A couple of weeks back, MRC, the company that monitors music consumption, released a report for the U.S. that gave the entire recording industry a bad case of the vapours.
Of all the music Americans listen to, stream, and purchase, 70 per cent of it is considered “old” — that is, released more than 18 months ago. That’s 19 per cent higher than just a year ago. At the same time, current tunes saw a 3.7 per cent drop in listening.
Things played out even more dramatically in Canada. Our MRC report showed that across-the-board listening to new music decreased by a whopping 17.9 per cent from 2020. Meanwhile, time spent with older music was up 24 per cent. Even if we look at just streaming, a place traditionally inhabited by young people looking for today’s music, the decline was 5.3 per cent, the first such drop since MRC started monitoring streaming.
Frankly, this didn’t come as much of a surprise to me. Chatter among those who follow the fortunes of the Canadian recorded music industry has said the catalogue divisions have been killing it over the past couple of years. Old music has been generating the vast majority of revenue.
This may seem counterintuitive in a world where we constantly hear about the streaming glories of artists like Drake, The Weeknd, and Justin Bieber. New releases get all the attention and press. But the reality is the 200 most popular tracks are responsible for just five per cent of total streams.
Fewer people than ever seem to care about new music. This market is actually shrinking. What’s going on?
Plenty of industry pundits have weighed in, trying to explain the situation. Here’s a summary of what they’ve been saying along with a few of my own guesses.
1. Old music is just … better
Whenever I speak on music somewhere, the same question always comes up: “Why was music so much better when we were younger?”
My standard answer has been: “Every generation believes the music of their youth is the greatest music ever made. Young people, who drive the recorded music market and new music culture, want songs by their peers that articulate their wants, wishes, dreams, demands, desires, anger, fear, and attitudes. It’s always been this way and nothing will change in the future.”
In other words, we’re old now, so we’re not supposed to understand and feel music like we did when were young. It’s the circle of life, you know?
I may have to amend that opinion. Yes, there is some excellent new music being made and I still get a thrill out of discovering something new and cool. But people like me are increasingly in the minority.
As Bobby Owsinski writes at Hypebot:
“One of the things that drove music in the 1970s and ’80s was the search to be different. Artists and labels weren’t afraid to take chances, and as a result, we had such a wide variety of great music to choose from. There were no sub-genres of music (i.e. trip-hop, death metal, etc.) — it all fit under a big genre umbrella that no one really cared about. FM radio was at its peak and you tuned in because of the specific tastes of the DJ, who was free to spin whatever he or she liked. Today we’re all about niche, and even worse, algorithms that feed us more of the same thing that we just listened to rather than something totally new and different.”
Owsinski has a point, especially when it comes to the algorithms used by the streaming music platforms. Their goal is to maintain engagement by serving up more music that sounds like what the data says you already like. You get more and more of the same with little in the way of surprise. And data shows that when a surprise does somehow come up, listeners are awfully quick to hit the “skip” button lest they have to expend effort learning to like something new. Streaming is one big echo chamber.
2. Today’s songwriting is dull
Many of the songs in the Spotify Top 200 are written using a method called “toplining.” This means writing a song over a pre-made beat, one that is often purchased online. The best example is Old Town Road by Lil Nas X, which he composed over some beats and chords he bought online from a Dutch guy for $35. According to the musician-centric site Sonicbids, “In fact, if you’re an aspiring mainstream songwriter who wants to break into the industry, you will be doing toplines 95 percent of the time.”
In other words, technology has made songwriting easier than ever. And when something is easy, people tend to get lazy. No more spending years learning to master an instrument like a guitar or a piano. Instead, you just find a loop made by someone else and go from there using your laptop or an easy-to-program device called Ableton Live.
Writing this way also locks you into a certain energy level that continues throughout the song. There’s no opportunity to build tension and then release it in a glorious way that sends the brain into dopamine ecstasy. Think of the loud-quiet-loud-quiet-release dynamic of Nirvana’s Smells Like Teen Spirit.
The result? More of the same-same.
3. Today’s songwriters are afraid of being sued
Popular music has been around in its modern form for 70 years now, so it’s inevitable that we’ve seen repetition and unfortunate song coincidences that have unfortunately led to an unending parade of plagiarism lawsuits. Examples include Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams being sued because their Blurred Lines simply felt too much like Marvin Gaye’s 1977 hit, Got to Give It Up. It had different notes and lyrics, but because the feel — the groove of the song — was the same, Thicke and Williams had to pay millions in restitution.
Another example is Bruno Mars/Mark Ronson’s Uptown Funk. When it became a hit, they were served with several lawsuits, most notably by the composer of Oops Up Side Your Head, a 1979 single by The Gap Band.
Even if a composer independently discovers a melody, one that was first used 50 or 60 years ago, they can be on the hook for damages, even if they never, ever heard the original. It So maybe it’s best to write songs using the topline method with a mumbly rap instead of a melody.
4. Today’s record labels are afraid of being sued
In the olden days, talent scouts spent many late nights in smokey bars looking for new acts, wooing them, signing them, and then shepherding them through their first recordings. Such record people still exist, but there are precious few of them. Instead, labels employ people to troll YouTube, Instagram, and TikTok, looking for trends.
Acts still send in demos directly to labels, but some are wary of listening to them. What if another act on the label writes a song that happens to have sonic similarities to something on one of those demos? There have been a number of legal actions where an artist who sent in the demo claims that their song was subsequently stolen by an act already on the label. Perhaps it’s best not to listen to any demos in order to maintain plausible deniability. How many great talents are being missed because no one listened to the music they sent to a label?
5. The easy availability of old music
In the days before streaming, the only way to possess music was to purchase it at a record store. But even the biggest retailer might stock only 100,000 titles from across all eras and genres of music. Plus, the focus was on selling new records. Today, each of the streaming platforms offers something like 95 million tracks, which is close to the entirety of humanity’s recorded music, all of which are available instantly at any time. This has allowed people of all ages to explore more music than ever before.
When I teach a radio broadcasting class, one of the first things I do is ask the students to pull out their phones and recite the titles of the last 10 songs they listened to. A typical response is “The Weeknd, The Beatles, Cardi B, AC/DC, George Michael, Arcade Fire, The Clash, Justin Bieber, David Bowie, and Nirvana.”
So many of today’s young people are agnostic when it comes to the genre and era of their favourite music. All they care about are good songs. Why not listen to the best ever recorded?
And another thing: Today’s artists aren’t just competing with each other for the public’s attention like they did in the old days. They’re competing with practically every single song ever written. What are the chances of a new person writing a song equal to that of a Lennon/McCartney composition? It’s pretty darn hard when that original is there for the listening.
6. The increasing number of catalogue purchases
Over the last couple of years, a dozen or so deep-pocketed companies with names like Hipgnosis and Primary Wave have been engaging in a gold rush, buying up the publishing rights (and in some cases, the master recordings) of what are called “heritage artists.” These are singers and bands from the last 50 to 60 years who have written some of the most popular and enduring songs of all time. Now that they’re at the end of their careers, they’re looking to cash out by selling their life’s work for a massive lump sum.
Their motivations vary. They need the money. Estate planning. Tax reasons. A chance to engage in philanthropy or activism.
Once the deal is done, the purchaser has to find ways to unlock additional value in those songs not just to make their money back — more than US$5 billion has already been spent on these purchases — but to turn a profit for their investors. This means the lifespans of these classic songs will extend far, far longer — decades, even — than they otherwise would have. The purchasers are going to see to it that these songs are everywhere. Not just on the radio, in TV shows and commercials, and on movie soundtracks, but on new ways. TikTok. Peleton playlists and other fitness apps. Encouraging other artists to cover these songs. Merch deals. Licensing lyrics. Placement in video games. Official online music lessons.
On Thursday, Universal Music announced an expanded agreement with Twitch, a live-streaming platform that is owned by Amazon, saying that this will “foster new innovative opportunities for artists and labels to creatively and commercially engage with their fans and new audiences.”
Meanwhile, Warner Music Group is working with The Sandbox, another games platform, on a music-themed world of some sort. Yes, we have to think about the metaverse.
My fear is that these older songs will become so ubiquitous in popular culture in the years ahead that new music will take a back seat. The recorded music industry will put even less emphasis on developing and promoting new talent. Consumption of old music will continue to increase while interest in new music will decrease. And perhaps fewer young people will choose careers as musicians. I hope not, but …
Let me conclude on something positive. Music is forever going through trends and cycles. If you’re of a certain age, you might remember the early 1970s when there was a huge boom in nostalgia for the rock’n’roll of the 1950s. This gave us American Graffiti, Happy Days, Sha-Na-Na-Na, and even Elton John — one of the biggest stars of the era — releasing songs like Crocodile Rock. That was fun for some for a while but also distressing to others. “Rock is dead!” they wailed. “Music has run out of ideas! We’re doomed!”
But there was eventually a backlash, one that resulted in the punk rock explosion later in the decade. That turned out pretty cool, right?
Who knows? I’d like to believe a kid in a bedroom somewhere who has no idea that music is supposed to have “rules” and is about to discover something new, fresh, and amazing that will change the world once again. Let’s hope so.
Alan Cross is a broadcaster with Q107 and 102.1 the Edge and a commentator for Global News.