What’s killing new music? Old music!

February 5, 2023 • 10:15 am

This article in a year-old issue of Atlantic was written by Ted Gioia, who, according to Wikipedia, has considerable music chops, as he’s

. . . an American jazz critic and music historian. He is author of eleven books, including Music: A Subversive HistoryThe Jazz Standards: A Guide to the RepertoireThe History of Jazz and Delta Blues. He is also a jazz musician and one of the founders of Stanford University’s jazz studies program

Part of Gioia’s thesis, which he substantiates with data, is that new music—and that includes rock, jazz, country, and classical music—is dying off, with people increasingly buying and listening to older stuff, and refusing to listen to the ton of good music supposedly being produced in these genres. As a result, the genres are moribund. What Gioia doesn’t document, not with a single example, is that there is a lot of fantastic new stuff being turned out in all four areas.  In the end, then, he supports his primary claim about the hegemony of old music, but fails to tell us why it’s taking over. I happen to disagree with him in the second point, but read on, clicking on the screenshot below:

Here’s Gioia’s documentation of the trend. Note that most of his article deals with popular music (the stuff that appears on Billboard), and the music-analytic firm he cites, MRC Data, is now called Luminate. Further, what’s considered “new” popular music is music issued in the last 18 months.  That said, below are the data showing the popularity of old versus new music. The total “catalog share” (sales of “old” music) is substantially higher than that of new music (“current share”), and even within one year (2020-2021), the consumption of old music substantially increased and that of new music substantially dropped.

As Gioia notes:

Old songs now represent 70 percent of the U.S. music market, according to the latest numbers from MRC Data, a music-analytics firm. Those who make a living from new music—especially that endangered species known as the working musician—should look at these figures with fear and trembling. But the news gets worse: The new-music market is actually shrinking. All the growth in the market is coming from old songs.

The 200 most popular new tracks now regularly account for less than 5 percent of total streams. That rate was twice as high just three years ago. The mix of songs actually purchased by consumers is even more tilted toward older music. The current list of most-downloaded tracks on iTunes is filled with the names of bands from the previous century, such as Creedence Clearwater Revival and The Police.

. . .Never before in history have new tracks attained hit status while generating so little cultural impact. In fact, the audience seems to be embracing the hits of decades past instead. Success was always short-lived in the music business, but now even new songs that become bona fide hits can pass unnoticed by much of the population.

Only songs released in the past 18 months get classified as “new” in the MRC database, so people could conceivably be listening to a lot of two-year-old songs, rather than 60-year-old ones. But I doubt these old playlists consist of songs from the year before last. Even if they did, that fact would still represent a repudiation of the pop-culture industry, which is almost entirely focused on what’s happening right now.

Remember, this article was written a year ago, but I suspect the trend continues, at least as judged by the continually shrinking audience for the Grammy Awards, which fell more than 75% over nine years (Grammy awards are given for the best music of all sorts—including jazz, country, and classical—that was issued in the year preceding the ceremony.  Clearly, people don’t much care about who gets awards for new music:

Here are a few of the other bullet points Gioia makes:

  • The leading area of investment in the music business is old songs. Investment firms are getting into bidding wars to buy publishing catalogs from aging rock and pop stars.
  • The song catalogs in most demand are by musicians who are in their 70s or 80s (Bob Dylan, Paul Simon, Bruce Springsteen) or already dead (David Bowie, James Brown).
  • Even major record labels are participating in the rush to old music: Universal Music, Sony Music, Warner Music, and others are buying up publishing catalogs and investing huge sums in old tunes. In a previous time, that money would have been used to launch new artists.
  • The best-selling physical format in music is the vinyl LP, which is more than 70 years old. I’ve seen no signs that the record labels are investing in a newer, better alternative—because, here too, old is viewed as superior to new.
  • In fact, record labels—once a source of innovation in consumer products—don’t spend any money on research and development to revitalize their business, although every other industry looks to innovation for growth and consumer excitement.
  • Record stores are caught up in the same time warp. In an earlier era, they aggressively marketed new music, but now they make more money from vinyl reissues and used LPs.
  • Radio stations are contributing to the stagnation, putting fewer new songs into their rotation, or—judging by the offerings on my satellite-radio lineup—completely ignoring new music in favor of old hits.

I’m surprised about the growth of vinyl albums, as I always found CDs better, but to each their own. At any rate, Giao has a list of song rights sold since 2019: the purchasing of an entire catalogue of an artist’s music by a company. There are 24 of them on his list, and I recognize and love most of them, including Bob Dylan, The Beach Boys, Neil Young, Stevie Nicks, Paul Simon, Tina Turner, Ray Charles, James Brown, David Bowie, and (unfortunately) Taylor Swift.

Now my explanation for this would be that great new music simply isn’t appearing, and that’s true for pop, classical, and jazz. In fact—and remember that this is just my opinion—I think that new music in general is on the way out, and people will continue to revisit the good old stuff: the Beatles, Neil Young, Ellington, Coltrane, Brahms, and Beethoven. The stuff played on the radio will get older and older as time passes.

I keep appealing to the readers to show me new groups that are as good as (or nearly as good as) the Beatles—in my view the apogee of rock music—and people proffer me songs. Some of them are indeed good, but they’re single songs, they’re rare, and there simply aren’t any groups as good as those who dominated the airwaves from 1960 to 1980.  Rock music is now simpler, more repetitive, and autotuned. Jazz, well, it’s now largely cacophony (believe me, I’ve listened).  I will leave it to the classical-music experts here to analyze why new classical music isn’t being promoted (that’s Gioia’s view, too), and when there are symphony concerts, modern classical music is thrown in as a filler among the greats just to get people to hear the new stuff. Rap music I can’t tolerate, even though I was a huge fan of its predecessor: soul music.

Now Gioia does give my explanation, but then rejects it entirely. Here’s how he characterizes the “geezer” reaction:

Some people—especially Baby Boomers—tell me that this decline in the popularity of new music is simply the result of lousy new songs. Music used to be better, or so they say. The old songs had better melodies, more interesting harmonies, and demonstrated genuine musicianship, not just software loops, Auto-Tuned vocals, and regurgitated samples.

There will never be another Sondheim, they tell me. Or Joni Mitchell. Or Bob Dylan. Or Cole Porter. Or Brian Wilson. I almost expect these doomsayers to break out in a stirring rendition of “Old Time Rock and Roll,” much like Tom Cruise in his underpants.

He mocks what happens to be true, especially in the second and third sentences!  But here’s his alternative:

I can understand the frustrations of music lovers who get no satisfaction from current mainstream songs, though they try and they try. I also lament the lack of imagination on many modern hits. But I disagree with my Boomer friends’ larger verdict. I listen to two to three hours of new music every day, and I know that plenty of exceptional young musicians are out there trying to make it. They exist. But the music industry has lost its ability to discover and nurture their talents.

Notice the gaping lacuna here: he does not name ONE example of great new music or exceptional musicians—not in popular music, not in jazz, not in classical music. Why no examples to help us judge the merit of his argument? Could it be that they exist, but only in a tiny fraction of the genre?

But let us proceed; why, exactly, did the music industry lose interest in discovering and nurturing new music?

It’s the copyrights, stupid!

Music-industry bigwigs have plenty of excuses for their inability to discover and adequately promote great new artists. The fear of copyright lawsuits has made many in the industry deathly afraid of listening to unsolicited demo recordings. If you hear a demo today, you might get sued for stealing its melody—or maybe just its rhythmic groove—five years from now. Try mailing a demo to a label or producer, and watch it return unopened.

The people whose livelihood depends on discovering new musical talent face legal risks if they take their job seriously. That’s only one of the deleterious results of the music industry’s overreliance on lawyers and litigation, a hard-ass approach they once hoped would cure all their problems, but now does more harm than good. Everybody suffers in this litigious environment except for the partners at the entertainment-law firms, who enjoy the abundant fruits of all these lawsuits and legal threats.

Okay, so why then did the environment become so litigious? At any rate, that explanation doesn’t ring true to me. But wait! There’s more! For some reason, which Gioia doesn’t describe, the industry has lost confidence in new music and won’t support it. Get a load of this:

The problem goes deeper than just copyright concerns. The people running the music industry have lost confidence in new music. They won’t admit it publicly—that would be like the priests of Jupiter and Apollo in ancient Rome admitting that their gods are dead. Even if they know it’s true, their job titles won’t allow such a humble and abject confession. Yet that is exactly what’s happening. The moguls have lost their faith in the redemptive and life-changing power of new music. How sad is that? Of course, the decision makers need to pretend that they still believe in the future of their business, and want to discover the next revolutionary talent. But that’s not what they really think. Their actions speak much louder than their empty words.

In fact, nothing is less interesting to music executives than a completely radical new kind of music. Who can blame them for feeling this way? The radio stations will play only songs that fit the dominant formulas, which haven’t changed much in decades. The algorithms curating so much of our new music are even worse. Music algorithms are designed to be feedback loops, ensuring that the promoted new songs are virtually identical to your favorite old songs. Anything that genuinely breaks the mold is excluded from consideration almost as a rule. That’s actually how the current system has been designed to work.

Okay, then, but why did this happen? After all, it happened before: rock started off from roots in gospel and black music, and then Elvis and Company shook up the world, and were promoted strongly, giving way to the great music of the Sixties and Seventies, psychedelic music and soul music (also interesting to music executives), then to disco, rap and hip hop (types of music that I’m lukewarm about).  A lot of these were radical changes in the genre, and yes, they were interesting to music executives. Everyone wanted to imitate what was popular: think of the erstwhile competition between the Beatles and Beach Boys, or Dylan and Donovan. Unless the loss in interest is due to the litigation mentioned above, I don’t see where it came from. (And Gioia argues above that the loss of interest was not due to litigation.)

Let’s not forget country music, jazz, and classical music. Gioai’s Theory (which is his) is similar:

This state of affairs is not inevitable. A lot of musicians around the world—especially in Los Angeles and London—are conducting a bold dialogue between jazz and other contemporary styles. They are even bringing jazz back as dance music. But the songs they release sound dangerously different from older jazz, and are thus excluded from many radio stations for that same reason. The very boldness with which they embrace the future becomes the reason they get rejected by the gatekeepers.

“Dangerously different”? I’d say “not as good as”! Yes, there is some good jazz-infused music around (I’ve noted this song, for instance), but by and large the days of great jazz are gone, killed off by the likes of Ornette Coleman, free jazz, and atonal jazz.  Dance music? Ellington, Basie, and Goodman used to pack the floors. Do we see that again?

As for country and classical, Gioai’s Theory (which is his) states this:

A country record needs to sound a certain way to get played on most country radio stations or playlists, and the sound those DJs and algorithms are looking for dates back to the prior century. And don’t even get me started on the classical-music industry, which works hard to avoid showcasing the creativity of the current generation. We are living in an amazing era of classical composition, with one tiny problem: The institutions controlling the genre don’t want you to hear it.

Actually, I have more hopes for country music than for the other genres, as there are some great young singers and players out there, including Billy Strings and Molly Tuttle.  But if Gioia is so high on the creativity of new classical music, why doesn’t he give us any examples? Where are all the “amazing classical compositions”? I know—not promoted by companies afraid of litigation. But one would think that the sweating writer could come up with at least a few examples to whet our appetites: classical music and jazz that we could go to, listen to, and judge for ourselves. He relies on airy and undocumented statements to make his case, which, in the end, I don’t find convincing.

Now I expect that most readers will disagree with me, and some will send me examples of great new music (I’m glad to listen to them, by the way, just don’t send a ton!). But in the end I think that Gioia is motivated by the desire to avoid pessimism about the End of Popular Music and to appear open minded, and so must leave us on an upbeat:

. . . I refuse to accept that we are in some grim endgame, witnessing the death throes of new music. And I say that because I know how much people crave something that sounds fresh and exciting and different. If they don’t find it from a major record label or algorithm-driven playlist, they will find it somewhere else. Songs can go viral nowadays without the entertainment industry even noticing until it has already happened. That will be how this story ends: not with the marginalization of new music, but with something radical emerging from an unexpected place.

My reaction to that is just nine words: “I surely hope so, but wouldn’t bet on it.”  Taylor Swift is not the salvation of popular music.

h/t: Andrea

95 thoughts on “What’s killing new music? Old music!

  1. here’s my thesis: at least 90% of the music written in the time of Mozart and Beethoven sank without a trace. What has come down to us is the cream. If you listen to contemporary music you are stuck with a lot of crap that will vanish next year.

    1. I attended one Baroque music recital that intentionally excluded Bach’s music. Regardless, it sounded like “lost” Bach compositions.

      I do feel that this is part of the explanation. The situation is made worst because recording music with good production-quality has become easier and cheaper.

    2. “you are stuck with a lot of crap that will vanish next year” . . . music, craft beer, novels, academic publishing. Sometimes it is just easier to go with the names you know than to spend time and money sorting through the rubbish to find a gem.

    3. Indeed. My recollection is that during the “golden years” of the 60s and 70s most of what was on the radio was crap at any given time. This hasn’t changed. I would even guess that it takes more than 18 months for the better material to demonstrate longevity. There are some outstanding musicians out there producing original music, which is likely lost in the noise for perhaps a decade.

    4. (Posting my opinion as a reply because I can’t find another way.)

      The only thing that is killing new music is new music itself.

  2. Well, let me start by agreeing most current music sucks. I’ve heard a few songs and artists that I like, but so few and far between that it’s not work it to listen to current music stations. I would like to know the demographics of the audience for music alongside Gioai’s current consumption chart. Is there a correlation between an aging audience and a stagnation in listening to new music? One of the biggest issues for me is the move away from melody and good vocalists. I’ve thought for years that that was why country music has been popular; it is most like traditional American song. As for dancing, it is a shame that it has died. I for one love dancing, but by the early/mid nineties the music in clubs was nothing but pounding rhythm. For myself I’ve found that there is so much old music that I haven’t heard that I am continually find artists and songs that are new to me that I enjoy. So why bother with new stuff?

    1. Agreed. Country music has remained rather good. There is stuff that will be forgotten, but that is the same as it ever was. Odd to say, but Christian rock has also held up, though I can’t stand to pay attention to it.

    2. Re “One of the biggest issues for me is the move away from melody and good vocalists.”

      Yes, and a move away from meaningful, sometimes even literary, lyrics! Paul Simon, holy cow, plumbed the depths of existential dread and angst in multiple, melodic and poetic ways—”Richard Cory”; “I Am a Rock”; “A Most Peculiar Man”—then offered a gorgeous, powerful tonic in “Bridge Over Troubled Water.”

      “Hotel California” is a hypnotic, semi-psychedelic take on the vapidity of the SoCal way of life.

      Metallica has long captured rage in poetry. Nirvana’s lyrics, while often kaleidoscopic, were richly textured and evocative—”A mulatto, an albino, a mosquito, my libido”—or potently descriptive, as in “Lithium”:

      “I miss you, I’m not gonna crack
      “I love you, I’m not gonna crack
      “I killed you, I’m not gonna crack.”

      And hell, even Van Halen, widely known as “party” music, managed original takes on moldy old ideas about sex, “Jamie’s Cryin’,” “Hot for Teacher.”

      Poetry and allusion and metaphor are all but dead in most contemporary, canned music.

      On top of that, so much of today’s music is accomplished and recorded without benefit of actual musicians. Lots of computer and digital effects, as it were.

      But while a thumpa-dumpa beat with some repetitive, insipid lyrics can be fun here and there, that’s most of what I hear when I hear contemporary pop/rock music.

      P.S. Sorry to violate Zappa’s rule about writing about music. Couldn’t help myself.

      P.P.S. I always thought in “Lithium” Kurt Cobain was singing, “That’s OK, my will is dead…” but in looking up those lyrics I’m stunned to see it’s actually, “… my will is good.”
      I think my version fits the song much better.

  3. “The best-selling physical format in music is the vinyl LP, which is more than 70 years old.”

    This is because vinyl (and, believe it or not, cassettes and reel-to-reel tapes) are making a small kitschy comeback, but these sales are a very small fraction of their previous sales volumes. CDs and digital downloads are also way down compared to previous glories, and the market has switched in large part to music streaming services.

    If one was to purchase a single CD per month, it would cost as much as a streaming service, so it is not surprising that very few people still buy CDs, which is a shame, imho, because buying CDs directly from the artist’s website provides artists with an solid income way higher than what they earn from streaming services.

      1. I wouldn’t know myself, as I have not played a record in many decades, let alone purchased one. I remember when the first digitally recorded rock record came out – it was Ry Cooder’s “Bop Til You Drop” – and it was startling how much better it sounded than any analog recorded LP. And then the CD player arrived, and the crude lossy mechanics and other shortcomings of the vinyl record were glaringly obvious. I had perfect hearing at the time and a good stereo. The claims by some today that analog has advantages over digital simply don’t comport with my own experience.

      2. Classical music recording engineer and producer here…

        You’re not wrong about the poor audio quality of LPs! There is just no way the format can measure up to the compact disc — and consider that the CD format was developed forty years ago! [I could go into detail but this is after all a biology website…]

        I wonder if the popularity of the LP is because of its physical limitations? For one thing, you really can’t pack more than about 45 minutes of music onto an LP, limited to 20-some continuous minutes per side, whereas the CD permits a continuous 79+ minutes — so you don’t get as bored listening to an LP. Engineers have to be careful about limiting the frequencies, dynamics, and channel separation on an LP — so the audio quality simply must be compressed down to a “comfortable” middle range. Also the LP deteriorates every time it’s played, so perhaps they encourage sales of new releases with their built-in obsolescence.

        If the general public actually cared about audio quality, nobody would ever listen to streamed MP3 files on their phones with earbuds or in their cars. I certainly don’t!

        1. Yes, Todd Rundgren’s Initiationclocked up over 67 minutes. According to Wikipedia: blockquote>At over sixty-seven minutes, Initiation is one of the longest commercially-released LPs. Due to a plastic shortage, in order to keep the album on one vinyl LP, Rundgren had to limit and EQ the master so the bass response was rolled off to keep the grooves small enough to cut onto a single disc, he also had to speed up the first half of Side One (Real Man-Eastern Intrigue)and speed up the entirety of Side Two to eliminate 2-3 minutes from each side(5). The album’s original inner sleeve included a note which stated: “Technical note: Due to the amount of music on this disc (over one hour), two points must be emphasized. Firstly, if your needle is worn or damaged, it will ruin the disc immediately. Secondly, if the sound does seem not loud enough on your system, try re-recording the music onto tape. By the way, thanks for buying the album.”

          I still have my vinyl copy of the album. The second side is pretty much unlistenable, but not for reasons related to needle damage or technical limitations! I blame Todd’s over-indulgence, but perhaps my lack of sophistication is to blame…?

          1. D’oh! Apologies for the formatting issues, hopefully the gist of my post is clear. I lost the first (correctly punctuated etc.) draft when distracted by my sister, so I’m blaming her…

      3. Modern vinyl LPs can be poor quality, as is the case with any manufactured product, but this is not necessarily the case. I took to (re)buying vinyl three years ago, just as the pandemic lockdowns began, primarily rock music from late 60s to early 80s, and the quality, in the main, is superb. It requires top quality reproduction equipment, sensible stylus tracking weight (the 70s saw an obsession with ridiculously low weights that resulted in poor tracking and damaged vinyl), and the requirement primarily to listen to the music, rather than it being a background to other activities.

        This latter point is, for me, perhaps the most important part of vinyl listening: it’s an immersive medium. You can’t just leave it running at the end of a side, and to play the next record requires a certain amount of time and care. I’d just introduce three caveats
        1. The quality of sound can be indistinguishable from CD in a blind test of good quality vinyl, but I don’t claim is necessarily better. Some say it is better because of sampling rates in CDs but I don’t hear it.
        2. Of course vinyl can wear out, but the process is much slower than our intuition suggests, and 200 plays without appreciable deterioration is easily achievable.
        3. Stylus wear is an issue that sits at the back of my mind, and means I check possibly more than necessary. That said, a good stylus can be played over 500 times before it requires replacement.

        1. This dinosaur owns two SME turntables, with four tonearms and cartridges. The only compression I listen to is corrected with an RIAA curve! I do own about 3k CDs and a rather decent CD/SACD/DVD-A player, but they don’t involve me as LPs do. Just like I prefer film over digital. More total satisfaction.
          There has been a major advance in vinyl replay, with the understanding of the necessity for good cleaning of the records. Every record I own goes through a Loricraft point source vacuum machine, then a Degritter ultrasonic cleaner, then into a new clean sleeve. Unless there is a scratch, they will nearly always come up as quiet as a CD. Once done, it need not be repeated until some surface noise appears. One huge advantage is prolonging the stylus life, with about 2000 hours of play easy to achieve. Of course, you have to keep an eye on stylus condition with a microscope: https://flic.kr/p/2ofaJMa

  4. The most depressing part of this trend is matched in the NY Times: when a critic writes about music, it is assumed that what is being discussed is POP music (along with rock, folk, jazz etc.). For oldsters like me, music means CLASSICAL music, and all the other forms are side acts for relaxation. I love the Beatles and a few other 1960s groups and performers, but aside from that period, what I have heard of pop music is utterly lacking in merit (putting aside Sondheim and Bernstein), and that is being polite. Each to his own of course, but for me the most disturbing aspect is the neglect of classical music in general. it can be argued, as some have done, that the venues for classical music are very hostile not to mention expensive. This is certainly true of opera. But what is perplexing is the incredible revival of early music on period instruments, which has an extremely large body of followers and which in fact is actually increasing in size as well as in quality. The professional quality of classical music performance is not only extraordinary but widespread. You can go to your local church or wherever and hear a small unknown chamber group or pianist or singer performing at level worthy of Carnegie Hall. This is a phenomenon that has only appeared in the past decade or two.
    Someone, something is churning out amazingly talented musicians like sausage! And as many have noticed, at least half if not more of the chamber groups are Asian! The Asians now appreciate western classical music more than western listeners! Their talent is beyond good; teenage performers are now as gifted as older seasoned ones. For those of us who only listen to classical music (including contemporary music), this is truly a gift beyond measure. Pity that so many settle for third rate pop stuff that will move into oblivion in a matter of months and who are deprived of great western classical music that makes life worth living. PS: the Beatles belong alongside Sondheim, not all the other pop composers churning out stuff that isnt worth even one hearing.

  5. My son is 18 and he is discovering old music such as The Beatles, Pink Floyd, King Crimson, Jimi Hendrix and others and he has not shown interest in current music.

    1. With the bands your son likes, he’d probably enjoy Porcupine Tree (especially the later stuff) and Steven Wilson in general. Those bands were part of Wilson’s inspiration, and he carries it well into contemporary music.

      1. I would put Wilson up there with McCartney and Lennon as a song writer, though I’m sure our host would disagree. I’m a huge fan of Opeth as well. I think Wilson brought them out of their shell.

        1. Not so fast. I still think Lennon and McCartney are the best in terms of versatility, but the more I listen to and learn about Wilson, the more impressed I am. I watched the movie “The Wrecking Crew” (about the session musicians who backe up everyone, including the Beach Boys–highly recommended flick), and learned that Wilson came into the studio with the final arrangement already in his head: he knew exactly how he wanted the song to sound. The hard part for him was getting the musicians to reproduce what was in his head. Now THAT is impressive, and the Beatles didn’t work that way (as you can see in “Get Back”).

          1. Steven Wilson (I’m a fan)? Or Brian Wilson? I haven’t seen the film although I am trying to find a copy, but from what I can see about it I can’t see where Steven W would fit.

          2. Yeah, our esteemed host thought that Patrick was writing about Brian when he was writing about Steven. I have a dog named Wilson. And he’s named after a volleyball! Bloody Wilsons! LOL!!!

        2. Yeah, Opeth is great and I think Opeth had a big influence on Wilson as well- a mutual admiration I think. I tried getting into another of Wilson’s favorite Swedish bands, Meshuggah, but it was just too heavy. The musical abilities and arrangements are off the chart intricate and impressive, but damn, I found it hard to get into.

      2. That is so random. You mentioned Porcupine Tree, a band I’ve never heard of until yesterday (at a latte coffee art class of all places). Now I’ll really have to listen to them on Spotify. And I’m fairly knowledgeable about pop/rock music.

        Are there still places selling new music on physical media? Pretty much the only music stores in my city are full of old stuff, run by enthusiasts, and half vinyl and half cd’s.

        1. Porcupine Tree is probably my favorite artist to listen to while doing art, so I’d say someone knows what they’re doing. 🙂

          For me it is also difficult to find a retail store that sells physical media. When I used to buy it, unfortunately, Amazon was the easiest. I haven’t used spotify; I subscribe to YouTube music now and stream via Sonos; they have every group, song and musician that I can think of. At $10/month, it’s well worth it imo. I’m sure it’s comparable to spotify.

  6. Trying to limit my comment here, but it’s hard.
    1. It is not a fair fight to ask for a contemporary group that is equal to The Beatles. They were the g.o.a.t. But how about equal to other great musicians and groups from the ’60s and ’70’s? There are still very good current musicians out there, but equal? I don’t know. But its also very difficult for real talent to stand out past all the other forms of entertainment (see #3 below). In any case what I think are good musicians don’t make it onto mainstream radio and especially to the Grammies, since that show is totally corrupt by the best self-promoters, ‘twerkers and poseurs who must use voice distortion and 3-note electronic loops (and lots of skin) bc they can’t sing. Or play. I can’t express a low enough opinion about that event!
    2. It is a sad truth that among those varieties of popular entertainers, Taylor Swift is a musical genius. That isn’t bc she is a musical genius, btw. It’s more of a sad truth about the state of things.
    3. I wonder if the decline of popular music sales is in part because people just spend less time listening to music. That is what we did when there was less to listen to and to watch. But now everyone has all these streaming services for movies, YouTube, blogs, etc etc etc. The decline in sales of current popular music may not just be from competition from the older (and better) music.

    1. To your 1 I’d say I love not only the old composers or songs, but the specific _recording_ as well – like a sculpture. That is, I am uninterested in Day After Day by Badfinger unless it is that exact recording from the 70’s when it was released – although radio and Muzak still play it.

      Yeah! The grocery store! I love it!

    2. I must take issue with one thing you’ve said there Mark: I think your denial of Taylor Swift as a true musical genius is unfair.

      Due to my 16 year old daughter’s fandom, I’ve become very familiar with Taylor Swift’s back catalogue over the last couple of years. She has been writing great songs since she was 16 herself, and has done so across a huge range of musical styles. Additionally, her lyrics are nothing short of brilliant, and I’m constantly amazed by just how good her writing is. I’d encourage anyone to listen to this podcast from the BBC: Is Taylor Swift Our Greatest Living Poet?. I almost always find that those who don’t particularly rate her talent are largely unfamiliar with her prodigious and varied output over the last 15 + years. She writes all her own songs, both music and lyrics, and speaking personally, I have never encountered a solo artist with such a wide range of outstanding musical output.

      I have no dog in this fight, I am much more a rocker with tastes ranging from The Rolling Stones all the way to Slayer. However, I must give credit where it’s due, and Taylor Swift is a musical and lyrical genius. Furthermore, she would have been recognised as a genius in any decade since pop music began.

    3. They were the g.o.a.t.

      I hate that phrase, since we don’t know what the other half of time (the future) contains. I’m trying to think of a phrase that matches “before today” and has the initials “s.e.” to bring the right level of solemnity to such ideas and make it the g.o.a.t.s.e. effect.
      I’m thinking that this (alleged) situation is what would happen in evolution if species never went extinct, and individuals which didn’t die just carried on getting larger. [Alleged ; I’m not qualified to assess music, nor interested in doing so.]
      The persistence of crocodile-shaped “crocodiles”, lamniform sharks, and the general structure of turtles are examples of morphology “space” which have been resistant to new entries for a good while – on the order of 200 million years.
      Without extinction (musically : the production of physical media stopping because of manufacturing costs ; almost irrelevant to streaming) then persistence (the g.o.a.t.s.e. effect) would give the first entrants into some genre (Bach ; Darwin (Erasmus, or Charles ; or even George if we move from evolution to gravitational dynamics) large and increasing advantage over any new entrant. Einstein may have invented General Relativity, but why does he remain so dominant over the huge amount of work done in GR since. Plus, of course, physicists are pretty sure that GR is wrong, somewhere, even if it matches reality to at least 15 significant figures. Therefore the “idea space” and “reputation space” niches available to new entrants become increasingly hard for the new entrants to find and exploit. And this report (allegedly) covers such a closing of available niches.
      Is “music” a constrained “space” of possibilities? Well, assuming we exclude infinitely long recordings, you’ve a finite number of instruments, a finite number of notes, a finite number of (short) time signatures, and a finite number of words (if you’re counting the lyrics too) which multiples out to a finite mathematical space for music to exist in.

      If you don’t allow either some of previously explored musical “space” to be freed up (by previous work being forgotten) inevitably the available space for new combinations to be explored reduces.
      I guess that music has rules akin to languages, for restricting which sequences of notes, words etc are “permissible”. That just narrows the space to be explored, and brings closer the time that there is no “acceptable” part of musical “space” not already occupied by a pre-existing g.o.a.t.s.e.
      (The last time I looked, goatse.cx had switched from being a perfectly acceptable email provider to touting some sort of cryptocurrency. Shame.)

  7. I admit I have not dived in and am writing in haste – this looks very interesting and makes sense so far.

    Is a distinction made between composer and performer / recording company names?

    Jazz and classical share the following element : many – a large number I’d say – of the compositions are standard repertoire. Audiences know the rep, and like to hear new performers and new recording technology. Heifetz and Bird are astounding but there’s something about exquisite modern recording tech that is undeniable in appeal. There is also a finite catalog of famous old material. There is so much that they could have recorded had the cost been lower.

    I consider that the entry level after which writers introduce their own material, as a blend. Consider – The Beatles doing covers initially – slowly they introduced the audience to their originals. I only know Ligeti and Adés though because of their original compositions, so it’s uneven, AFAIK…

    1. “There is also a finite catalog of famous old material. There is so much that they could have recorded had the cost been lower.”

      There was a revolution in classical music in the early 1970s when musicians including Trevor Pinnock and Christopher Hogwood began to explore the possibility of playing baroque music — Vivaldi, Bach, Handel, Telemann etc. — as it would have sounded to audiences in the 17th and early 18th centuries. They used period instruments (either originals or copies made using 17th/18th century techniques and materials), played with the tuning and faster tempi that Vivaldi, Bach et al would have known.

      The results were electrifying, because they were quite unlike anything that had been recorded or performed to that point in the 20th century. Pinnock’s ensemble, the English Concert, made a few recordings of Vivaldi concertos with a small Dutch record company called CRD in the early 1970s, but the big record companies quickly got in on the act — the English Concert recorded dozens of discs for Deutsche Grammophon during the 1980s, including most of the extant works of Bach, Handel and Vivaldi. Happily, these remain available as digital downloads.

      1. Historically Informed Performance (HIP) of baroque music is a wing of the whole early music revival, which brought back to us viols, zinks, krummhorns, hurdy-gurdys, and the aptly named rackett. The HIP phenomenon can be traced back as far the 1930s, but really exploded in the 1960s/70s.

      2. That’s interesting, and I listen to some of that

        I was thinking in the moment of, say, Miles Davis, or Charlie Parker, where their classic recordings are – to me, by modern lights – rather few.

        Beatles – ever look at how many originally released albums there are? (Not the plethora of deep cuts)? It’s got me asking “is that ALL?”

  8. I bogged down in Gioia’s Subversive History of Music early on when the author seemed to suggest that the ‘sound’ of the big bang caused early humans to invent percussion instruments, & that there is a causal link between tribal chants & ultrasound medical imaging. Maybe I didn’t get the joke.

  9. Agree 100% with your assessment. All genres eventually cycle but there has been no scalable resurrection of rock music that *endures the test of time.* My iPod is still loaded with 70s music and I am bored senseless.

    Provide one current song that is comparable to ‘Fire’ by the Ohio Players.

    1. Contemporary that is also funkadelic? I don’t know of an example. Maybe Word Up by Cameo?
      But there are several interesting contemporary groups that have a definite old sound of one kind or another. Here are some, with an example that I like very much.
      Riviera Life by Caro Emerald
      Shelter Song by Temples
      California Daze by Peace
      Lost on You by LP
      Booty Swing by Perov Stelar

      1. “Word Up” was recorded by Cameo in ’86 which, 37 years on, is much closer in time to the Ohio Player’s ’74 recording of “Fire” then it is to anything being put out today.

        Tempus fugit, huh, Mark?

  10. “Jazz, well, it’s now largely cacophony (believe me, I’ve listened).”
    Absurd. Even if you don’t get the freer/less tonal stuff (btw, it’s now 60+ years since Ornette and Trane went ‘out’), there is all kinds of great jazz, all styles, being played and recorded these days.
    The reunion quartet album by Redman/Mehldau/McBride/Blade and trumpeter Tom Harrell’s ‘Oak Tree’ are a couple of recent examples that come to mind.

  11. After spending some time yesterday in a tractor supply and today in an antique store, having my ears assaulted by the rap-pop that purports to be country music, I cannot agree with any rosy outlook for country. It is absolute crap. But frankly, who listens to corporate-controlled radio stations anymore? More ads than music, obnoxious “personalities”, limited and highly repetitive playlists, i haven’t bothered for years. Now that public radio has turned Uber-Woke, I don’t use a radio at all. Online apps or streaming sources are better, have more choices, ads can be blocked or subverted with subscriptions, and all without the limitations by genre, especially handy since I have wide ranging tastes. To hell with corporate radio, mega music producers, A&R men, and the Grammy awards can kiss my hairy backside. The decentralization of music may make it harder to find in some respects, and may limit the creation of mega-stars like the Stones or Beatles, but it offers more variety and can connect musicians to worldwide audiences.

    1. I agree with you about country. It’s just as crap as pop music these days. Though I must admit some bias. I don’t like country, and that’s putting it mildly. I gave up on it a long time ago. Waylon Jennings is about the only country I still listen to anymore.

  12. In general, I agree with you here and also would have liked some examples of “great” contemporary music that Gioia is referencing.

    Regarding Billy Strings and Molly Tuttle, I wouldn’t consider either to be country musicians. They’re firmly in the Bluegrass/Americana folk tradition; Strings is also more of a Jam band musician. Either way, I do agree with you that they inspire hope for contemporary music, no matter what genre we put them in.

      1. It is related, no doubt…it is a branch off country, but distinctly different- I think it’s more of a matter of the instruments they use. For what it’s worth, Bluegrass utilizes acoustic guitar, banjo, mandolin, bass and fiddle, whereas country is heavier on guitar (including electric and pedal steel), piano, washboard and harmonica.

        1. And in bluegrass, as its father Bill Monroe told us, they never have to create a tune:
          the tunes are all around us, so one has only to pluck them out of the air.

  13. I think if there was great new music people would want to listen to it, and companies who produced it would make a lot of money. So basically we have to assume either that music company executives are not interested in making money, or there is a dearth of good new music.

  14. I always think the LP experience is mostly the carrying it back from the shops, the first full listen while reading the sleeve notes and learning the lyrics, the finding the best bits by looking at the record, the sharing the experience with friends. Nothing to do with the sound quality. It’s just that everything is more human in LP land.

  15. Guitar-based rock seems to be totally dead. “Pop” music is now almost entirely electronically-based pop and hip-hop. As a teenaged boy in the late 80s/early 90s, I can distinctly remember a huge guitar-based presence on the charts…from bands like Aerosmith still making records, to arena-rock giants like Metallica, and finally through the grunge movement (Nirvana, Sound Garden, Pearl Jam, etc.) It was pretty much all I listened too…it also got me into the classic rock era as I realized that bands like Led Zeppelin were the pioneers (and still masters) of that hard sound.

    But somewhere around the first decade of the 21st century, electric-guitar based rock and roll disappeared from the scene.

    So what do young men listen to now? Ariane Grande? Justin Bieber?

      1. Which brings up another issue. Many modern hip-hop songs are littered with racial slurs and crass and violent language; if you listen to the clean version, every other word is bleeped out. They make old school raunchy songs from bands like 2 Live Crew seem tame (see Cardi B.’s “WAP”, for instance). Even Eminem’s stuff from 20 years ago doesn’t seem that edgy in comparison.

        So obviously racial slurs are considered acceptable in some contexts. Yet, the same generation of young people who can apparently absorb songs in which the “artist” shouts these slurs with abandon are the same ones who will go to pieces if a professor merely alludes to one of these words in an educational setting?


        Makes one wonder how genuine these grievances really are….

    1. Somebody must be listening to the crap, because there are so many performers living in big mansions. But I can’t believe how bad some of it is, with a ‘music’ track that is nothing more than a loop of some kind of tititiititititit electronic sound, and angsty breathless singer with lots of digital help bc (whisper): they can’t sing.

  16. Several points.

    Maybe one reason old music sells better than new is simply because there is more of it.

    As for mp3 music, I have tested my octogenarian ears by switching back and forth my amplifier input between a CD and an mp3 file created on my computer from that same CD — of the same recording at the same point in the “tune” — and can’t tell any difference.

    Also, LPs from about 1970 or 1980 or so used a variable-groove technique which allowed them to get slightly more than 60 minutes of music on an LP. That was classical music, of course, which doesn’t have so many breaks between the movements.

    I’m mainly a classical and jazz fan, but I do miss the popular music of the Beatles, Simon & Garfunkel, Judy Collins and all that gang. Compared to them, most current popular music does indeed suck — at least, to my ears. (Don’t mean to insult anyone else’s taste. A chacun son gout.)

  17. Seems to me the big record labels are indeed the direct cause of the deathward spiral of pop music. They dictate which artists become “popular” and much of the music is written in part or whole by a very small number of song writers that work for the labels. Over the decades they’ve gained control of every aspect of the pop industry and made it nearly impossible for outsiders to compete. The result is that nearly all pop music is highly polished, simplistic, dreck.

    But I do at least somewhat agree with the music critic. There is still lots of good music being made today. It just takes some time to find it and it doesn’t stand a chance in hell of making it into the pop charts. I wouldn’t claim any new artists out there equal the Beatles, even given subjective tastes that’s a very high bar. But I still find new music of all kinds that I like and think is quite good.

    And let’s not forget, according to that one recent article the most listened to decade these days is the 80s Baby!

      1. I took a moment to look at a vinyl option of this, and it turns out yes! This popular new release is available on vinyl.

        That tells me that this vinyl popularity is not a niche interest.

  18. I grew up with 60s and 70s music and I like the new music from Imelda May, and covers by Morgan James. We do have some great singers and musicians today. Overall, I agree with you, Jerry.

    1. Morgan James is one of my favorite contemporary vocalists — a classically trained Julliard graduate who’s turned her talents to R&B, soul, and rock’n’roll.

      She’s got great big pipes and the cutest little pupik this poor boy’s ever seen, both on ample display in this cover of Mr. Gabriel’s “Sledgehammer”:

  19. Rap/hip-hop continues to grow in popularity. To me this is almost objective evidence that there’s something terribly, terribly wrong with the musical esthetics of the younger generations.

      1. Well, noting that every generation makes this same observation about the next isn’t a counter argument. Sometimes the elders are right. Sometimes, aspects of society are indeed in a state of genuine decline, and people notice.

      2. My father would go crazy hearing us play “Sympathy for the Devil” (he didn’t know what it was about) he hated the percussion and crooning at the end (and the Rolling Stones in general because, drugs!), he also hated the beautiful background vocals on Pink Floyd’s “Time” by Clare Torry. I remember him saying “this music won’t be around very long.” (Saying this about “The Dark Side of the Moon.”) Oh, brother. I remember laughing at his bombastic outbursts of bad taste in his kids’ music. But yeah, parents just don’t “get it.” A perennial problem repeating throughout the generations.

        1. Actually, I first heard rap when I was about 13, so it isn’t the case that I’m rejecting something that’s wholly new to me. Furthermore, my tastes are pretty broad and eclectic, and I could give examples of artists that I like from just about any genre (eg. Stimmhorn for yodeling). Rap is pretty much the single exception.

          1. Hell, everybody got a blind spot somewhere.

            Story goes that, when the great jazz drummer Buddy Rich was in extremis in the Intensive Care Unit at the UCLA medical care center, an ICU nurse came in one morning to check on all the tubes and wires he was hooked up to. As she was finishing, she leaned over and asked him if anything was causing him any discomfort.

            Buddy motioned for her a little come closer and croaked, “country music.”

            I’m not that big into the yodeling thing myself, though I don’t doubt its aesthetic pleasures for aficionados. Same goes for rap. My sons were into it bigtime when they were teenagers. Listening to them play it all the time, I kinda developed a soft spot for Ludacris.

          2. “…blind spot…”

            No more than you presumably have a “blind spot” for eating raw liver.

            “I’m not that big into the yodeling thing myself…”

            Neither am I. The point was that you could name just about any genre other than rap, and I could think of at least one artist (or at least a song) that I like…

          3. No more than you presumably have a “blind spot” for eating raw liver.

            Depends. Will it be served with fava beans and a nice Chianti? 🙂

            Point being, de gustibus non est disputandum — and that goes as much for your distaste for rap as it does for Buddy Rich’s distaste for country.

            Hell, at the time of his death, Miles Davis — widely regarded (including by me) as the greatest musical innovator of the 20th century — was preparing to collaborate on a rap-jazz fusion recording.

  20. ‘Couple thoughts – in no order :

    1. MTV. Not sure what to make of it but it is significant, and came after the Beatles, Dylan, Joni Mitchell… though there _were_ some videos of them…

    2. Try this :

    3. Where is music consumed? In the 70’s, I think 8-tracks were in cars. 80s, the Walkman was a hit. But movies and “TV shows” make extensive use of music. I’m pretty sure Breaking Bad boosted an old hit.

  21. There’s some smart contemporary music emerging from the New Amsterdam label, e.g. Caroline Shaw, Sarah Kirkland Snider.
    Have you heard any Imogen Heap? Maybe an acquired taste, but she’s very skilful.
    There’s still a lot of new jazz emerging in Europe: try Leszek Mozdzer from Poland (whose name should have lots of diacriticals I can’t manage on this keyboard).

  22. One of the differences IMO looking back, is the excitement of a changing time reflected in popular music, technology (2 track, 4,6,8, and beyond) fashion, the artistic influences in writing and recording with their own material. It seemed new (the sounds) but really it was just being innovative and creative with the existing genres, expanding them and suited to their backgrounds.
    Cheers to the defenestration of what you could write about and how you say it, there was censorship, taboos, no swearing, radio dollars would not tolerate it…oh my! E.g. not pop but a Led Zeppelin lyric albeit a cover “squeeze my lemon till the juices run out”. Sing that Doris Day!
    These artists cracked the insipid la la of the fifties, early sixties. Record companies had to get in line with the demand. I think underneath in part is why we overlook and don’t give the current artists their dues, they don’t crack anything.
    All this work is now open to interpretation and rearrangement and some IMO sound even better but this could be because the artist/band is unique and the recording quality.
    As an aside, in the development of Mp3, guess what artist and track held them back, it had them stumped.
    Suzanne Vega’s “Tom’s Diner.” she sounded like something out of the Exorcist at first according to the developer in an interview I listened to. Wikipedia:
    The song “Tom’s Diner” by Suzanne Vega was the first song used by Karlheinz Brandenburg to develop the MP3 format. Brandenburg adopted the song for testing purposes, listening to it again and again each time he refined the scheme, making sure it did not adversely affect the subtlety of Vega’s voice.

  23. I haven’t read the comments so some of the points below may have been made already.

    Youtuber and music producer Rick Beato (which is the name of his channel) has made several videos about this topic.

    1. Key changes in pop songs used to not be uncommon, now they are juuuust about non-existent. Which is very telling, as a key change can be a highly effective device.
    2. A huge fraction of pop songs use the exact same basic chord structure.
    3. There is an ever-shrinking pool of pop song writers who are not performers but who write an increasingly large fraction of all pop music.
    4. It’s becoming harder and harder to make a living as a performer even if you write your own material. Just look at Taylor Swift’s travails vs Scooter Braun – and she is very successful.
    5. Autotune. Unbelievably, some record companies are re-releasing older works, but autotuned. This in particular enrages me. I cannot imagine how awful Neil Young songs like Down By The River would sound if autotuned. They’d probably even try to “fix” the guitar solo, which is brilliantly rough and dirty-sounding. The technology that could improve that does not exist in this universe, nor will it.

    And there’s this famous article about record companies: https://thebaffler.com/salvos/the-problem-with-music

    I’ll stop here coz I’m getting really angry.

    1. Yup. The mediocre non-creatives and cynical business types taking over and ruining sh$t. Sounds a bit like…modern academia.

  24. Fun fact, a little off-topic: the Beatles’ Sargent Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band was recorded on a FOUR track tape recorder. F-O-U-R !!!!! The machine was made by the British Ferrograph company. Some small number of decades ago it sold at auction for a lot less than a million dollars, which annoyed me considerably. It was an iconic piece of ART, I tell you.

  25. Here’s my take (focusing on rock music, because that’s my wheelhouse): mainstream rock sucks, that’s totally true. Bands like Imagine Dragons being touted as rock music is a disgrace.
    Below the surface of commercial success, however, there is a significant scene of bands and artists that blow previous generations out of the water in terms of mastery of their instruments and of music theory. Haken, Polyphia, Tesseract, Animals As Leaders, Guthrie Govan (who is touted as the best guitarist ever by reputable musicians) – these people can play, no doubt, and you cannot describe their music as “simpler, more repetitive and autotuned”.
    The problem I have with them is that among the whole crowd, they haven’t written a single *song* that I would want to listen to – and I grew up on 70s prog and early prog metal, so I am not averse to odd meters and dissonance, but I just can’t stomach the “riff salad” anymore.
    There have been a couple of proggish bands that focused on songwriting – Spock’s Beard, Flower Kings and Porcupine Tree among them – but to me, they often sounded like warmed-up, polished 70s leftovers.
    Maybe the design space of rock music that is both interesting and listenable has just been thoroughly explored by generations of gifted musicians, so there aren’t many new corners left to discover?

  26. How does today’s music distribution affect the popularity of great rock musicians? In other words, are the great musicians of today getting diluted by the vast catalog of music available to us today? I suppose it fits into PCCE’s premise that older music is killing newer to some extent.

    Today I get most of my music through Pandora and sometimes Spotify. In the past it was mostly friends and radio, greatly limiting the selection. The limited distribution channels of the past seems like it would focus on just a few artists, whereas today there is so much competition for ears that great musicians would have a difficult time rising to superstar popularity.

    Sure, you have uber popular personalities like Beyonce and Taylor Swift. But that seems more of a popularity contest than musical abilities. That is not to say they are not talented. Rather I am suggesting that their rise to fame is due to other factors than mere talent, such as stage drama and publicity.

    My playlist is full of contemporary musicians as well as 70’s greats. I love indie folk (Mumford and Sons, This is the Kit), electronica (Daft Punk, Röyksopp), as well as the classics (The Beatles, Led Zeppelin, Queen, etc.). There is so much great stuff out there. And when I break down my playlists by age, a large percentage of songs are by contemporary artists. When such artist come to town, they cannot fill a stadium like previous bands, but rather fill smaller, more intimate venues, which in my opinion is far superior listening experience.

    I am suggesting that perhaps the great artist of today, if the limited distribution channels were the same as year’s past, may be known to much wider audience.

  27. Old songs now represent 70 percent of the U.S. music market.

    If we assume recorded music started in around 1950 and we take the definition given that new music is less than two years old, if all the music was equally as good and everybody had catholic taste, old music would have 97% of the market and it would converge asymptotically to 100% as time goes by.

    I think what we are seeing is the democratisation of music. You no longer have to listen to the two or three hundred artists that the record companies deem to be worthy of pressing records for. Anybody with reasonable recording equipment can make music now and get it distributed on Spotify or Apple Music.

    There is good new music being produced and it is getting an audience, it’s just not breaking in to the traditional markets but the traditional markets are in decline.

    1. Agreed. If one uses the billboard charts as the criteria, sure things may suck now.
      But there are awesome musicians out there not topping the charts.

  28. One of my favorite music YouTubers, Rick Beato, makes the case that newer popular music has gotten BORING. Here he breaks down what this means in terms of the underlying structure of the music becoming simpler harmonically and rhythmically: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ks4c_A0Ach8. It gets a bit into the weeds in terms of the music theory, but I eat it up because I’m a musician. He does acknowledge the marketing incentives that have driven simplification of pop music, as does Gioia (whom he interviews in other videos), but the main focus here is on how the music itself has changed. (This video, by the way, is kind of rough because it was originally a live stream; most of his videos are tightly edited.)

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