No One Knows How Teens Listen to Music

All the major surveys disagree. Maybe it's a secret.

iPod ads in 2007 (professorbop/Flickr)

Remember Apple's iPod silhouette ads? The psychedelic TV spots where people would dance hyperactively with an MP3 player in their hand and headphones in their ears?

Talk about a throwback; those ads stopped running during the Bush administration. But according to a survey released this week by researchers at investment bank Piper Jaffray, that's what most teens are like these days.

No, not the frenetic dancing part. The MP3-players-attached-to-their-hips part.

After surveying a national group of 7,200 teens, analysts at the research arm of Piper Jaffray discovered that teens like listening to music the 2000-and-late way, through downloaded music onto iTunes libraries or MP3 players:

How Teens Listen to Music (%)

Piper Jaffray

That's 42 percent of teens listening to music through MP3s, according to the bank. But what does that statistic mean? Piper Jaffray told us that the "42 percent" figure was compiled from four survey questions, but it hasn't revealed how. Nor has it indicated what that percentage indicates—whether it's 42 percent of teens preferring MP3s over other options, or if it's that, 42 percent of the time they listen to music, teens are using MP3s to do it.

Even with the little information, it's enough to ask: Do teens actually listen to MP3s? Consider, first, the dubious finding that Pandora and other streaming methods together attracted only 31 percent of teens. (That category also includes Spotify and sites like Songza.) And consider too that just six months ago—the last time the survey was conducted—only 35 percent of teens said they used MP3s.

That's a 13 percent increase this year for MP3s. Given those stats, maybe Apple shouldn't have discontinued the iPod.

Not so fast. The survey's lumping of Spotify, Songza, and other streaming sites into, well, "other streaming" brings me to the survey's most glaring omission: Respondents had no way to indicate they listened to YouTube. Two years ago, per this Nielsen report, YouTube was teens' supposedly favorite way to listen to music—64 percent of them said so. That survey broke down like this:

  • 64 percent of teens listen to music through YouTube
  • 56 percent of teens listen to music on the radio
  • 53 percent of teens listen to music through iTunes
  • 50 percent of teens listen to music on CD

Note the 53 percent of teens who used iTunes to listen to music. That's not as surprising for 2012, though the Nielsen report strangely didn't include options for Pandora or Spotify, and it completely ignored smaller streaming sites like Grooveshark.

Fast forward to 2014. Nielsen's recent analysis of the music industry at large showed a six-percent decrease in digital music sales and a 32-percent increase in overall streaming. According to the company, these changes were largely… because of teens. As Martin Pyykkonnen, an analyst at Wedge Partners, told Yahoo last year, “Young people today don’t buy music anymore."

Except maybe they do, according to the Piper Jaffray report. Or maybe they don't buy MP3s but do download them. Or maybe they don't download them but do listen to them.

Combine these major studies into teenage music consumption habits and you'll find few trends to bet on, and few trends that individual research companies have even followed up on. YouTube is the #1 music source for teens, then it's omitted. MP3s are dying, then they're not. From the surveys available, it may simply be impossible to know exactly how teens consume music. If anything, their range of preferences keeps the music industry's options open, at least until the next era—iPod or otherwise—comes along.