Social impact

Community, identity, culture: The Gen Z soundtrack

Published on
November 30, 2023
Last updated
May 9, 2024

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“Without music, life would be a blank to me”

The end of the calendar year is almost always, indisputably, tied to a sense of reflection.

Did I follow through on that resolution to start running? Did I stop buying overpriced coffees? Did I become a kinder human? Did I save money?

To put it bluntly: was the year a success? Financially, spiritually, intellectually?

Time passes. We approach the faux-closure of December, and fret about whether becoming older guarantees some necessity of becoming wiser. 

However. Amongst all this self-reflection and concern, there shines a glittery beacon of hope. A musical note of gold dust. One that arrives in the form of a pop-up notification, and comes decorated with brightly coloured carousels.

Spotify Wrapped is our musical year in review. It measures our listening habits and presents us with a compendium of top songs, artists and genres. It reinforces, it humbles, it surprises. 

It tells a story: transporting us back to the highs and lows of the year.

Reminding you of the terrible situationship that had you blasting All Too Well (Taylor’s Version) every day for two weeks. Triggering vivid memories of summer nights. Making you wish you never set that Tom Misch song as your alarm clock (it was SO good until it became synonymous with leaving your bed).

It serves as a firm reminder that no matter how niche and edgy we might think we are, sometimes we might be in Drake’s 0.01% of listeners: and that’s OK.

The face of music has changed irrevocably in the last ten years

Whilst older members of Gen Z will recall traipsing down to HMV to purchase their CDs, younger members will never know the pain of having to trade tracks via Bluetooth (or explaining that your home PC *might be broken* because of a virus acquired through Limewire.).

“We’ve seen the face of music and technology change dramatically”, says Liam Howley, Chief Marketing Officer at MusicMagpie. 

Originally launched from a garage in Stockport in 2007, MusicMagpie began by selling second-hand CDs and DVDs, expanding into electronics five years later.

The premise is simple: users trade in their old tech for cash. Amongst the cost-of-living crisis and renewed focus on sustainability, the industry boomed. 

“It’s important that when one product becomes less popular – CD’s for example – that there’s a plan in place for how we then dispose of these items in a sustainable way”, says Liam.

With younger consumers having a renewed focus on sustainability, (a massive 77% would be more inclined to buy from a brand who makes sustainable choices), MusicMagpie’s usage soared amongst this demographic.

Technology can also play a big role in helping us become more sustainable. As Liam says, “the switch from physical media to streaming platforms is just one example of this”.

Topically, AI will have a big effect: reducing the need for “equipment and space, energy intensive practices and potentially unnecessary travel, too”.

TikTok has changed the music industry

Technology, music and social media have all grown hand-in-hand: but one app in particular has had a seismic impact. Yes, spoiler alert: it’s TikTok.

TikTok has become the go-to app for music discovery, allowing songs to gain organic popularity even if they’ve been outside the mainstream for decades (running up that hill, anyone?). 

Underground artists can post a thirty second clip and go viral. Marketers can hire influencers to promote new music. Aspiring DJ’s can achieve overnight success just by mashing together two songs.

Hell, in a world where we saw Kim Kardashian lip-syncing to M to the B, anything is possible.

TikTok has opened up new opportunities for aspiring artists

2021 was a weird year. Sort of out of the clutches of the pandemic, sort of not. Socialising was tenuous. Screen time was high. 

One artist became a rite of passage on the For You Page; pairing introspective lyrics with garage melodies and soft vocals. 

However, this occurrence was not without some hard labour. In fact, in the early days, PinkPantheress would post videos captioned with text such as “day two of posting my song until someone notices”. 

The algorithm did its thing (in a classically beautiful and unpredictable fashion). ‘Just For Me’ was the first song to go viral, used in over 2 million videos, and hailed as the “breakout track of the summer” by TikTok

Fast forward two years, PinkPantheress has had three top 40 hits, collaborated with Kaytranada, Goldlink and Ice Spice, featured on the Barbie soundtrack and released two EPs.

Impressive stuff. 

She is part of a new school of Gen Z artists who understand “the way algorithms work, the phenomenon of virality, and the power of streaming”.

However, she appears unfazed by the fast-moving nature of this new world; sharing to The Guardian that she’s “never been too jaded by the mention of TikTok” and that she “always knew” that she was more than just the app”.

Her opinion is interesting.

The hegemony of TikTok does, undoubtedly, leave artists in a tricky position

Is it all about cracking the algorithm? Is the blood, sweat and tears of an original track wasted when it’s reduced to a 30 second remix? Is there a pressure to combine every new track with a matching dance challenge?

“I don’t think there’s one clear route to success in the music industry – it all often seems quite random”, says Phoebe Hall, an artist from Edinburgh. 

When asked about her views on whether TikTok puts pressure on artists to become content creators rather than musicians, Phoebe shared “you find yourself thinking of ways to market a song rather than actually thinking about the song itself”, adding that she finds herself spending a lot time thinking about new and innovative ways to sell music, when actually “a lot of it is algorithmic and random”.

“You can be clever about using trending sounds to relate to your art, or create a following through unrelated videos”, she shares. However, she caveats this by noting that “the demand to be on the app and constantly in touch with trending content can be a lot”.

On fanbases...

Fandoms are the bedrock of artist-audience relationships, transcending continents, ages, backgrounds and beliefs.

They’re powerful communities; connecting individuals with the same musical affinities, and used as tools for social justice and mobilisation. 

And, whilst fanbases aren’t new concepts, the internet has taken them to new levels. 

In 2020, K-Pop fans were the unlikely subject of Time Magazine’s front page.

During the #BlackLivesMatter movement, fans flooded a police scanner app with fancams, after the department asked citizens to submit protest activity.

This isn’t the first example of Gen Z becoming mobilised by their fandoms: #FreeBritney’s success was largely down to the social media outcry that surrounded it.

Dear Stan, I meant to write you sooner, but I just been busy

There are questions around whether fan bases have become more toxic (and fanatic) as Gen Z have come of age. In one reddit thread, a user remarked that “because people live online, they have to live vicariously through their favourite celebs”. 

Social media gives us unbridled access into the lives of artists – a dangerous game to play for a one-sided bond.

These intense, parasocial relationships have meant that things can get nasty if the artist doesn’t live up to ideals and expectations placed on them.

Bad Bunny famously told his fans at Coachella that they would never know him “from a viral video on TikTok”. Doja Cat’s Instagram account saw a mass exodus, after she waded into a debate on the name of her fanbase.

She shared to Harpers Bazaar:

“My theory is that if someone has never met me in real life, then, subconsciously, I’m not real to them. So when people become engaged with someone they don’t even know on the internet, they kind of take ownership over that person. They think that person belongs to them in some sense. And when that person changes drastically, there is a shock response that is almost uncontrollable. …”

Toxic or not, the music industry is leveraging the power of the superfan

From a commercial perspective, superfans are gold dust. In fact, as shared in the Financial Times, they’re “changing the entire economic DNA of the music business”. 

Warner Music and Sony recently stepped up as investors for an AI-driven superfan platform, Fave

In November 2023, purpose-built community platform We Are Giant formally announced its launch. 

The latter prides itself on developing the fan-to-artist ecosystem; offering ‘superfan events’ and seamless interactions between fans and artists. In a rebuke to stan culture, We Are Giant also assigns each artist a community manager to “monitor channels” and “prevent toxic behaviour”.

Music as a storytelling tool

Instagram stories are the digital window to the soul. Admit it (or don’t), we’ve all spent hours admiring our own. Gazing lovingly at the little carousel, thinking “it’s sort of like modern art, isn’t it?”. Seeing that the person you’ve spent weeks obsessing over has finally viewed it, and then dementedly re-watching it so you can really feel the content from their perspective.

So, imagine the collective joy when Instagram partnered with Spotify in 2018, making it possible to overlay these soul-bearing tiles with our favourite tracks. This feature has been huge for Gen Z, who are always on the lookout for new ways to express their individuality.

In fact, according to Spotify, 80% of Gen Z shared that audio allows them to explore different sides of their personalities. 

A massive 76% believe their listening habits tell a story about who they are.

So, where does this leave us?

Well, to be frank, there’s almost too much to say. 

Gen Z’s relationship with music, community and social media is endless and multifaceted. So, in the face of ad infinitum, let’s conclude by going back to the start. Spotify Wrapped.

Yes, it’s officially here – and just like last year, it’s been engineered to share, and you’re probably already sick of seeing it on your social feeds. 

Nevertheless, its success stands victorious.

No data-harvesting (and subsequent leaking) makes us blush quite as hard. Music is the personal and the private for Gen Z: it’s a badge of honour, a sanctuary, and every year, when Wrapped rolls around, it gives us something solid to attest our identities to.

You can catch Spotify at YMS New York this year, where Marion Boeri will lead a session on how Gen Zs are creating, curating and experiencing culture in real-time on their platform.

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