2020 is upon us, and with it dawns a new era of musical possibility - particularly in the realm of pop. A genre that truly includes something for everyone has become even harder to define, thanks to changes that have taken place merely in the past ten years. Perhaps the most staggering is the rise of digital streaming.
The earliest years of the decade were defined by online radio platforms such as Pandora and purchasing individual songs or albums digitally through iTunes, but everything changed with the U.S. launch of Spotify in summer 2011. Making an extensive library of music available for unlimited listening for a monthly subscription fee, the Sweden-based company reached a million new subscribers in two months and quickly became the streaming giant we know today. The service makes it easy to discover new creators and music while preserving the live performances of great artists who passed away as recently as the past ten years, such as David Bowie, Leonard Cohen, Aretha Franklin, Whitney Houston, Prince, and Amy Winehouse.
Despite intense discourse over royalty payments and questions about how to properly monetize music in the digital age, Spotify’s impact on the music industry is overwhelmingly positive. It spawned a major business rival in Apple Music, and together they are changing the landscape of how we consume and share music. Take Macklemore and Ryan Lewis’ hit “Thrift Shop”: after 16 weeks of its release, it hit #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 thanks to the buzz it generated on Spotify and iTunes. And at the end of every year, Spotify sends each subscriber a breakdown of the music they consumed, a data mine so popular that it’s the subject of annual social media posts and memes.
The popularity of streaming has affected the business side of the industry as well; over the decade, CD sales dropped a staggering 85%. With such a dramatic decline in circulation, it’s unlikely that anyone will cause a notable shift in that particular medium again. The reigning champion? Adele, the British beltress and tearjerker who accounted for 4% of the global CD market in the final two months of 2015.
Adele also contributed to another major development in pop music this decade: the explosion of female artists. Along with Beyonce, Billie Eilish, Cardi B, Lady Gaga, Ariana Grande, Katy Perry, Lizzo, Rihanna, and Taylor Swift - just a few of the many successful women who made an impact over the span of the decade - Adele brought us closer than ever to shattering the glass ceiling of the music industry. These women are household names, releasing smash hit after smash hit and selling out arenas around the world. Of course there’s still a long way to go, as only 20% of charting artists this decade were female. But it’s not all grim, because 73% of these were women of color, and this decade a precedent was set: Women are fiercely talented musicians, capable of anything we set our minds to, and we’re here to stay.
Collaboration between artists was at an all-time high this decade, resulting in genre-defying crossovers and exploding fanbases. Ed Sheeran, one of the industry’s most prolific singer-songwriters, made guest appearances on 60 other artists’ tracks and featured over 30 in his own music. Justin Bieber and Luis Fonsi’s dual-language remix of Fonsi’s earworm “Despacito” ruled the charts in 2017; new rapper Lil Nas X and country singer Billy Ray Cyrus made “Old Town Road (Remix)” the biggest song of 2019. R&B crooner John Legend featured on songs with Sara Bareilles, Big Sean, and Meghan Trainor. Lizzo and Missy Elliott’s “Tempo,” Maroon 5 and Cardi B’s “Girls Like You,” Camila Cabelo and Shawn Mendes’ “Senorita”...the list goes on.
These joint efforts also help to explain the paradox of pop as easy to identify but impossible to define. Amalgamation of genres has become the norm more than ever before in the past ten years. Industry queen Beyonce continues to borrow elements from rock, blues, funk, country, reggae, gospel, rap, and electronica; Lana del Rey marries hip-hop and R&B; Bon Iver pioneers digital folk; Daft Punk merges electronic dance with analog disco. Chart-topping songs sound wildly different from one week to the next, proving that the pop genre is certain to keep evolving throughout the coming decade.
What does that mean for us as musicians? Simply put, there is always a place for you. Just because one producer won’t take your song doesn’t mean it can’t be a hit; you don’t have to change your sound or image to be successful. If you think the world isn’t ready for you, do it anyway. No single characteristic defines pop music, and what you bring to the table just might be the next big thing - you’ll never know unless you go for it.