All the growth in the music business now comes from old songs—with consumption of new music actually shrinking. How did we get here, and is there a way back?
The internet was to bring us "the long tail." Now the tail is consuming the body?
People will always want something new. Not necessarily new to the world; but new to their relative experience.
Thank you for writing about this; I have been concerned about it. I have to think, though, that these are ALL foolish investments, because much of this music is very very old, almost as old as I am. In 20 years, a good part of it will be 80 years old.
That would be the equivalent of listening to music from 1895 when I started college in 1975.
This is just setting up yet another Beatlemania opportunity, where a young, hip group blows away the music industry. Great music is viral, and nothing can stop the spread of great music.
All the issues in jazz audiophile seem to be reissues. Personally I like it but it’s not a good trend. Years ago, my late boss who went to a lot of jazz clubs referred to me as the “guy who likes the dead guys.” There seem to be a lot of people like that nowadays.
I hope you are right about new good music coming from the lowlands. Personally, we have lots of old vinyl and cd's that we have not really listened to carefully. One of my favorite Angolan artists came out with a new album a few months ago, but all I could locate was an mp3.
The music I listen the most is classical and what I can say to you. This thing (people don't listen to new music, they only listen to the old masters) has been said in that genre for a century. Who knows what will happen, but it is entirely possible that people focus on the past for a long time.
There's just too much #$@& music. Any kid in a bedsit with a laptop can "compose" a "song", record it, "publish" it and broadcast it. Who's going to listen to all this stuff? Not me. I've had too many disappointments with popcrock; I don't bother any more. Call me a curmudgeon.
It is an odd trend. Since every decade typically had its own musical trends. I am not sure that happened in the 2000s. But music was an important form of entertainment in the 60s, 70s, and 80s. Before video games, computers, and the internet started stealing its audience.
Now social media and video streaming (Netflix, etc.) have many people addicted for hours on end. When are they going to listen to music? Music is essentially background noise for many young people.
In the 70s musicians toured to sell albums. Now they give away albums to sell tours. And what do people want to see in concert? Songs they know. So they go see older groups.
It is a dire time to be a working musician. Or writer. Or photographer. Or artist. It seems most no longer value creativity enough to support it.
Although abetted by lockdown, A&R people at major labels now trawl Tik-Tok, looking for viral youth whose fragments of music have attracted the attention of high-profile rappers and popsters, anxious for the quick buck. The erasure or fluidity of genre, which I'm sure you've written about, and is palpable in the complete lack of consensus in top albums of 2021 lists even across mainstream music media, is an interesting work in progress. Great article, may I share it with my Writing About Music class (16 students), which begins tomorrow?
Great article and important topic.
Are the gatekeepers powerful enough anymore to hold back music in an age of Reddit and Spotify? The costs to produce, self-promote, and consume an album these days are quite low compared to previous eras. If there were lots of truly great albums being made out there now, wouldn't they spread quickly through the internet, and wouldn't the Grammy's then find them? I feel like if someone were to produce a Dark Side of the Moon, Thriller, Aja, or Kind of Blue, etc., all of us music fans would know about it within a few months.
I’ve began noticing this in the 1990s, believe it or not — even though I was a teenager then it was obvious to me that the music of the 60s, 70, and 80s was just better music. And nothing has changed since then. I don’t think it is possible to make better music than Creedence Clearwater Revival, frankly.
Let me posit by you thinking major labels are the music business you yourself are using old ways of looking at this business to quantify what’s happening now. The artistic energy has left the now, only, big three, and that underscores the fact that their catalogs, with little investment, make more then an expensive chance on someone new. Luckily, as they are artistically bankrupt, it’s not particularly relevant. Because of streaming, so many more people then ever are consuming music, so a lot of people are using music as wall paper but because there are so many more people total, there’s a lot of people who would have -only- been listening in elevators before.
Think about how much music our parents listened back then, compared to how much, at the same age, we listen to today.
The mindset in the music industry towards new distribution methods has always been blatantly regressive and legalistic. I used to work for EDS, and in 2003 I talked with a person who worked in the Digital Strategy team. They had actually presented to record companies in 2001 about digital distribution. At the time, Napster was on the rise, with lots of people using it to download music. The record company executives were adamant that they were not going to shift to digital distribution, and were going to litigate Napster out of business. They were totally uninterested in our strategists' explanations that digital distribution could not be (in practical terms) litigated out of existence, it was here to stay, and it would be better for the industry to embrace it instead of playing whack-a-mole against it.
Apple then kind of led the way, and the industry had to come to terms with it. But the explanation that I heard from my work colleague at the time sounded like she had just come face to face with the 20th century reincarnation of the buggy whip manufacturers.
I later had a discussion about the management in the music industry with a well-known engineer and producer. I asked him over dinner "why is the music industry so badly managed?". His answer was that most of the leaders were amateurs, placed in positions because of who they knew instead of what they had done. So they were fundamentally clueless about most of the things they were trying to do.
I have not seen any improvement since that conversation. I lost interest in listening to pop music a long time ago because of a combination of simplification of musical forms, and the "loudness wars", which ruined dynamics on mastered music. I have been a jazz listener, although I do listen to a lot of musicians who are still very much alive.
Alternatively: listening to the best music across history is the natural state of things, and it was a historical aberration that for a time people used to mostly listen to new music.
Given 100 years of the sort of music I like, why would I spend much more than 1% of my time listening to this year's music?
So approach it from the other end: Why in, say, 1975 did people listen to so much new music? Partly, several bands sounded like nothing they'd ever heard before. Lots of 2022 bands are great, but I rarely think "I've never heard anything like this before!" the way I did when I first heard, say, Led Zeppelin or Depeche Mode.
The music industry is now a subset of the culture of business, and the culture of business is all about money with no consideration for art, R&D or anything beyond sales and marketing. None of this makes for good music (or movies or plays or paintings, etc).
But music's doing just fine all the same. It's just the traditional business approach to music that's imploding. The business geniuses understand that their revenue now comes from PMC salaries and parental allowances (those folks who can afford to keep playing by the rules). The notion of buying music simply doesn't cross the minds of most people anymore. Friends share, and there's a lot more sharing going on now that you don't need special apps or streams to do it.
The kids are alright. It's their grandparents' business model that's failing.
Nailed it! Some of us younger and older musicians are working to reset the labor/regulatory paradigms for economic justice in both the physical and digital domains. I organize with a group called Music Workers Alliance, and we’ve had some small wins so far. We pushed for NYCs “City Artist Corps,” a WPA-style public artwork granting program that was implemented last year.
Additionally, a variety of efforts to rebuild music-in-community, or music-as-dual-power-outside-the-Spotify-hegemony, are underway. These include efforts to stream music from the public library, “ethical” streaming cooperative platforms, and more.
Won’t usually solicit, but worth mentioning that that current “live or die by going viral on social media” model requires intense personal branding, which can disadvantage you if you make collectivist music that challenges the hustle culture brainwashing pumped into us by these apps.
Such as if you make health justice liberation music, that is a mix of Mulgrew Miller (my mentor), Herbie, Pete Rock, Vangelis, Sun Ra, Holdsworth, and Michiru Yamane. New music that goes hard and challenges authority means you are doubly screwed haha! But we keep it movin :)