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Will today’s music be remembered?

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Insights on music consumption habits, memory, and what it means for the world of sonic branding — Thinking about today’s music in the context of greats such as The Beatles, Aretha Franklin, and David Bowie begs the question, will today’s music be remembered? After all, we have access to more media than at any other point in history. The sheer volume would seem to lessen our ability for recall years from now.  While there is plenty of debate either way, at the end of the day, the question seems to be less about if and more about how — and this has everything to do with our music consumption habits.

How has music consumption changed?
Music used to require more active engagement. Way back when, radio, and eventually MTV, were the channels we relied on to hear new music. And everyone heard the same new tracks at the same time. If we liked it, we’d take a trip to the record store and drop $15 on the LP, cassette, or CD. We’d listen to the album on repeat in our homes or in our cars until we could recite every lyric. There was something to the ‘physicality’ of the album in our hands that required commitment — not just the purchase, but also the deliberate choices we had to make about what we wanted to listen to and the time required to do so.

As digitized music came along, our demand for music changed. How could one resist having their entire music catalog on a single device that fit in their pocket, and for mere pennies a song? Now, of course, we can listen to any track in any genre whenever we want at the touch of a screen. We also have endless channels like Spotify, Apple Music, and TikTok to introduce us to new tracks and suggest songs based on our listening habits. Accordingly, music has become an accessory to life — the soundtrack to your commute, your inspiration at the gym, the hype track at a sporting event, and so much more. However, while we’re listening to more music than ever, the amount of time we spend engaged with individual songs is decreasing.

It’s reasonable to believe that passive engagement such as this would decrease our emotional connection with music and lessen our ability to recall it later on. However, a study published by the NIH finds that meaningful connections, both emotional and cognitive, can be made while actively or passively listening to music. Perhaps then the bigger challenge affecting how music will be remembered is that we simply have too many options and too little time.

Achieving music immortality
Our sense of sound is tied deeply to our emotions and memory. This is because sound is processed in the limbic system, the area of the brain responsible for emotions. In other words, we’re hardwired to feel certain emotions when we hear certain sounds. Couple this with memorable experiences, say, your first dance, and you’ve got a powerful combination for recall.

But that’s just it, while any song can move us emotionally, only those we hear countless times, or in ways that accompany important experiences are the ones we truly remember — and this takes time.

In the past, longer development cycles allowed songs to achieve popularity and stay atop the charts — plenty of time to develop meaningful memories. Not to mention that record labels could keep artists in the limelight based on marketing spend. Now, only the biggest artists are able to cut through the clutter as listeners have taken control. A report in Bloomberg notes that these days “[a] lot of new songs come and go in a matter of weeks,” which leaves very little time to build up repetition and experiences. It goes on to say that “[e]ven though music consumption is higher than it’s ever been, the hits are now smaller, at least in terms of sales. The only artists who get close to the biggest hits of yesteryear are Adele and, sometimes, Taylor Swift.”

So much music, so little time
With music algorithms continually steering us toward our next favorite hit, our time listening to individual tracks is less than what it would have been years ago, and the hits just keep on coming. According to a recent BBC report, “100,000 new tracks are uploaded to Spotify every day, and they’re sorted into one of more than 6,000 genre classifications.”

This is great for listeners as we expand our musical tastes. For artists, however, it’s a grind — one demanding a constant churn of new material to gain relevancy and remain there. Listeners only have so many hours in the day; hours that, in 2023, according to AP News, they spent listening mostly to Taylor Swift, Bad Bunny, The Weeknd, Drake, and Peso Pluma. This isn’t to say that the millions of other artists out there aren’t relevant, rather, that hope of being remembered years from now may be limited to a small, devoted fanbase.

Given the current trajectory, only the biggest names will stand the test of time, on a broad scale anyway. For everyone else, the volume of one-off hits is so great and the time spent in the spotlight so short, that only truly dedicated fans and those with experiences deeply tied to a track will recall them years from now.

What this means for sonic brands
As a leading sonic branding agency, we’d be remiss if we didn’t talk about how music for brands fits into this discussion. While the same principles of music, emotion and memory apply, brand music doesn’t compete in the same space as popular music. Instead, developing brand recall using audio comes down to creating a strong emotional connection and then repeating it, everywhere and often.

For example, it’s not because we love the track that we think of McDonald’s every time we hear “Ba Da Ba Ba Ba.” Rather, it’s because it does a good job of representing the brand’s values, and it’s the familiar refrain we hear at the end of every single McDonald’s ad.

Like the record labels of old, brands have full control over how they are represented musically. These days, one could argue that unique, original brand audio is perhaps more powerful than using popular songs in marketing content. Given the fast pace of popular music trends, high sync costs, and demand for authenticity, marketers are better served creating custom music that distinctly represents their brand values and earns recall through repetition, and for years to come.

For brands, being remembered is everything, and music can strongly influence top-of-mind awareness. For popular music on the other hand, perhaps being remembered isn’t really what’s important. At the end of the day, while music can provide a window to our past, it’s not the only reason we listen. We listen because of how music makes us feel in the present. Enjoy the music you love, and the tracks that are meaningful to you will always stand the test of time.

Russell Boiarsky is Director/Brand Strategy at Stephen Arnold Music, The World Leader in Sonic Branding, which has created audio branding for leading companies worldwide including CNN, Sony Interactive, Match, The Weather Channel, ESPN and more.

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