Opinions expressed are solely those of the author and do not reflect the views of Rolling Stone editors or publishers.
There’s a dichotomy for almost every professional working in the music industry: the side of us that loves the evolution of streaming as a fan, and the side that knows how difficult streaming has made the music industry. As a fan, I can say with near 100% certainty that my life would be a lot more complicated and expensive without streaming. With services like Spotify, SoundCloud and Pandora at my fingertips, streaming has made music more accessible than ever before — but there’s a catch.
Microsoft released a study in 2015 showing that the average human attention span had been reduced to just 8 seconds — shorter than the attention span of a goldfish. The worst part of it all is that we are on a downward trajectory. The same study proclaimed that the average human attention span was roughly 12 seconds in the year 2000. So, in just 15 years we lost about one-third of our already very short attention span. Who knows how much we’ve lost in the years since the last study?
As a species, we have always aimed to make our lives easier. A common offshoot of this goal is making processes faster and more efficient. When the telephone was first invented, it allowed people to exchange long-distance messages in a matter of minutes, rather than the days or weeks it took with traditional letters. Later, the switch from manual operators to automated networks helped trim these minutes down to seconds. Now, advanced cellular tech allows people to exchange messages in mere fractions of a second.
So, while the internet has hastened our flight toward some kind of theoretical zero-attention-span-induced psychosis, the regression has been centuries in the making. It’s simply in our nature: You focus on different stimuli with different outcomes in mind. The shorter your attention span, the less capacity you have to wait for your desired result.
Thus, declining attention spans combined with ever-improving tech have resulted in a culture of instant gratification. We don’t just want content; we want it right now. Our brains are increasingly wired to only pay attention to things that deliver fast, instantaneous results. In the process, we have inadvertently made ourselves less willing, and perhaps less able, to delay gratification and prioritize long-term benefits over short-term indulgence.
What does any of this have to do with streaming? Obviously, streaming as we know it today came about long after the internet, email, text messaging, and other technological advancements that were already picking away at our ability to keep our eyes on the prize. However, streaming has amplified the culture of instant gratification by tapping into that part of our brains that releases our favorite little pick-me-up: dopamine.
Whether you’re bingeing Black Mirror on Netflix or listening to Donda on Spotify, you are getting your dopamine fix. Research has shown that listening to your favorite music or binge-watching does elicit a dopamine reaction. The external stimulation works to make your brain (and by extension, you) feel good. Today, millions of us (myself included) spend hours “bingeing” our favorite content, as our brains are constantly producing that sweet dopamine.
Speaking of dopamine, have you ever noticed how illogically frustrated you get when the spigot is turned off? Maybe you are all caught up on that TV show or your cell signal drops and you can’t enjoy your favorite music. Now, the sudden inability to get instantaneous gratification makes you unhappy, perhaps even angry or visibly upset. You start desperately trying to find a solution to the issue: When will the next season be uploaded? Why do I pay so much for terrible phone service? What other shows or movies can I find that are similar to this one? Where can I go for my next fix?
From my perspective, this even affects the way artists create content and labels promote it. In the realm of music, fans have limited patience to wait for a new album to come out every year or two. Now, artists have to work twice as hard to increase the frequency of their output. In addition to releasing full albums every so often, musicians are expected to drop regular singles, remixes, collaborations or mixtapes in between bigger projects just to keep fans satisfied.
As fans, we love having constant new content that is readily available, but we’re also evolving with a myriad of flawed traits in our collective character, like impatience, social disconnection and distraction. Moreover, I argue that instant gratification culture is watering down art. As quantity increases, we believe that artists must “level up” to compete. But instead, we can observe a noticeable “clutter” that perhaps once didn’t exist. Now there are thousands of artists who operate like factories, pumping out content ad nauseam.
I don’t refer to today’s industry clutter to make a judgment of today’s music, but rather to acknowledge that the culture of instant gratification has forced artists to play short-term games, to make art quickly and push it out as fast as possible. As labels, we have no alternative but to push our artists to produce and release music at this pace. If we want to survive in the streaming industry, we too have to be a part of the rat race in some way.
I think it remains to be seen what this all means for culture and humanity. But what I can say with some certainty is that streaming, and the culture of instant gratification, have at a minimum degraded the quality of music in exchange for quantity, and at a maximum led to the ending of many artists’ careers from trying to cope with the mental health problems such demand breeds. Labels are trying to be more artist-friendly and to toe the line between what the industry demands and what our artists need for their mental health and wellness. But I’m afraid these offerings are bandaids until we see industry-wide evolution. Ultimately, I think the real solution lies somewhere between cultural evolution and massive technological advancements in how we consume content.