening to livestreams, with a sliver of 120 minutes spent at a single concert in 2020

Hello, livestreams. If you look closely you can also spy the sliver of a concert that I attended on March 7th.

Livestreams dominate, and so does Shazam

All of the livestreams I’ve been watching have primarily been DJ sets. Ordinarily, when I’m at a DJ set, I spend a good amount of time Shazamming the tracks I’m hearing. I want to identify the tracks that I’m enjoying so much on the dancefloor so I can track them down, buy them, and dig into the back catalog of those artists. 

So I requested my Shazam data to see what’s happening now that I’m home, with unlimited, shameless, and convenient access to Shazam.

For the time period that I have Shazam data for, the correlation of Shazam activity to number of livestreams watched is fairly consistent at roughly 10 successful Shazams per livestream.  

Chart details largely duplicated in surrounding text, but of note is a spike of 6 livestreams with only 30 or so songs shazammed, while the next few weeks show a fairly tight interlock of shazam activity with number of livestreams

Given the correlation of Shazam data, as well as the continued focus on watching DJ sets, I wanted to explore my artist discovery statistics as well. Especially when it seemed like my listening activity hadn’t shifted much, I was betting that my artist discovery statistics have been increasing during this time. If I look at just the past few years, there seems to be a direct increase during this time period. 

Chart depicts 260ish artists discovered in March, April, and May of 2018, 280 discovered in 2019, and 360 discovered in 2020Chart depicts 260ish artists discovered in March, April, and May of 2018, 280 discovered in 2019, and 360 discovered in 2020. Second chart shows the same data but adds 2017, with 390 artists discovered

However, after I add 2017 into the list as well, the pattern doesn’t seem like much of a pattern at all. Perhaps by the end of May, there will be a correlation or an outsized increase. But at least for now, the added number of livestreams I’ve been watching don’t seem to be producing an equivalently high number of artist discoveries, even though they’re elevated compared with the last two years. 

That could also be that the artists I’m discovering in the livestreams haven’t yet had a substantial effect on my non-livestream listening patterns, even if there’s 91 hours of music (and counting) in my quarandjed playlist where I store the tracks that catch my ear in a quarantine DJ set. Adding music to a playlist, of course, is not the same thing as listening to it. 

Livestreaming as concert replacement?

Shelter-in-place brought with it a slew of event cancellations and postponements. My live events calendar was severely affected. As of now, 15 concerts were affected in the following ways:

Chart depicts 6 concerts cancelled and 9 postponed

The amount of time that I spend at concerts compared with watching livestreams is also starkly different.

Chart depicts 1000 minutes spent at concerts in 2017, 2000 minutes at concerts in 2018, 2500 minutes at concerts in 2019, and 8000 minutes spent watching livestreams, with a topper of 120 minutes at a concert in 2020

I’ve spent 151 hours (and counting) watching livestreams, the rough equivalent of 50 concerts—my entire concert attendance of last year. This is almost certainly because I’m often listening to livestreams, rather than watching them happen.

Concerts require dedication—a period of time where you can’t really do anything else, a monetary investment, and travel to and from the show. Livestreams don’t have any of that, save a voluntary donation. That makes it easier to turn on a stream while I’m doing other things. While listening to a livestream, I often avoid engaging with the streaming experience. Unless the chat is a cozy few hundred folks at most, it’s a tire fire of trolls and not a pleasant experience. That, coupled with the fact that sitting on my couch watching a screen is inherently less engaging than standing in a club with music and people surrounding me, means that I’m often multitasking while livestreams are happening.

The attraction for me is that these streams are live, and they’re an event to tune into, and if you don’t, you might miss it. Because it’s live, you have the opportunity to create a shared collective experience. The chatrooms that accompany live video streams on YouTube, Twitch, and especially with Facebook’s Watch Party feature for Facebook Live videos, are what foster this shared experience. For me, it’s about that experience, so much so that I started a chat thread for Jamie xx’s 2020 Essential Mix so that my friends and I could experience and react to the set live. This personal experience is contrary to the conclusion drawn in this article on Hypebot called Our Music Consumption Habits Are Changing, But Will They Remain That Way? by Bobby Owsinski: “Given the choice, people would rather watch something than just listen.”. Given the choice, I’d rather have a shared collective experience with music rather than just sit alone on my couch and listen to it. 

Of course, with shelter-in-place, I haven’t been given a choice between attending concerts and watching livestreamed shows. It’s clear that without a choice, I’ll take whatever approximation of live music I can find.

 

Streaming, the cloud, and music interactions: are libraries a thing of the past?

Several years ago I wrote about fragmented music libraries and music discovery. In light of the overwhelming popularity of Spotify and the dominance of streaming music (Spotify, Apple Music, Amazon Music, Tidal, and others), I’m curious if music libraries even exist anymore. Or, if they exist today, will they continue to exist? 

My guess is that the only people still maintaining music libraries are DJs, fervent music fans (like myself), or people that aren’t using streaming music at all (due to age, lack of interest, or lack of availability due to markets or internet speeds). 

I was chatting with a friend of mine that has a collection of vinyl records, but she only ever listens to vinyl if she’s relaxing on the weekend. Oftentimes she’s just asking Alexa to play some music, without much attention to where that music is coming from. With Amazon Music bundled into Amazon Prime for many members, people can be totally unaware that they’re using a streaming service at all. I’d hazard that this interaction pattern is true for most people, especially those that never enjoyed maintaining a music library but instead collected CDs and records because that was the only way to be able to listen to music at all. 

Even my own habits are changing, perhaps equally due to time constraints as due to current music technology services. I used to carefully curate playlists for sharing with others, listening in the car, mix CDs, and for radio shows. These days I make playlists for many of those same purposes on Spotify, but the songs in my “actual” music library (iTunes) aren’t categorized into playlists at all anymore, and I give the playlists I make on my iPhone random names like “Aaa yay” to make the playlists easier to find, rather than to describe the contents. 

I’m limited by storage size in terms of what I can add to my iPhone, just like I was with my iPod, but that shapes my experience of the music. Since I’m limited to a smaller catalogue, I’m able to sit with the music more and create more distinct memories. There are still songs that remind me of being in Berlin in 2011, limited to the songs that I added to my iPod before I left the United States because the internet I had access to in Germany was too slow to download new music and add it to my iPod. 

Nowadays, I am less motivated to carefully manage my iTunes library because it’s only on one device, whereas I can access my Spotify library across multiple devices. That’s the one I find myself carefully creating folders of playlists for, organizing and sorting tracks and playlists. A primary reason for the success of Spotify for my listening habits is the social and collaborative nature of it. It’s easy to share tracks with others, make a playlist for a DJ set that I went to to share with others, contribute to a weekly collaborative playlist with a community of fellow music-lovers, or to follow playlists created by artists and DJs I love. My local library can give me a lot, but it can’t give me that community interaction.

Indeed, in 2015 that’s something I identified as lacking. I felt that it was harder to feel part of a music culture, writing:

“It’s harder than it used to be to feel connected with music. It’s not a stream or a subculture one is tapped into anymore, because it’s so distributed on the web. There’s so much music, and it lives in so many different services, that the music culture has imploded a bit.”

I feel completely differently these days, thanks to a vibrant live music community in San Francisco. I loathe Facebook, but the groups that I’m a part of on that site enable me to feel connected to a greater music scene and community that supplement my connection to music and music discovery. Ironically, Facebook groups have also helped my music culture experience become more local. The music blogs that I used to be able to tap into are now largely defunct, or have multiple functions (the burning ear also running vinyl me please, or All Things Go also providing news and an annual festival in DC). Instead yet another way I discover new music is by paying attention to the artists and DJs that people in these Facebook groups are talking about and posting tracks and albums from. 

Despite the challenges of a local music library, I keep buying digital music partially because I made a promise to myself when I was younger that I’d do so when I could afford to, partially to support musicians and producers, and partially because I distrust that streaming services will stick around with all the music I might want to listen to. I’d rather “own” it, at least as best as I can when it’s a digital file that risks deletion and decomposition over time. 

Music discovery in the past was equal parts discovery and collection, with a hefty dose of listening after I collected new music.

A flowchart showing Discover -> Collect -> Listen in a triangle, with listen connecting back to discoverI’d do the following when discovering new music:

  • Writing down song lyrics while listening to the radio or while working my retail job, then later looking up the tracks to check out albums from the library to rip to my family computer.
  • Following music blogs like The Burning Ear, All Things Go, Earmilk, Stereogum, Line of Best Fit, then downloading what I liked best from their site from MediaFire or MegaUpload to save to my own library.
  • Trolling through illicit LiveJournal communities or invite-only torrent sites to download discographies for artists I already liked, or might like.

Over time, those music blogs shifted to using SoundCloud, the online communities and torrent sites shuttered, and I started listening to more music on streaming sites instead. The loop stopped going from discovery to collection and instead to discovery, like, and discovery again. 

Find a new track, listen, click the heart or the plus sign, and move on. Rarely do you remember to go back and listen to your fully-compiled list of saved tracks (or even if you do, trying to listen to the whole thing on shuffle will be limited by the web app, thanks SoundCloud). 

A flowchart showing a cycle from discover to like and back again using arrows.

This type of cycle is faster than the old cycle, and more focused on engagement with the service (rather than the music) and less on collecting and more on consuming. In some ways, downloading music was like this too. When I accidentally deleted my entire music library in 2012, the tatters of my library that I was able to recover from my iPod was a scant representation of my full collection, but included in that library was discographies that I would likely never listen to. Now that it’s been years, there have been a few occasions where I go back and discover that an artist I listen to now is in that graveyard of deleted songs, but even knowing that, I’m not sure I would’ve gotten to it any sooner. I was always collecting more than I was listening to. 

Streaming music lets me collect in the same way, but without the personal risk. It just makes me dependent on a third-party entity that permits me to access the tracks that they store for me. I end up with lists of liked tracks across multiple different services, none of which I fully control. These days my music discovery is now largely driven by 3 services: Spotify, Shazam, and Soundcloud. Spotify pushes algorithmic recommendations to me, Shazam enables me to discover what track the DJ is currently playing when I’m out at a DJ set, and Soundcloud lets me listen to recorded DJ sets as well as having excellent autoplay recommendations. In all of them I have lists of tracks that I may never revisit after saving them. Some of them I’ll never be able to revisit, because they’ve been deleted or the service has lost the rights to the track. 

In 2015 I lamented the fragmentation of music discovery, but looking back, my music discovery was always shared across services, devices, and methods—the central iTunes library was what tied the radio songs, the library CDs, the discography downloads, and the music blog tracks together. The real issue is that the primary music discovery modes of today are service-dependent, and each of those services provides their own constructs of a music library. I mentioned in 2015 that:

“my library is all over the place. iTunes is still the main home of my music—I can afford to buy new music when I want —but I frequent Spotify and SoundCloud to check out new music. I sync my iTunes library to Google Play Music too, so I can listen to it at work.” 

While this is still largely true, I largely consume Spotify when I’m at work, listen to SoundCloud sets or tracks from iTunes when I’m on-the-go with my phone, and listen to Spotify or iTunes when I’m on my personal laptop. That’s essentially 2.5 places that I keep a music library, and while I maintain a purchase pipeline of tracks from Spotify and SoundCloud into my iTunes library, it’s a fraction of my discoveries that make it into my collection for the long term. The days of a true central collection of my library are long since past. 

It seems a feat, with all these digital cloud music services streaming music into our ears, to have a local music library. Indeed, what’s the point of holding onto your local files when it becomes so difficult to access it? iTunes is becoming the Apple Music app, with the Apple Music streaming service front and center. Spotify is, well, Spotify. And SoundCloud continues to flounder yet provides an essential service of underground music and DJ sets. Google Play Music exists, but only has a web-based player (no client) to make it easier to access and listen to your local library after you’ve mirrored it to the cloud. Streaming is convenient. But streaming music lets others own your content for you, granting you subscription access to it at best, ruining the quality of your music listening experience at worst. 

A recent essay by Dave Holmes in Esquire talks about “The Deleted Years”, or the years that we stored music on iPods, but since Spotify and other streaming services, have largely moved on from. As he puts it, 

“From 2003 to 2012, music was disposable and nothing survived.”

Perhaps it’s more true that from 2012 onward, music is omnipresent and yet more disposable. It can disappear into the void of a streaming service, and we’ll never even know we saved it. At least an abandoned iPod gives us a tangible record of our past habits. 

As Vicki Boykis wrote about SoundCloud in 2017

“I’m worried that, for internet music culture, what’s coming is the loss of a place that offered innumerable avenues for creativity, for enjoyment, for discovery of music that couldn’t and wouldn’t be created anywhere else. And, like everyone who has ever invested enough emotion in an online space long enough to make it their own, I’m wondering what’s next.”

I’ll be here, discovering, collecting, liking, and listening for what’s next.

Music streaming and sovereignty

As the music industry moves away from downloads and toward building streaming platforms, international sovereignty becomes more of a barrier to people listening to music and discussing it with others, because they don’t have access to the same music on the same platforms. As Sean Michaels points out in The Morning News several years ago:

one of the undocumented glitches in the current internet is all its asymmetrical licensing rules. I can’t use Spotify in Canada (yet). Whenever I’m able to, there’s no guarantee that Spotify Canada’s music library will match Spotify America’s. Just as Netflix Canada is different than Netflix US, and YouTube won’t let me see Jon Stewart. As we move away from downloads and toward streaming, international sovereignty is going to become more and more of a barrier to common discussions of music.

Location has always been a challenge to music access, but it’s important to keep in mind that the internet and music streaming has not been an equitable boon to music access—it is still controlled.

Taylor Swift and Being Between Stars

Taylor Swift has been blowing up the music industry lately, first by surprising everyone with the beauty of her latest album. SNL dubbed it a result of Swiftamine, and I can certainly say I’m under the spell.

Then, pre-release, she removed her entire discography from Spotify. The Atlantic reflects on this decision by pointing out, “Owning music outright, instead of renting it through a streaming service, would be better for listeners and artists in the long run. Indeed, it would be better for just about everyone except Spotify.”

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Language, Music, and Holidays

I am privileged enough to know a second language (although as the years pass, my proficiency is faltering…). The government and the military have a great need for foreign language proficiency for its employees (though apparently that isn’t much of a requirement for U.S. diplomats…). Given their need, they coordinated with the University of Maryland to develop a cognitive test that is supposed to determine how proficient someone can become in a foreign language. It may soon be publicly available, but honestly I don’t know if I’d be interested in taking it. While helpful as an aptitude test for job functions, oftentimes the interest and the attempt at proficiency is a great help for cultural relations with non-American countries. I’d be concerned that a test like this would cause people to give up languages earlier–if they know they’d never become fully proficient, why learn more than the basics or general education requirement?

In terms of making foreign languages more accessible, however, there is also the matter of translations. I’m currently writing about how language and national identity can have a tendency to segment the Internet, but it also has an impact on literature. One man wants to change that, by encouraging others to start their own publishing houses. He did, and focuses primarily on translated works from Russia and Central and Southern America, as he started his publishing house in Dallas, Texas. It’s a great read, with insights about the publishing business and notes about the commonality (or lack thereof) of translated literature in the United States.

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The Evolution of Music Listening

Pitchfork recently published a great longform essay on music streaming. It covered the past, history, and present of music streaming, and brought up a lot of great points. These are my reactions.

The piece discussed how “the “omnivore” is the new model for the music connoisseur, and one’s diversity of listening across the high/low spectrum is now seen as the social signal of refined taste.” It would be interesting to study how this omnivority splits across genres, age groups, and affinities. I find myself personally falling into omnivore status, as I am never able to properly define my music taste according to genre, and my musical affinities shift daily, weekly, monthly, with common themes.

Also discussed is the cost of music, whether it be licensing, royalties, or record label advances. Having to deal with the cost of music is a difficult matter. I wonder if I would have been such a voracious consumer of music if I hadn’t grown up with so many free options with the library, the radio, and later, music blogs. Now that I’m older, I make the effort to purchase music when I feel the artist deserves it, but as I distance myself (incidentally, really) from storing music on my computer, that effort becomes less important to expend.

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