Streaming royalties are changing how popular songs are made

Artists put an 'executive summary' at the beginning of pop songs

Lesson #
November 14, 2019

Long, mellow song intros are a thing of the past in the age of streaming, as artists scramble to catch your attention in the first 30 seconds of every track. That's because streaming services pay artists royalties only after a customer has listened to 30 seconds. Pop artists are responding, dispensing with the longer instrumental intros of the past and bringing the hook and the refrain earlier into each song. Not everyone likes the effect this is having on songwriting. Plus, learn what it means to "stick around."


Also in Today's Lesson


Transcript

Simple TranscriptEspañol中文FrançaisPortuguês日本語ItalianoDeutschTürkçePolski

How music is changing in the age of Spotify

Hi there, welcome to Plain English. I’m Jeff; JR is the producer; and this is episode 207 of Plain English, the best podcast for practicing English. That’s because we go a bit slower than native speed, so you can understand every word. And if you miss a word, not to worry: you can find a transcript of the program at PlainEnglish.com/207.

Coming up today: You’ve heard of an executive summary in a business report, but what about in a song? Spotify pays artists royalties only after a customer has listened to 30 seconds of a song. So in response, artists are dispensing with the long song intros and getting right to the point. One critic called it an “executive summary” of the song in the first 30 seconds. That’s today’s topic—and we have a great phrasal verb for you, an informal one, but no less useful—that phrasal verb is “stick around.” And if you stick around until the end, then you’ll hear JR’s song of the week—both versions of it.

I’m looking forward to today’s topic. If you find yourself thinking that same thing, and if you ever think, you wish you could learn more about the topics we discuss on Plain English, then you’re in luck. Every Monday and Thursday, JR sends out an email with links to the English-language articles I use to prepare the show. It’s a great way to learn more about your favorite episode topics and to practice your reading at the same time. If you’d like to practice your English reading and engage more with our topics, then make sure you’re on our e-mail list. Just visit PlainEnglish.com/mail and enter your details.


Streaming is changing the way songs are written

It’s hard making a living as a musician these days, especially if you rely on royalties from streaming services like Spotify and Deezer, where every stream generates a fraction of a cent for the artists. But what exactly is a stream? According to the most popular business model, an artist gets paid after the song has been played for thirty seconds. Call it the thirty-second rule.

Sounds fair, right? A listener shouldn’t have to listen to the very end of a song for the stream to count, but if you skip the track a few seconds in, you haven’t really listened to it.

But there is some evidence that this rule is having an effect on the way songs are written. The thirty-second rule incentivizes songwriters to get ears hooked on their songs as fast as possible, so that listeners stick around past the 30 second threshold. Then two things happen: the artist gets paid, and the algorithm continues to promote the song to other users. The virtuous cycle continues. [elementor-template id=”7444″]

All that means that artists are moving the hook earlier and earlier into the song. A song’s hook is the part, usually near the beginning, that catches the listener’s ear and makes them want to listen to the rest of the song. If listeners don’t stick with the song to the 30 second mark, the artists don’t get paid, and their song doesn’t get promoted by the algorithm.

You can see this play out in popular songs. Luis Fonzi’s 2017 smash hit, “Despacito” set records on every platform from Spotify, where it was the first to garner 1 billion streams, to YouTube where it became the most-viewed video on the platform ever. “Despacito” hooks listeners with an intro of just under 30 seconds. The intro gives listeners a quick-paced sample of the rest of the song’s most catchy elements. And that’s what a lot of songs are doing—they’re not leaving anything to the imagination. One songwriting podcaster called it a musical “executive summary.” “Señorita” by Canadian (ahem) artist Shawn Mendes gets to the refrain even faster—in just fifteen seconds.

JR tells me that the Eagles song, “Hotel California” is a popular song in English classrooms in Mexico. Back in 1976, the Eagles took their sweet time with 50 seconds of low key, acoustic guitar fingerpicking before picking up the pace. Same goes for one of the most popular rock songs of all time, “Stairway to Heaven” by Led Zeppelin, which opens with about a full minute of quiet guitars. U2’s “Where the Streets Have No Name” starts with 40 seconds of ambient noise, building the listener’s anticipation. Epic long beginnings, like Pink Floyd’s nine-minute-long intro to “Shine On You Crazy Diamond,” are probably a thing of the past.

Not everyone is happy about how the thirty-second rule is changing the way music is made. Grammy award winning artist Sarah McLachlan peaked in popularity in the 1990s, before we streamed songs on the internet. She said it’s sad that artists have to write songs to please the streaming services’ algorithm. She feels she was able to be more authentic in her songwriting during the nineties.

She has a point, but there’s another perspective, too. The medium for distributing music has been influencing songwriting since long before McLachlan was born. Pop songs today are usually between three and four minutes long. Why is that? It dates back to the switch from 78 rpm discs to the smaller, more durable, and better sounding 45 rpm vinyl in 1949. (MacLachlan’s 1998 hit “Angel” was 4:30 long.) Even the existence of music “albums” is the result of the vinyl records that came out in the 20th century. It’s not just music, either. Is it a coincidence that the most popular novels are the right size for you to fit in your hands? In so much of art, the package it comes in does affect the content of what an artist creates.

All that said, I don’t think we want to live in a world where all new songs are simply reverse-engineered for the benefit of algorithms rather than humans. You can imagine the worst-case-scenario where all new music is just an attempt to game the system, or appeal to a recommendation engine. That’s why some streaming platforms are considering modifying their formulas for paying artists. Maybe the number of streams isn’t the best way of measuring how valuable a song is.

Think about it. Where does the money for the artists come from? In large measure, it comes from the monthly fees paid by streaming subscribers. Let’s take a hypothetical situation. Let’s say you and I both subscribe to our favorite service for $10 each month. Now let’s say we each only listen to one song all month—you listen to your favorite song 100 times; I listen to my favorite song only 50 times. My favorite artist gets paid for 50 streams; your favorite artist gets paid twice as much. But you and I both pay the same $10. Is it fair for your favorite artist to get twice as much as mine since we’re both paying the same into the system?

The new viewpoint is that actually, no, that’s not fair. What artists get paid should be more closely related to what their fans pay into the industry, into the system.

So a new system like that would actually move the economics of musicmaking back to what it was like before streaming became so popular. For almost the entire history of the music business, the artist’s royalties were tied to sales. If two people bought an album, the artist got paid the same, even if one person listened every day but the other listened once in a while.

The advantage to a system like this would be to spread the wealth a little. The biggest hits would probably earn less, whereas the winners would be artists with a fan base who don’t necessarily stream all day. [elementor-template id=”7552″]


I want to say hi to a few listeners today: Solange from Sao Paulo is the proprietor of a framing gallery. She loves the arts and loves studying English—and she now has more time to practice. Also, Rodrigo from Sao Paulo is preparing to move to Canada and has take the free IELTS course from our friends at IELTS advantage. He is preparing to move to Canada to work in finance.

Related: Episode 200: Differences between living in Canada and the US

¿Hablas español?

The transcript of this lesson is available with interactive translations into Spanish. In each lesson transcript, we select about one hundred difficult words, phrases , and expressions for translation.

How is this different than simply using a translation engine?

Translation engines are powerful tools for communicating in the modern world . However, they often miss the context and can either mislead you or leave you confused . Our human translators are here to make sure that you’re getting not only the correct definition, but also the full context .

How can I use the translations in my studies?

Most members use the translations as they are listening to the lesson and reading along . When you come across a word you don’t understand, you don’t have to press pause to discover the meaning . You can simply hover your mouse over the highlighted word . This lets you learn the definition of the word without having to press pause on the audio.

Do the translations work on mobile?

Yes! Instead of hovering over a highlighted word, just tap on it .

How can I access the translations?

Translations are included in two memberships: Plain English Plus+ and Starter. Choose a plan and get started today!

你说中国话?

The transcript of this lesson is available with interactive translations into your language. In each lesson transcript, we select about one hundred difficult words, phrases , and expressions for translation.

How is this different than simply using a translation engine?

Translation engines are powerful tools for communicating in the modern world . However, they often miss the context and can either mislead you or leave you confused . Our human translators are here to make sure that you’re getting not only the correct definition, but also the full context .

How can I use the translations in my studies?

Most members use the translations as they are listening to the lesson and reading along . When you come across a word you don’t understand, you don’t have to press pause to discover the meaning . You can simply hover your mouse over the highlighted word . This lets you learn the definition of the word without having to press pause on the audio.

Do the translations work on mobile?

Yes! Instead of hovering over a highlighted word, just tap on it .

How can I access the translations?

Translations are included in two memberships: Plain English Plus+ and Starter. Choose a plan and get started today!

Parlez-vous français?

The transcript of this lesson is available with interactive translations into your language. In each lesson transcript, we select about one hundred difficult words, phrases , and expressions for translation.

How is this different than simply using a translation engine?

Translation engines are powerful tools for communicating in the modern world . However, they often miss the context and can either mislead you or leave you confused . Our human translators are here to make sure that you’re getting not only the correct definition, but also the full context .

How can I use the translations in my studies?

Most members use the translations as they are listening to the lesson and reading along . When you come across a word you don’t understand, you don’t have to press pause to discover the meaning . You can simply hover your mouse over the highlighted word . This lets you learn the definition of the word without having to press pause on the audio.

Do the translations work on mobile?

Yes! Instead of hovering over a highlighted word, just tap on it .

Can I see a sample?

Yes, please visit PlainEnglish.com/sample to see a sample episode with the Spanish translations.

How can I access the translations?

Translations are included in two memberships: Plain English Plus+ and Starter. Choose a plan and get started today!

Você fala português?

The transcript of this lesson is available with interactive translations into your language. In each lesson transcript, we select about one hundred difficult words, phrases , and expressions for translation.

How is this different than simply using a translation engine?

Translation engines are powerful tools for communicating in the modern world . However, they often miss the context and can either mislead you or leave you confused . Our human translators are here to make sure that you’re getting not only the correct definition, but also the full context .

How can I use the translations in my studies?

Most members use the translations as they are listening to the lesson and reading along . When you come across a word you don’t understand, you don’t have to press pause to discover the meaning . You can simply hover your mouse over the highlighted word . This lets you learn the definition of the word without having to press pause on the audio.

Do the translations work on mobile?

Yes! Instead of hovering over a highlighted word, just tap on it .

Can I see a sample?

Yes, please visit PlainEnglish.com/sample to see a sample episode with the Spanish translations.

How can I access the translations?

Translations are included in two memberships: Plain English Plus+ and Starter. Choose a plan and get started today!

日本語は話せますか?

The transcript of this lesson is available with interactive translations into your language. In each lesson transcript, we select about one hundred difficult words, phrases , and expressions for translation.

How is this different than simply using a translation engine?

Translation engines are powerful tools for communicating in the modern world . However, they often miss the context and can either mislead you or leave you confused . Our human translators are here to make sure that you’re getting not only the correct definition, but also the full context .

How can I use the translations in my studies?

Most members use the translations as they are listening to the lesson and reading along . When you come across a word you don’t understand, you don’t have to press pause to discover the meaning . You can simply hover your mouse over the highlighted word . This lets you learn the definition of the word without having to press pause on the audio.

Do the translations work on mobile?

Yes! Instead of hovering over a highlighted word, just tap on it .

Can I see a sample?

Yes, please visit PlainEnglish.com/sample to see a sample episode with the Spanish translations.

How can I access the translations?

Translations are included in two memberships: Plain English Plus+ and Starter. Choose a plan and get started today!

Parli italiano?

The transcript of this lesson is available with interactive translations into your language. In each lesson transcript, we select about one hundred difficult words, phrases , and expressions for translation.

How is this different than simply using a translation engine?

Translation engines are powerful tools for communicating in the modern world . However, they often miss the context and can either mislead you or leave you confused . Our human translators are here to make sure that you’re getting not only the correct definition, but also the full context .

How can I use the translations in my studies?

Most members use the translations as they are listening to the lesson and reading along . When you come across a word you don’t understand, you don’t have to press pause to discover the meaning . You can simply hover your mouse over the highlighted word . This lets you learn the definition of the word without having to press pause on the audio.

Do the translations work on mobile?

Yes! Instead of hovering over a highlighted word, just tap on it .

Can I see a sample?

Yes, please visit PlainEnglish.com/sample to see a sample episode with the Spanish translations.

How can I access the translations?

Translations are included in two memberships: Plain English Plus+ and Starter. Choose a plan and get started today!

Sprechen Sie Deutsch?

The transcript of this lesson is available with interactive translations into your language. In each lesson transcript, we select about one hundred difficult words, phrases , and expressions for translation.

How is this different than simply using a translation engine?

Translation engines are powerful tools for communicating in the modern world . However, they often miss the context and can either mislead you or leave you confused . Our human translators are here to make sure that you’re getting not only the correct definition, but also the full context .

How can I use the translations in my studies?

Most members use the translations as they are listening to the lesson and reading along . When you come across a word you don’t understand, you don’t have to press pause to discover the meaning . You can simply hover your mouse over the highlighted word . This lets you learn the definition of the word without having to press pause on the audio.

Do the translations work on mobile?

Yes! Instead of hovering over a highlighted word, just tap on it .

Can I see a sample?

Yes, please visit PlainEnglish.com/sample to see a sample episode with the Spanish translations.

How can I access the translations?

Translations are included in two memberships: Plain English Plus+ and Starter. Choose a plan and get started today!

Sen Türkçe konuşmayı biliyor musun?

The transcripts of Plain English lessons are available with interactive translations into your language. In each lesson transcript, we select about one hundred difficult words, phrases , and expressions for translation. Turkish translations are available starting at Lesson 278.

How is this different than simply using a translation engine?

Translation engines are powerful tools for communicating in the modern world . However, they often miss the context and can either mislead you or leave you confused . Our human translators are here to make sure that you’re getting not only the correct definition, but also the full context .

How can I use the translations in my studies?

Most members use the translations as they are listening to the lesson and reading along . When you come across a word you don’t understand, you don’t have to press pause to discover the meaning . You can simply hover your mouse over the highlighted word . This lets you learn the definition of the word without having to press pause on the audio.

Do the translations work on mobile?

Yes! Instead of hovering over a highlighted word, just tap on it .

Can I see a sample?

Yes, please visit PlainEnglish.com/sample to see a sample episode with the Spanish translations.

How can I access the translations?

Translations are included in two memberships: Plain English Plus+ and Starter. Choose a plan and get started today!

Mówisz po polsku?

The transcript of Plain English lessons are available with interactive translations into your language. In each lesson transcript, we select about one hundred difficult words, phrases , and expressions for translation. Polish translations are available starting at Lesson 278.

How is this different than simply using a translation engine?

Translation engines are powerful tools for communicating in the modern world . However, they often miss the context and can either mislead you or leave you confused . Our human translators are here to make sure that you’re getting not only the correct definition, but also the full context .

How can I use the translations in my studies?

Most members use the translations as they are listening to the lesson and reading along . When you come across a word you don’t understand, you don’t have to press pause to discover the meaning . You can simply hover your mouse over the highlighted word . This lets you learn the definition of the word without having to press pause on the audio.

Do the translations work on mobile?

Yes! Instead of hovering over a highlighted word, just tap on it .

Can I see a sample?

Yes, please visit PlainEnglish.com/sample to see a sample episode with the Spanish translations.

How can I access the translations?

Translations are included in two memberships: Plain English Plus+ and Starter. Choose a plan and get started today!

Audio

Slow AudioFast Audio

The fast version of this lesson is available for subscribers of Plain English Plus+.

Sign Up Today!