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How One Button Changed How We Listen to Music

by Drew Evans
music & audio

skip songs

Music has changed in countless ways in the last few hundred years — instruments have evolved, recording and playing have gone from analog to digital, and the industry that sells music has gone through numerous phases. Though a few instruments, like the piano, have stayed mostly constant, almost everything else has moved swiftly alongside the rest of technology.

Perhaps one of the biggest changes to music is how we receive it; In the 18th century, music was primarily heard live. In the 21st century, music can be heard through many different mediums, like streaming, video, and portable devices. We have the option of sitting at our computers and watching our favorite bands perform on YouTube, or listening to our favorite songs any time via Spotify.

As listeners, we’ve become more involved — and more in charge.

Since the advent of the CD and MP3 players, we have been able to carry around our favorite music in our pockets or bags. But interestingly, that has also made our music choices more personal. Our ability to choose song, artist, and album have become easier and easier with the skip button.The effort and precision required to bounce from song to song on a vinyl record or cassette tape suddenly become a single button or gesture.

A recent study using Spotify’s data of millions of users indicates that the skip button — which is now digital — has even more informative and useful than in the past.

For this study, a skip was defined as any time a listener abandoned a song before it was finished. No matter whether they physically skipped the song, logged out, or started a new song before the old one ended, abandoning a song before it ended was a skip.

How often do listeners skip a song? Simply put, pretty often. A song is likely to be skipped 48.6% of the time. To dig deeper, 24.14% of the time, that song is skipped within the first five seconds. If we extend that to thirty seconds, that likelihood increases to 35.05%.

It is a pretty remarkable statistic — that almost half of the time, a song is not likely to be finished.

The data did show that the further you made it into the song, the less likely you were to skip it. Though it might seem obvious, past the first thirty seconds revealed that the percentages were fairly low. Which confirms what a lot of musicians know: You need to hook the listener early.

So what else can be gleaned from the Spotify data? Well, the average listener skips almost 15 songs an hour, which equates to a skip every four minutes. Putting that into perspective, it shows that the average user will listen to about one full song before skipping again. The study also showed that skipping is more likely to happen on a mobile device (in this case, any device that supported Spotify) vs. when at a desktop or laptop. There was a 10% difference between the two (50.1% and 40.1%, respectively), and likely explained by the level of interactivity with our music.

At your desktop, you’re more often than not doing other things. Whether working, studying, or just wasting time on the internet, the average user seems to put music on and let it play. On mobile devices, however, you’re much more invested in what you’re listening to and are more likely to skip ahead to a song that catches your ear.

One of the most interesting pieces of information that the data revealed was skipping as a function of age and time. The highest skipping rate was amongst teens and twenty-somethings, both above 50%. With age came a steady decline below 40%, until another spike around people in their late 40s and early 50s, reaching about 42%. Over the course of a day, skips tend to happen most frequently between 6am-8am, and from 6pm-midnight. Over the course of the week, however, the trend seemed that skips were more prevalent during the weekends.

The data of time and age seems to suggest that more time equals more skips. More time causes us to pay closer attention to what we listen to, as we are not sidetracked by other things. During the day, skips occur more during commute times and after work, while skips are more popular on the weekends when time is free. One theory on age suggests that teens and early-twenty-somethings have more free time than late-twenties and into adulthood, and that the spike in skips later in life was likely due to teens using their parents’ Spotify accounts.

The next time you listen to music, consider how much it has changed, even in the last two decades. Our option to skip songs has changed the way music is heard, made, and even distributed. It has become easier to only listen to what we like, and has certainly changed the way we interact with songs and albums. With music libraries and streaming services, the casual listener may choose single over an entire album, lessening the chances of them skipping unwanted songs. When you’re in the mood to listen to a specific song or sing along to something fun, you might find yourself skipping more.

The downside to the skip button is, of course, a pretty major one that purists point out pretty often: If you’re skipping to the hits, you might be missing some of your new favorite songs.

Want more on the skip button? You can see visualizations of this data — including breakdowns by gender and age — on Music Machinery.

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Drew Evans

Drew is a Seattle-based freelance writer. He spends too much time playing music, binging on Netflix, and watching his beloved Philadelphia sports teams.