Has streaming killed the great song intro?
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It’s 1989, the decade of excess is drawing to a denouement and the Stone Roses have just released I Wanna Be Adored, the opening track on their eponymous classic debut record. Whether due to the onset of digital recording, the MTV effect, or just because everything was done to the extreme in the ‘80s, the decade was a high watermark for the song intro, where a tune builds up slowly toward an opening crescendo before the vocal kicks in.
It has been claimed that thanks to streaming, the age of the great song intro is over . Fickle music fans can now skip tracks if their attention isn’t grabbed almost immediately, and with the voice being the most attention-grabbing instrument there is in music, it needs to come in much more quickly than in years gone by otherwise the listener skips, and if this happens before 30 seconds has elapsed, the stream doesn’t count hitting artists in their pockets.
That’s the theory, but I wanted to see if this holds true in the data. Below are the 30 top selling songs per year based on number of weeks spent in the UK Top 10 chart arranged by date of release and the time before the vocal kicks in (beware of the scale, it isn’t linear as most songs tend to bunch around the 10 second mark and this helps prevent too much overlap).
Click ‘Start’ on the chart to put this into context by comparing them to the intro in ‘I Wanna Be Adored’. This requires you to login with a Spotify premium account but you can still interact with the data without this.
As we can see from the trend, the intro is definitely becoming shorter, but it’s more gradual than precipitous. Perhaps we’ve always craved a quick vocal hit and streaming is just giving us more of what we want. 50% of all intros are over within the first 6 seconds, so, maybe we should hold off writing the intro’s elegy after all. I Wanna Be Adored peaked at #20 in the charts so isn’t on this list. Interestingly, some of the most famous intros don’t make the cut either:
Papa Was A Rollin’ Stone - The Temptations: Pure unadulterated funk and groove for nearly 2 minutes before the vocals. Peaked at #14, and didn't make the list.
Gimme Shelter - The Rolling Stones: A 50 second intro of tense, menacing, distorted riffs from Richards before Jagger’s vocal captures the violent mood of the era. Peaked at #19 and not in this list.
Baba O’Riley - The Who: Over a minute’s worth of pulsating, trance-inducing sounds before we hear the first vocal in one of the all-time classic intros. This wasn’t even released as single!
Blue Monday - New Order: The iconic drum machine intro and throbbing bass line builds up to Bernard Sumner’s deadpan vocal, which can take quite some time depending on the version. Although it was the best selling 12” of all time, it only spent 2 weeks in the Top 10, peaking at #9 and doesn’t quite make the cut.
The songs that do make the cut seem to be on the shorter side in comparison:
A Hard Day’s Night - The Beatles: As with most things, The Beatles prove to be the exception. As intros go it is incredibly short, we hear John Lennon’s vocal just after the 3 second mark, but it’s the opening chord that makes this famous. Can a single chord even be classed as an intro? When it’s The Beatles it most certainly can. George Harrison’s mighty opening chord is probably the most discussed intro of all time.
Billie Jean - Michael Jackson: Minimal instrumentation builds up slowly in this classic pop intro. We get the opening drum beat with a standard hi-hat, joined by a shaker, bassline and synth towards the quiet vocal start at the 30 second point.
I Feel Love - Donna Summer: The hypnotic Giorgio Moroder bassline and sweeping synth still sounds cutting edge over 40 years later. In the single version the vocal enters just after 30 seconds.
Technology having an effect on the music industry isn’t exactly new and noteworthy, but we can see a definite gradual decline in the length of time before the vocals start, and streaming, with its concomitant demands on listener attention, must be a factor. However, it wasn’t as if the super-long, drawn-out intro à la “I Wanna Be Adored” was hugely popular in the past, perhaps this type of intro has always been within the purview of AOR and closet music snobs making claims to music’s decline. There are still plenty of recent anomalies (Billie Eilish, The Weeknd, any new James Bond theme song) and there have been peaks and troughs in the past perhaps suggesting that this might not be a permanent decline and streaming, like anything in the economy, is just providing more of what people want.
I've had this nagging feeling for some time that streaming has fundamentally altered the way I consume music. Just recently the annual Spotify “wrapped” report hit my inbox and it dawned on me that there were no albums, just a loose collection of individual tracks. As a music lover, nay, adorer, I couldn't believe that I'd been sucked into this mode of consumption. Back in the fat days I couldn't wait to go out and buy the latest album, usually on the orders of the NME. Some of my favourite records didn't strike a chord at first listen, it was only after repeated hours that they finally hit, and it was so much more rewarding. So how had I let this situation come to pass? It's down to something dubbed attention economy. The decline of the intro, which we have already looked at, formed part of a wider study into the theory of attention economy on listener attention by Hubert Léveillé Gauvin at Ohio State University .
The study showed that the situation is driven by streaming services where due to the sheer volume of music available at your fingertips, coupled with the ability to instantly skip songs, artists are now facing much higher levels of competition for listeners’ attention, and attention is the scarcest of scarce commodities. In the vinyl days the barrier was higher as it took more effort to go over and switch records. This became easier in the cassette/CD era but you still had to physically switch, plus with physical mediums you had to make a choice as a consumer to part with your hard-earned for a particular record, now the entire catalogue is at your mercy and if you get bored, you just skip. The barrier hasn't just lowered, it has been obliterated.
This is common knowledge across the internet and is analogous to the back button in a web browser impacting attention spans on websites, but when it comes to music the study showed that it is in-fact a 2-stage screening process. The first being after 5 seconds as a “first-pass” (24% of all Spotify plays were skipped within the first 5 seconds ), and the second stage after 20 seconds as most skips happen within this period, after this there is a relatively small but steady skipping rate. Only 52% of songs were listened to in their entirety. With revenue relying on stream counts, and streams not counting until someone listens for a minimum of 30 seconds, it is vital that the fickle listener’s attention is grabbed almost immediately. The impact of the internet on the music industry is huge, so I wasn't sure why this was such a surprise, I suppose I was like the proverbial addict, tricking myself into believing I had it under control but in reality, the medium is the message and I was at the mercy of the medium all along.
As well as the decline of the intro, this and a similar study looking at the evolution of music identified other possible ways of measuring the attention economy in music. Select from these below to see the yearly averages to view the impact:
Average number of words in the song title
There has been a recent tendency for popular songs to have short titles with Billboard Magazine giving them the moniker of “One-Word Wonders”. Today, it is two and a half times more likely that a hit has a one-word title than back in the 60s. We see a steep decline in the average number of words from the turn of the millennium, possible coinciding with the rising importance of single sales over albums. Why? The theory is that memory span is inversely related to word length, consequently shorter titles should be more memorable and better commercially as a result.