Changing listening habits in an uncertain era | Keith Jopling

These are uncertain times for all of us, what the future holds for our health, economy and society is something that is still unclear – and everyone is trying to adapt to this new environment. The music industry is no exception.


Keith Jopling has worked in the music industry for over 20 years, providing insight on strategy and innovation projects for labels (EMI, Sony Music, Real World), live business (Live Nation, WOMAD), as well as production companies and audio brands, such as Bowers & Wilkins and Bang & Olufsen.


He is the Founder of the music discovery service, The Song Sommelier and Consulting Director at MIDiA. With his considerable experience in the industry, we sat down with him (virtually) to learn more about the impact COVID-19 has had on the music business.


Q. What have been the biggest changes to listening habits in 2020?


A. Well, what we predicted for the start of the year has completely changed of course! It’s been really interesting how established consumption patterns can get turned upside down.

At the beginning of 2020, we were in a very stable place, major labels and streaming services were in a comfortable position, and reasonably satisfied in the genres and markets they were operating within. There was certainly a lack of disruption from within – then we have this huge seismic event that has just come in and shaken everything up!

What’s been fascinating to see is the impact on streaming services, they haven’t received the same uplift that we’ve seen in other businesses. The big ‘winners’ in the last four to six weeks have been the news, games, video streaming, and radio services. Music streaming has taken a dip – albeit not a major one – and the previously popular top 200 and new release playlists have lost out to catalogue and more relaxed music.


It’s all because the daily routine has changed, of course, there isn’t the vast numbers of consumers tapping into streaming services on their commute. Plus, with more listeners in homes of a two or more occupancy, consumption has become more communal instead of individual and personalised.

We now have something we at MIDiA like to call ‘Pandemic Programming’ with radio stations providing a major source of community, comfort and connection. Plus the rise of home hub playlists with playlists for working, meditation, and fitness across streaming platforms.

Q. What does the new normal look like when this is all over?

A. There are simply so many questions that we don’t know the answer to yet. But what will be interesting to see is how the live music industry pivots. We’re already starting to see in the last six weeks live concerts streamed from artists’ homes with individual shows and events such as Together at Home. Where will this fit into the hierarchy after all this is over? And how will it be organised?

Radio will also be one to watch. Having witnessed a bit of a resurgence, it’s starting to find its feet a little more now. In fact, Bauer media reported a 96% uplift in radio listeners year on year over Easter Weekend as well as 23% uplift in radio streaming. We’re seeing sentiment towards radio really going up in the US and the UK. It can certainly use this opportunity to really improve its customer experience.

We’re likely to see an excess of content being released once the quarantine period is over too, with many artists pausing album releases until they can be sufficiently publicised.

There are going to be some good and interesting things come out of all this, with the rediscovery of catalogue music, the launch of virtual live music concerts and promoters steering clear of some of the huge risks they were taking before. It’s going to make for a whole new set of customer experiences from music.

I would be curious to see data from voice as well. We don’t have that at MIDiA yet, but there is a huge opportunity to learn more about listening habits from this.

Q. What variations are we seeing in these trends globally, if any?

A. These trends have been largely the same across all countries affected by COVID-19, yet, there have been some notable exceptions. India is a prime example. As they are heavily reliant on ads to fund their radio programming their stations have suffered dramatically with the drop in ad spend globally.

Among the younger demographic we are also seeing a rise in listenership for talk and curiosity content. With a sharp increase in news, political, and thought leadership radio shows worldwide. For example, in Sweden, this has taken the form of public service radio, P1, which has seen a rise in popularity in recent weeks.


Q. What are the changes you could have predicted from the impact of COVID-19 – and what has surprised you?

A. If there was ever the possibility to predict everyone having to stay in their homes for an extended period of time, there are certain trends that would be quite easy to spot. You could say that people would listen to the radio more, game more, and video stream more.

What I have found surprising, is the speed and scale that these changes have occurred. It points to the nature of our current economy, which is so attention focused that the whole industry will pivot to feel included.

Look at Radio, they’ve dropped production standards overnight to cater to this new reality, with the BBC performing interviews via video conference. The live music industry actually started floating the idea of live streaming concerts back in 2008, yet it has taken just 6 weeks to enact a change that for the last 10 years has remained largely dormant.


Q. What part does emerging technology have to play in this?

A. New technology has a huge opportunity here. Radio has been following the status quo for a long time now, and services such as Spotify have done a pretty poor job in disrupting it. Ads on radio have followed the same format for so long –– and are really interruptive to the user experience. With an increase in listeners, radio has a new opportunity to engage their audience.

They have the possibility to personalise in a lot of ways, allowing users to sign up their favourite feeds, producers, and playlists. If they made the broadcast services more interactive it opens up an opportunity for their advertising to follow suit.

Health and fitness is a huge gap in the market to fill too. I mean, how many times do you go to the gym or spa and the music just doesn’t fit to context? Brands who can find the solution to this in both an offline and online setting will do well.

The companies that are going to perform at the end of this, are those that not only contribute to the cause but also adapt quickly and have that license to innovate.

To summarise

Music and audio have always been highly adaptive services, and this significant event is proof of just how quickly it can pivot to cater to its listeners. In the past six weeks, we’ve seen a rebirth of radio, live concerts become global, and music tastes massively shift. It will be interesting to see what the rest of 2020 holds for this dynamic medium.


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