The pandemic has changed when, where and how we listen to music

I’m a neurotic music listener, which means I have playlists for everything.

Usually, I can look back on those song collections and remember exactly where I was in life, where I lived, how happy I was or which Playboi Carti I was listening to 20 times a day.

But when I reflect on my playlists from the last six months, I see words like “nostalgia” and “cry.” One playlist has a title that features the facepalm emoji. Another is dedicated solely to songs that, ironically, sound better when played in a crowd.

It’d be an understatement to say my music choices have changed over the past half year, and apparently, I’m not alone.

According to a study released by Nielsen Music/MRC Data earlier this summer, our country’s listening habits have made some drastic left turns since March — when the coronavirus pandemic changed just about every part of our daily lives.

Glenn Peoples, Billboard’s lead analyst, explained our months of quarantining as a “pressure cooker,” which has fast-tracked trends that may have been bubbling below the surface.

“I think it accelerated a lot of consumer behaviors that would’ve happened anyway, but now it’s like a pressure cooker for trends and changes in the market,” he told In The Know.

These changes are widespread, and they’re affecting a lot more than what anal retentive music fans (like me) name our playlists. Since March, Americans have changed not just what they’re listening to but also where they listen and how often they do it.

An ‘on-the-go’ habit

Before the pandemic, the music industry was having a record year. From Jan. 1 to March 12, total audio activity — that is, how much people are listening to music across all formats — was up by 14.6 percent over the same period in 2019, per Nielsen Music/MRC Data’s analysis.

Strangely, audio activity has kept growing since then but by a smaller margin. From March 12 to July 2, listening had fallen to a 6.2 percent rate of growth compared to 2019.

So what caused the drop-off? The report shows a sharp decline for physical album sales during the first months of quarantine, although there’s some evidence that this trend has reversed.

Streaming also saw a decrease. On-demand listening on apps like Spotify and Apple Music was up by more than 20 percent during the first two months of 2020, but that figure fell to around 14 percent from March to July.

It’s a change that, according to Peoples, has some at least some connection to our new normal. For example, music fans are no longer driving hours to and from work each day, or blasting their volume to drown out annoying subway passengers.

“Music streaming is very much an on-the-go kind of product. It’s very much tied to the smartphone,” Peoples told In The Know. “And if people are not out of the home … they’re gonna stream less.”

Music has gotten less personal since March, but in the process, it’s become more communal. For example, Peoples said smart-speaker listening had grown during the first months of the pandemic, as families and roommates holed up at home with their favorite albums.

‘Family friendly’ music

Of course, different music sounds better in different environments. For example, would you rather listen to Beyoncé’s “Lemonade” album on a $5 pair of earbuds or through a surround-sound speaker system?

Our choices in quarantine have been less obvious. Without many of our ritualistic listening spaces (the car, the gym or the wine aisle at Trader Joe’s), we’re not queueing up the same genres as usual.

In fact, Nielsen Music/MRC Data’s research found that all but two genres saw their listening numbers decrease during the first weeks of quarantine when compared with the growth during 2020’s pre-pandemic months.

One exception: country music. The genre saw a 21.4 percent increase during that time, a trend Peoples tied largely to technology.

Country fans, he explained, have traditionally been slower to latch onto new music trends like streaming services and smart speakers. During quarantine, though, they didn’t have a choice but to make the switch.

Then there’s the nature of quarantine itself. Suddenly, families were spending all of their time at home together, and, as Peoples described it, country offered a “family-friendly” option.

“People didn’t have to worry about playing it around their kids,” he said.

It’s impossible to prove exactly why families are queuing up Dierks Bentley over say, Lady Gaga, but kids are certainly playing a role. Nielsen Music/MRC Data also found that, after schools nationwide closed their doors in March, children’s music saw its own bump in popularity.

‘A break from reality’

Nostalgia might not be a genre, exactly, but just like country music, it’s having a moment. Nielsen Music/MRC Data’s analysis found that, during the pandemic, people sought comfort in the familiar.

“Older” songs — defined by Nielsen Music/MRC Data as anything released more than 18 months ago — saw an increase in the first months of quarantine. In fact, as the report states, 87 percent of consumers “turned to music they usually listen to.”

Peoples said that to him, the trend shows people may have been identifying older music as a “soothing” alternative to the current state of affairs.

“They needed a break from reality, and I think older music was probably very soothing to people,” he told In The Know.

Just like in my quarantine playlists — one of which is strictly devoted to songs I loved in the 10th grade — music fans are gazing backward. That’s not to say new music has become invisible though.

There’s been an exciting amount of new music of the past six months, even with A-listers like Lady Gaga and The Chicks pushing back their albums at the start of the pandemic.

Those records, among others from superstar artists like Taylor Swift, got plenty of shine during quarantine, while platforms like TikTok have continued boosting new artists — including Doja Cat, Saint Jhn and Roddy Ricch — to the top of the charts.

Throwbacks might be surging, but it’s clear we’re still on the lookout for new songs.

As Peoples explained, music fans won’t ignore the chance to discover what’s new — especially if it comes easily. He specifically pointed to Spotify’s New Music Friday playlist, which updates with the latest releases each week, as an example.

“They’re gonna listen to that whether or not some country star released a single that day,” Peoples said.

It might be the optimist in me, but it feels like there’s some encouragement in that thought. The pandemic has changed so much about our daily lives, and as a result, how we use music to cope with the world around us.

Our habits might be changing — which isn’t necessarily good or bad — but new music keeps coming out, and we keep listening. In a year where everything feels different, there’s something a little comforting in that.

If you liked this story, check out In The Know’s article on how nationwide protests has shed new light on older songs.

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