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 History, The Jazz Standards: A Guide to the Repertoire, The 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.