Stop trashing Millennials; they like music more than you ever did

Millennial music listening habitsLast year I wrote a post for this blog called “What do your younger music fans want from you?” about the music consumption habits of Millennials (people born between the early 1980s and the early 2000s). Readers seemed to get all worked up; some older musicians were outraged at the changing cultural attitudes towards music, while some Millennials felt mischaracterized.

So what do Millennials expect from their favorite musical artists? And what should an artist/fan relationship look like in the 21st century?

According to “The 7 Attributes of Younger Music Fans,” written by Paul Resnikoff for Digital Music News, Millennial music fans:

1Probably won’t “buy” your music — because they think music should be free. But if they DO buy your music, it’s a gesture of extreme support and gratitude.

2. Crave  “intimate glimpses into the mundane daily activities of their favorite celebrities,” according to MTV’s Allison Hillhouse.

3. Want to feel involved in the creation, branding, and taste-making process.

4. Need frequent interaction on a number of social platforms.

5. Prefer “zero distance” between artist and fan. They want constant access — and intimate details.

6. Are fond of shuffle-mode listening, playlists, and a diverse array of artists and genres.

7. Don’t care about artists “selling out.” According to an MTV study, they “understand that the system of getting free music/streaming means artists have to make their money somewhere.”


Assumptions about Millennial music habits

Between working at CD Baby and making music with other artists and bands, I’m constantly discussing music—and the state of music—with people across the generational divide. When it comes to the music habits of Generation Y, Gen-X musicians are quick to sound the alarm:

* “They don’t care about albums.”

* “They don’t care about supporting an artist and watching them grow over a career.”

* “Music is just background noise to them!”

* “They don’t care about the interpersonal aspects of being a music fan.”

* “They don’t go to shows because they’re always online or playing video games.”

But as someone who usually feels awkwardly caught in between these two groups (I’m right on the Gen-Y cusp), I found myself coming to the clear defense of Millennials.

After more reading and some very un-scientific polling of my Millennial co-workers, I’m convinced that Generation Y loves music just as much as any other age demographic — they just love it differently. In fact, if we consider the volume of music (as in amount, NOT loudness) they’re consuming, you could even make the argument that they love music MORE than older generations.

Sure, industry-wide music sales may be down overall, but more music is being consumed than ever before. (How much music is WORTH is a different debate entirely).

Sure, concert attendance has fallen and superstar artists are finding it harder to launch massive tours. But attendance at many music festivals has skyrocketed. Coachella, for instance, has seen attendance grow over 400% since the festival began in 1999. This is the kind of music event that Millennials are drawn to: maximum interactivity; multiple stages providing attendees with listening options; the chance to see favorite artists AND discover new ones all in the same place; extra-musical experiences provided by popular tech, fashion, food, and entertainment brands; and everything squeezed into one long weekend they can share with friends through Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook. It’s exactly like Woodstock, only completely different. #TheBrownAcidIsBad

The most distracted generation?

Now, about Millennials being buried soul-deep in the Internet all the time: many music experts ARE concerned. Does the constant availability of media end up conditioning younger music consumers to hear but not listen? Or as Jenna DeWitt writes in an article for UWire, their music goes “in one earbud and out the other.”

The same article talks about a survey conducted by the Pew Research Center on how Millennials have fused their social lives into internet-connected devices:

Dr. Jean Boyd, division director for academic studies in the Baylor U. School of Music, studies popular music as a professor and researcher of American pop music. “I’m not as worried as I might be — because most of the music is so bad — but people don’t really seem to be listening to it. Not really. They are hearing it, but I don’t think they are paying that much attention,” Boyd said. “It is always in the background to everything that they do.”

Dove Award-winning worship leader and University Baptist Church music and arts pastor David Crowder agreed with Boyd in the omnipresence of music in everyday life.

“Music is there in spaces we walk in. It’s unavoidable,” Crowder said. “You used to have to go experience music together or you used to have to make music as a community of people. It was a very communal experience. Currently it is a very individual, selective experience, which makes our culture different.”

“Different!” Good word. It’s DIFFERENT, not necessarily better or worse.

Alone together is the new communal

Communal listening has moved from the living room to virtual “listening rooms” powered by Spotify music apps like Sounddrop. People are digesting and adding to a constant stream of music recommendations through social media. And even some concerts have moved online, streaming in HD on YouTube, or hosted by a service like (with live discussion forums so the fans and artist can connect via text during the performance).

None of this is particularly revelatory, though, which is why it surprises me that many Gen-Y-criticizers consistently overlook the Internet as a legitimate community-building tool.

Even if, for argument’s sake, we were to assume most listening IS moving away from the communal experience (because apparently a teenager in the 70’s listening to music on his bedroom floor with headphones on was more “communal” than a teenager with earbuds in today), there’s a big benefit to people being empowered by technology to have individual, selective listening experiences. Namely, because Millennials aren’t limited by shelf-space availability or commercial radio playlists, they’re free to explore whatever niche most moves them, or swear-off genre allegiances altogether (more on that later).

Everything is at their fingertips. No, they won’t experience the thrill of waiting six weeks for a Japanese import to arrive at their local record store. But, ummm, on the plus side, they don’t have to wait. They also don’t have to pay $47 for a thirty-minute album or spend gas money driving to the store and back. And without having made all those investments, they can stack that music up against anything else that’s out there, and assess it solely on how it sounds and how it makes them feel.

To Dr. Boyd’s comments above I’d ask, how much was your generation paying attention to every single note of every single song you heard in your younger years? Music has been in “the background” (in car radios, on jukeboxes, in restaurants, and more) for well over a half-century. Your most memorable music experiences probably happened when you found a favorite artist, album or song, and played it (either in private or with friends) at a time that was both convenient and meaningful for you — but those experiences were probably more the exception than the rule.

The same thing is happening today. Many of my Millennial friends talk about listening to music (of their choice) ALL DAY LONG while working, commuting, exercising, doing household chores, grocery shopping, and more. And then, besides all that “background” listening, they still make time occasionally to sit and really listen to an album or artist without other distractions. Lucky: they get to have both the sacred kind of listening experience AND a more customized background listening experience.

Granted, the folks I’ve asked about listening habits would identify themselves as big music fans. But isn’t that what we’re usually comparing when we talk about change— how the behaviors of similar groups change over time? Like, I doubt a kid in the 60’s that didn’t really love music would come home after school every day to listen to Revolver. Casual or indifferent music listeners in the past were pursuing other artistic, athletic, or leisure activities. If anything, the ubiquity of music these days (on TV, in film, video games, YouTube, stores, corporate sponsorships, etc.) may actually draw some of those casual listeners into the circle of dedicated music fans.

How will the music industry market to a generation that won’t define itself musically?

As a whole, and as individuals, Millennials may be listening to way MORE music than previous generations, but don’t expect them to draw social or cultural allegiances along musical lines. As Jennie-Rebecca Falcetta says in her article “I don’t hate millennials anymore!“:

Perhaps unfairly, I want my students to define themselves personally by defining themselves musically. I want them to care deeply for one band or musical genre over another. A lot of my cultural bonding with friends occurred because of music… Millennials, on the other hand, “do not have a generational music.”

It may be that this generation has YET TO BE defined by a particular genre, as an article in Hypervocal posits:

Each American generation develops and adopts a musical genre with which it is forever identified. Students of generational trends suggest that for the Millennial Generation, and therefore for the nation, this choice lies just ahead. To date, Millennial musical preferences have been eclectic, borrowing from older generations and crossing genre lines. When Millennials ultimately choose, their music is likely to reflect their clean-cut lifestyle and positive, optimistic attitudes.

More likely, I think, is that their hyper-eclectic tastes (supported by technology that puts the whole history of recorded music within easy reach) make defining Millennials along musical lines a pointless endeavor. This generation, more than any before, is defined by its lack of definition. As someone who gets to interact on a daily basis with musicians from over 650 genre categories around the world, I find that very exciting.


Pretty soon, Millennials will almost entirely comprise the buying-demographic which marketers want to impress the most: late teens to mid-forties. The entertainment industry will have to change to match their products and services to the habits and tastes of their target market. Of course, this change is already happening, but what will it look like ten years from now? Is your vision of the future music industry an improvement over current or past models, or are we on the eve of destruction? A little of both? Will we have Millennials to curse or thank for the outcome? Let me know your thoughts in the comments section below.

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