Mind the Generational Gap: Gen Z and Music Consumption in 2022

Jemima Smith, Staff Reporter

Music has always been important to younger generations. It’s how people process and explore their emotions, express themselves, and connect with each other. But in the digital age, has music and its consumption changed? 

With lightning-fast streaming services and wide arrays of experimental genres, music consumption has gone from hearing something catchy on the radio to having the world at your fingertips. The natural instinct to be the first to find something cool or be into underground music has expanded tenfold when there are artists making new content every day. TikTok has made it so a few seconds of a song can be famous for a day, and then disappear forever.

Let’s go through a brief history of music consumption. When CDs became widely available around 1995, they immediately grew in popularity because you were able to directly skip to the song you wanted to play, which was different from cassettes. When the Apple iPod launched in 2001, consumers were able to download hundreds of songs and skip back and forth between them as they pleased. Downloading was the main way to access music before streaming services became the enterprise they are today. Pandora came into being in 2005, followed by SoundCloud and Spotify (2008 and 2009, respectively). Apple was still the most profitable music marketer in the United States at this point, but soon streaming became more and more popular. After being in the downloaded music business for decades, Apple launched Apple Music in 2015, making the switch to streaming for easy listener access. Vinyl, which is older than CDs and cassettes, lives on thanks to its artsy appeal and indie following. The ‘industry’ is also much more accessible to up-and-coming artists. With such advanced technology at our disposal, so many more people can write and produce a song than in past decades. Being an artist is no longer an unattainable dream; these days, if you can make something and convince people to listen to it, you’re set. Supporting an artist is also a more deliberate choice now; if someone wants to support a musician, they can go out of their way to buy a physical copy of their music rather than just streaming it. There wasn’t really a choice when the music industry was primarily physical.

To see Gen Z music tastes in the age of streaming, some data was collected from the students here at WFS. A poll found that music is considered ‘super important’ or ‘pretty important’ to the vast majority of our students. Most of our students attest that they listen to music all the time and consider the music they listen to as part of their personality. It seems that even without the physical value of a cassette or vinyl, teens still consider music to be essential. So has music consumption changed at all? In terms of the actual nature of the music, Mateo Niiler ‘24 argues that songwriting has changed because of the fast-paced nature of consumerism. “I feel like due to the “on demand” nature of all of the music, artists are pushed to write songs with more catchy beginnings and push further into the I-IV-V-vI chord progression realm and themes of heartbreak and not truly express their creativity… music is kind of treated as dispensable. People listen to music to distract themselves — that’s what pop music has always been for — but I feel like a lot of the art inside of music has been lost.” Donald Morton, history teacher at WFS, agrees. “[The fact that] more people have access to publishing is great. In my opinion though, the quality of music has suffered without professionals — A&R’s, professional studio folks, etc.–  present to vet the music.”

The nature of listening has also changed. Waiting for your favorite song to come on the radio or going out to buy a cassette or vinyl used to be a much bigger commitment. Some might argue that spending the extra time to access the music made it more valuable. Oftentimes, it can feel like we take the content at our disposal for granted. “I think that the concept of an ‘album’ definitely loses its value when it is available in the streaming service format,” said Scott Clothier, also a WFS history teacher. “If this current format remains in power then bands today won’t make full albums, they will want to focus on tracks.” Niiler expressed the same sentiment. “I feel that albums have lost a lot of their meaning— it used to be that albums told stories, or really had a consistent theme, and a lot of that has vanished with songs on albums being written so that they can be played on shuffle,” he said. “I also don’t think this is a bad thing because it’s leading to a lot of new interesting music, but I think calling them albums is a little bit disingenuous.” Because listening to music isn’t as much of an event anymore, Gen Z often utilizes it as an amplifier rather than a standalone activity. “People used to listen to music and music alone as entertainment, and now it often is used to amplify other experiences, and accompany other activities, like cleaning, exercising, and studying. Due to this, music is far more integrated into the lives of our generation than any generation before,” said Esther Adebi ‘24. “Individual songs probably don’t hold the same sanctity to us as they might have in generations before… Though individual songs might hold more significance to previous generations, music as a whole is far more integral to our lives than ever before.” 

So the industry has changed, as has its consumption. But it’s overwhelmingly clear: music is still important to teens. Though it may be bought or used in a different way, Gen Z uses music to process their feelings and the world around them. Some things never change.