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By Leah D. Nelson
The fact that most young people spend a large chunk of their day on the internet is old news — as of 2018, a whopping 95 percent of American teens have daily access to a smartphone. Further, about 45 percent of teens say that they’re online “almost constantly,” according to data from the Pew Research Center.
What’s harder to pinpoint is the effect that today’s plugged-in teens have on the music industry. In 2014, The Atlantic shared a slew of contradictory evidence regarding the listening habits of teens (with streaming playing a major role), ultimately declaring the result a “mystery.” Four years later, we’re starting to get a clearer picture of how teens consume music and share it with their peers.
What we do know is that music videos are a key piece of the puzzle, appealing to the visual nature of post-millennials, the tech-savvy generation that has alternately been dubbed the “iGeneration.”
The Power of YouTube
Where music streaming is concerned, YouTube is king, even though the platform is technically considered “social media” rather than a streaming service. With 85 percent of teens reportedly claiming to visit YouTube on a daily basis, it reigns supreme as the most popular site among young people ages 13-18 — topping Instagram, Snapchat, and Facebook.
“Oh yeah, we run the Internet,” my 14-year-old daughter told me as I questioned her about her music sharing habits and the ways YouTube markets to her age bracket. And if the aforementioned Pew data is any indication, she’s not exaggerating.
Resurrecting the MTV Generation
With the “death” of MTV at the tail end of the 20th century, many people believed that music videos were also on their way out. According to some critics, it was the launch of non-scripted reality television, beginning with The Real World in 1992, that effectively “killed” music videos. But music videos have been effectively resurrected in the digital age — just no one watches them on TV anymore.
Few could have predicted where music videos would be two decades later. As quoted in a 2017 Refinery29 article, Vevo’s VP of Original Content Joseph Patel declared:
“Music videos are more prolific now than they’ve ever been in the history of mankind.”
While his statement can’t be accurately verified, few can deny the ubiquitous nature of the music video in 2018. Business Insider reports that more than 1.8 billion people log in to YouTube every month, and the platform’s top channels are music-related. As of December 2017, the most watched music video of all time was Luis Fonsi’s “Despacito,” with a reported 4 billion views in 2017 alone. One year later, it’s sitting at 5.3 billion, and that doesn’t even count the remix version featuring Justin Bieber.
MTV was launched in 1981, and it helped spawn trends for more than a decade by unwittingly complimenting the primary sharing platforms at the time — college radio and mixtapes. In the 1990s, young people almost single-handedly brought grunge to the mainstream, simply by making frequent calls to college radio stations. They requested songs and artists that enjoyed a heavy rotation on MTV, including Nirvana, Green Day, and Pearl Jam.
To complete the music sharing cycle, many Gen Xers would then record a hodgepodge of their favorite songs onto a blank cassette, dubbed a “mixtape.” The precursor to today’s playlist, mixtapes could be completely random or, more often, focus on a particular subject or emotion, with titles that didn’t leave much to the imagination, from “beautiful songs” and “songs for driving” to the “best songs about moving away.”
Nostalgic mixtape fans have called the medium “one of the most intimate forms of expression,” a cohesive tool that can both elevate your mood and transport you to a specific place or moment. The iGeneration, who have every song ever recorded literally at their fingertips, thoroughly understand how music and mood correlate. And despite not feeling the full weight of “choice” in their selection — waiting for hours by the radio for a song to come on and hitting record just at the right moment to add it to their mixtape — millennials absolutely understand the emotive value of curating something for someone.
The Psychological Effects of Music Sharing
The connection between social media and well-being is multifaceted; there’s plenty of data that indicates a negative correlation between spending a lot of time on the internet and overall self-esteem. Conversely, social networking helps strengthen ties between family members and cultivate new friendships with like-minded strangers.
Sharing music is a big part of the picture, especially for teens, since musical tastes and personal identity are closely related. One of the first questions many young people, especially those entering a new environment or school, ask their peers is: “What kind of music do you listen to?”
The music we love defines us, motivates us, and helps us through the toughest moments of our life. Teens understand that better than anyone, which may be why young people have basically been driving music trend patterns for decades, from the “Beatlemania” of the ‘60s into the 21st century, where the youth-centric EDM culture has become a billion-dollar industry, and a single music video can reach millions of fans worldwide in the span of an hour.
With their trusty smartphone in hand, today’s teens are interacting with the world on a consistent basis — spending the majority of their waking hours watching, listening, and sharing newly discovered treasures, as well as old favorites, with their friends and followers. That behavior serves as a catalyst for musicians hoping to break out into the industry or triumph in the realm of promotion. Just remember that as a musician, you may not be actively targeting millennials and teens as an audience, but that doesn’t mean their behaviors and actions aren’t shaping how listeners are going to engage with your music.
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Leah D. Nelson started writing about music in high school, and never stopped. She loves thrift shops, dogs, live music and riding her bike. After spending several memorable years immersed the New Orleans music scene, she is now comfortably settled in Boise, Idaho.