The Music of the Pandemic

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And what this means for brands vying for the audience’s ears.

By Yana Rizal  | January 27, 2021

How and why we listen to music has changed – and this has in turn affected the way we, as consumers, behave and engage with brands. Taking our cue from Spotify’s 2020 trends, here are some trends that will shape consumer behaviour in 2021 and beyond.

If there’s one thing that the lockdown has taught us, it’s to reprioritise the essentials like food, household products and even workout items. Music, as it turns out, has also become a necessity for many in their day-to-day lives.

While 2020 was brutal for business, the music industry experienced a gold rush, raking in big money from investors eager to capitalise on the highest ever annual growth in audio streaming. To illustrate, the UK alone saw an increase of 25.1 billion total audio streams to a total of 139.3 billion streams in 2020.1 Companies are on a spree to secure music royalties as a financial asset. In 2019, more than USD 4 billion was spent on buying artists’ music catalogues, and that number is expected to be easily surpassed in 2020. Just recently, Universal Music bought out the publishing rights to Bob Dylan’s entire back catalogue of songs, in what it described as one of the most important deals of all time.

With brands now having limited access to consumers due to the pandemic restrictions, the surge of usage on digital streaming platforms presents a compelling opportunity. Spotify’s 2020 reports on the year’s music trends as well as other developments in the music industry reveal several emerging themes on audio consumption, which in turn sheds light on how consumer behaviour has changed. For brands, these are insights on how you can connect more meaningfully in this socially-distanced world.

1. Soundtracking Our Lives

Life in the pandemic can get pretty routine, with little option for stimulation. Listening to music can set our mood as we navigate our day, providing comfort in the sound of a familiar voice or calming soundscapes, and keeping us motivated through work. It is something that we can enjoy without requiring our full attention, thus making it a welcome companion for our daily activities in a way that no other medium can.

The beginning of lockdowns saw an increase of quarantine, nostalgia, and work-from-home themed playlists. As life began to centre on home, playlists reflecting activities such as gardening, DIY haircutting, quilting, baking and gaming gained popularity. When public movement resumed, listeners shifted their focus to music for outdoor activities, with 54,000 playlists dedicated to sports such as cycling, roller skating, and rollerblading.2 However, as travel was still considered risky, there was a 120% uptick in staycation-themed playlists instead.3 As a result of the pandemic, music has become even more integral to our daily lives.

There are a limited number of ways for brands to reach consumers as they go about their days – so why not consider using music and audio platforms to reach your target audience? The ability to engage consumers at the right moment is powerful. Assess where you fit in the daily life of your target audience in the new norm – would your brand be relevant to a specific activity or realm of interest? Create content that your audience would love to listen to as they go about it – think of enhancing their experience or adding value, rather than being intrusive. Thoughtfulness goes a long way towards building positive brand affinity.

2. Greater Awareness of Mental Health & Self Care

For many, 2020 was a year of survival. The pandemic heightened anxieties over health, livelihood and personal relationships, while confinement and social isolation exacerbated mental health conditions.

Music is an emotional salve where people were unable to seek other forms of relief outside. In the UK, 75% of listeners said that music helped keep them sane, while two-thirds of Gen Zs and millennials said they use music to cope with stress and anxiety. Respondents believed that music has the power to generate positivity and channel complex feelings.4 Mood-based and ‘chill’ playlists have increased in popularity as a means of self-soothing, with mellower soundscapes such as acoustic, instrumental and lower BPM music.

Listeners have also turned music as a way to express darker emotions as a form of catharsis, without judgement. This has enabled the meteoric rise of artists such as Billie Eilish, and in the Malaysian music scene, the rapper Yonnyboii. Even pop icon Justin Bieber has followed suit, taking on a darker tone in his latest album released in 2020.

The conversation on mental health has gained traction in recent years, and our current conditions have only emphasised its prevalence. Rather than shying away from it, find ways to engage in this topic with greater empathy, by acknowledging the struggles and providing meaningful support to counter the stigma. After all, consumers these days expect brands to be more socially aware and contribute to the betterment of society authentically, especially on serious issues that are more prevalent than we think.

3. Family Matters

Mid last year, when Gen Zs and millennials were asked to describe the central theme of their life, their top answer was “family” by a wide margin.5 In the pre-pandemic era, it was common for family interactions to be limited to regular time windows between the demands of work and school. But with no escape from home during the lockdown, families had to find new ways to bond and juggle their home and work responsibilities throughout the day.

How do you keep your kids safe, well-behaved or even learning something, while you try to get your work done and tend to chores? Parents have found creative ways to use music to assist with managing their children, even to put them to sleep at bedtime, hence the uptick in Kids & Family content streaming. And, as parents were suddenly stepping in as teachers, they found that audio content helped with at-home learning.

Music has also been helping families to connect and appreciate new things about each other — 79% of UK parents and their kids seem to agree.6 Young respondents said listening to their parents’ music gives them a better sense of who their parents are, and vice versa. In other words, music has become a multigenerational touchpoint.

For brands that can, consider reorienting your marketing strategy towards families, whether it’s helping parents with their kids, creating a more harmonious home life or connecting multiple generations.

4. Creating Communities Around Niche Identities

These days, young people are increasingly forming identities based on niche interests, taking pride in obscure passions that are shared by small but close communities around the world. When asked about what influences their self-discovery, 71% cited music and 62% cited podcasts.7

In the past, identity expressions have been strongly associated with specific music genres. However, for the new generation this is no longer apparent. In fact, 84% of millennials stated that their music tastes span multiple genres.8 This category-defying approach is reflective of a generation who believes that labels are divisive, are proud of their multidimensional identities and who value open-mindedness and exploration.

Music in the digital space has been one way for Gen Zs and millennials to find and connect with communities around the world: 84% in the UK said music streaming offers a gateway to other cultures.9 It’s also a great way to strengthen communities. People are sharing more collaborative playlists on digital platforms and social media as a way to virtually bond with friends, followers and families.

Millennials represent the largest and most diverse audience in history. For these digital natives, geography is less relevant than common interests. Young people desire brands that can help them express their unique identities and celebrate their individuality. And they enjoy engaging with communities who share these specific interests and passions. So the best way to engage these audiences is to identify their unique characteristics and lend a hand in building their community.

5. Podcasts for Self-Improvement & Knowledge

The lockdown didn’t stifle people’s desire for self-improvement. People have turned to podcasts to stay informed or entertained. Why podcasts? According to 68% of UK listeners, it’s easy to feel emotionally connected to a host, and tuning in is like listening to a friend.10

So which topics were hot in 2020? Number one is Society & Culture, as people sought to explore and understand the larger world while confined to their homes. Next is Comedy, which comes as no surprise as people are looking for lighter material to escape given the year. This is followed by Lifestyle & Health, particularly mental health-related content such as guided meditations to help people decompress and stay calm, as well as cooking and workouts. Arts & Entertainment ranks fourth and Education fifth, proving that people still crave for creative outlets and new learning.

How does this help brands? Next time you’re thinking of creating relevant content and digital experiences, why not try one of these categories if you’re looking to draw your audience’s interest in these times.

6. The Creator Generation

The pandemic saw a proliferation of user-generated content, especially with easy access to digital creation tools. TikTok is constantly bursting with quarantine memes and videos. On Spotify, people are creating curated playlists to reflect their lives during the lockdown. It’s the same on Youtube, Instagram and other platforms. People are channelling their creativity and personal expression as a way to foster community and provide release. It allows us a window into how other people are living in this crisis.

But more than that, these platforms allow young people to collaborate, create, independently promote and sell their work – in short, to turn their passion into careers.

This generation wants to be known for creation. 90% of Gen Zs and millennials around the world said that they love being a part of the creative process.11 This is a compelling cue for brands to appeal to this creator mindset. Build campaigns to support their ingenuity. Provide these young creators with resources and opportunities for them to express their creativity and to gain from it.

7. Reviving Live Music in the Virtual Space

While the overall music industry has been galvanised by the explosion in streaming, other music platforms have fallen victim to the pandemic. With the cancellation of mass gatherings, the live music scene has been decimated. Global revenues for live music fell by 75% in 202012 compared to the year before.

But all is not lost. Streaming can never fully replace the sense of shared experience that live music events provide. As a result, concert livestreaming emerged as an online activity that can unite globally scattered groups. From the “Verzuz” beat battles to Spain’s 12-day Cuarentena Fest, communal livestreams bridged the gap between music streaming and live events. And perhaps unexpectedly, the diminished sense of hierarchy between the artist and the fans has led to more social interactions between the participants, albeit online.

Interestingly, a revolution is also happening here. The lockdowns inspired an unprecedented period of innovation and experimentation in live music, creating a whole new virtual concert ecosystem as entertainers get more creative with their virtual performances.

Take for example, Travis Scott’s Astronomical concert, which was hosted entirely in the virtual world of Fortnite, one of the world’s most popular battle royale gaming platforms. The virtual gaming world has endless possibilities for an out-of-this-world audiovisual experience and allows concert goers to co-create the experience in ways that would not have been possible in a physical concert. Participants can come up close to the performer as otherworldly characters and enjoy shifting and crumbling landscapes that they can explore by flying or being submerged in water. The concert series garnered 27.7 million participants worldwide, not taking into account the streaming views from Twitch and Youtube.13

Livestreamed concerts still have a long way to go as penetration is only at 9%. But there is considerable interest and opportunities here for brands to think outside the traditional event space and create novel virtual experiences that audiences are eager to participate in and even willing to pay for.

The Show Must Go On

And so does life. The lockdowns have truly unleashed a desire for creativity and connection as we seek to fulfil what’s been lost in our everyday lives. While it is likely that live music will return once the pandemic is over, there’s no turning back. We’re rewriting our social norms, and the youth are dreaming up new ways to create, engage with technology, and relate with the world — and so should brands. Get inventive with the boundless potential of the digital world to keep people hopeful, connected and inspired. Reach your audiences more intimately through audio as it accompanies their days during the pandemic. Above all, engage with thoughtfulness and empathy. At the heart of it, every brand should ask themselves: how can we make a significant impact on lives in these precarious times?

  1. Music Business Worldwide, 2021.
  2. “The Trends That Shaped Streaming in 2020”, Spotify, 2020
  3. Ibid.
  4. “Meet the generation working to rebuild society”, Spotify, 2020.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Ibid.
  8. “Millennials on Spotify: Key streaming moments”, Spotify.
  9. “Meet the generation working to rebuild society”, Spotify.
  10. Ibid.
  11. Ibid.
  12. MIDIA Research, 2020
  13. Campaign, 2020