On September 23, 2021, the University of Michigan hosted the English band Glass Animals for a concert. The indie rock band, which has existed since 2010, combines synth-pop, indie, R&B and hip hop. While they have seen minor successes as a band in the last decade, nothing has taken mainstream media by storm quite like their song “Heat Waves.” “Heat Waves” was originally released in June 2020, and it subsequently experienced a slow rise to mainstream popularity. This slow rise was so slow that the song broke the record for the longest ascent to the top on Billboard’s Hot Rock and Alternative Songs.
The popularity built up as “Heat Waves” played in the second season of Netflix’s popular original series, “Never Have I Ever,” during the kiss between the two main characters, and from this a TikTok trend was born. The trend was TikTokers putting videos of important figures in their life to the song. The original sound by sevier.edits has been used in over 1.4 million videos, and the original version of the song has 526.5k uses. Many U-M students who attended the concert did not know much about Glass Animals other than this singular viral song.
Despite lasting over two hours, the entirety of the concert set, hosted at Crisler Center, was filled with the entire audience chanting “PLAY ‘HEAT WAVES,” ignoring the other songs. Once the song played, few people sang other than the 30 seconds featured on social media and the Netflix series. Once “Heat Waves” ended, droves of people left. Most people didn’t care about the concert outside of what was seen as “viral.” It led me to question: why didn’t they bother to look into this band further? Everyone knew they would be attending the band’s entire performance, so why did no one listen to any other songs or even the entirety of “Heat Waves”? Did they lose the capacity to listen to the Glass Animals with all the other digital media they consume?
Media involves constant, rapid information being exchanged. There is always an opportunity to discover something new. In 2021, we took in five times more information than we did in 1986. So how does this constant exposure to new information and media impact how we function? According to Microsoft’s Attention Span Research Report, what was an average human attention span of 12 seconds in the year 2000 dropped to eight seconds by 2013. In comparison, the average attention span of a goldfish is nine seconds. This decrease in attention span relates to everything from concentrating in conversations to focusing on schoolwork to engaging with content. This is due to the information overload of social media, which 73% of Americans report feeling. Specifically, with regard to the music industry, there are an overwhelming number of artists, genres, albums and songs that are now accessible with the touch of a button. With so many competing interests, it’s impossible to absorb every artist fully.
Yet, living among a digital landscape, we are becoming better at being more alert and efficient with the shorter bursts of attention. These changes in our consumption explain today’s concept of “going viral.” The media obsesses over a specific trend, song or public figure, which they then promptly forget. Everyone is constantly craving something new. This is called novelty seeking, or a “strong interest in having new experiences.” Musicians Institute explains that the ability to debut songs through posting makes it easier to discover artists by eliminating the necessity of a label. However, there is an increased amount of content by increasing accessibility, which is why these viral songs often don’t stick.
The extensive process of “getting the song out there” that many musicians experienced in the past doesn’t exist in the same capacity today, making these viral songs pop up right in front of us. On a silver platter, new content appeals to our new attention patterns. We either like or scroll, causing the content to pop up on more devices or not. There’s always an audience on the internet waiting for that next best thing. According to the Pew Research Center, 31% of American adults are online almost constantly and 48% go online several times a day. Overall, more than eight in 10 adults go online at least daily. Considering this study included adults from ages 18 to 64, our reliance on technology knows no age limits.
Before the widespread use of online music platforms, we mainly absorbed concept albums used by artists to produce a narrative for the listener. When all the songs are listened to together in the full album, there’s a storytelling experience that cannot be replicated. For this reason, album connoisseurs instruct us to sit down and take in the whole experience. But this is not a reality that today’s society often partakes in. Today’s lifestyle rarely allows us to listen for the meaning in music; we’ve introduced habits that put the soundtrack on the back burner. There is often a secondary task such as walking to class, getting ready or doing work.
The quick development of social media is changing the way audiences, especially younger generations, consume digital and physical products. Producers must adapt to these preference changes to develop more accurate consumption models. There will be no advancement of music if we continue producing for the past – we need to appeal to the future. So, should there be a switch in the music industry to cater to this? If a two-minute song is completely ignored, with the exception of the 15-second section that goes viral on social media, why are we still focusing on producing longer content? Should the music industry shift to create shorter content presenting a message or emotion more efficiently? Or continue the way we always have? Should we adapt or hold onto these traditions of the past?
Music has been a mode of movement for centuries, a strong force of social development tackling issues such as racial injustice or gender roles. So focusing on the best way to intertwine this medium into our lives to benefit consumers emotionally, socially and politically is a key concept to analyze. Whether it is creating another industry solely focused on this shorter content production or releasing shorter versions of soundtracks for those who want to lightly listen, this shift in consumption habits must be recognized to keep music as a relevant medium for all types of listeners. There is still a significant industry for the kinds of listeners album creators desire, so by manufacturing a separate industry just for this “viral” content, the music for trends and deep listeners can be separate.
Gabby Rivas is an Opinion Columnist and can be reached at email@example.com.