Is Old Music Killing New Music?
All the growth in the music business now comes from old songs—how did we get here, and is there a way back?
I had a hunch that old songs were taking over music streaming platforms—but even I was shocked when I saw the most recent numbers. According to MRC Data, old songs now represent 70% of the US music market.
Those who make a living from new music—especially that endangered species known as the working musician—have to look on 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.
Just consider these facts: the 200 most popular tracks now account for less than 5% of total streams. It was twice that rate just three years ago. And the mix of songs actually purchased by consumers is even more tilted to older music—the current list of most downloaded tracks on iTunes is filled with the names of bands from the last century, such as Creedence Clearwater and The Police.
I saw it myself last week at a retail store, where the youngster at the cash register was singing along with Sting on “Message in a Bottle” (a hit from 1979) as it blasted on the radio. A few days earlier, I had a similar experience at a local diner, where the entire staff was under thirty but every song more than forty years old. I asked my server: “Why are you playing this old music?” She looked at me in surprise before answering: “Oh, I like these songs.”
The reasons are complex—more than just the appeal of old tunes—but the end result is unmistakable: Never before in history have new tracks attained hit status while generating so little cultural impact. In fact, the audience seems to be embracing en masse the hits of decades past. Success was always short-lived in the music business, but now it hardly makes a ripple on the attention spans of the mass market.
A few hearty souls take solace in the fact that only songs released in the last 18 months get classified as new in the MRC database. But that’s cold comfort indeed. I doubt these old playlists consist of songs from the year before last—and even if they do, this still represents a stinging repudiation of the pop culture industry, which is almost entirely focused on what’s happening right now.
Every week I hear from hundreds of publicists, record labels, band managers, and other professionals who want to hype the newest new thing—for the simple reason that their livelihoods depend on it. The entire business model of the music industry is built on promoting new songs. As a music writer, I’m expected to do the same—as are radio stations, retailers, DJs, nightclub owners, editors, playlist curators, and everyone else with skin in the game. Yet all the evidence indicates that few are paying attention.
Just consider the recent reaction when the Grammy Awards were postponed. Perhaps I should say the lack of reaction—because the response was little more than a yawn. I follow thousands of music professionals on social media, and I didn’t encounter a single expression of annoyance or regret that the biggest annual event in new music had been put on hold.
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Can you imagine how angry fans would be if the Super Bowl or NBA Finals were delayed? People would riot in the streets. If they cancelled Carnival in Rio or even just Bloomsday in Dublin, I’d hear an outcry on social media. But the Grammy Awards go missing in action, and hardly anyone notices.
The declining TV audience for the Grammy show underscores this shift. In 2021, viewership for the Grammy Awards collapsed 53% from the previous year—from 18.7 million to 8.8 million. It was the least-watched Grammy broadcast of all time. Even the core audience for new music couldn’t be bothered—around 98% of people between the ages of 18 and 49 had something better to do than watch the biggest music celebration of the year.
A decade ago, 40 million people watched the Grammy Awards. That’s a meaningful audience, but now the devoted fans of this event are starting to resemble a tiny subculture. More people pay attention to streams of video games on Twitch (which now boasts 30 million daily visitors) or the latest reality TV show. In fact, musicians would probably do better getting placement in Fortnite than signing a record deal in 2022. At least they would have access to a growing demographic.
Some would like to believe this is just a short term blip, perhaps caused by the pandemic. When clubs open up again, and DJs start spinning new records at parties, the world will return to normal—or so we’re told. The hottest songs will again be the newest songs.
I’m not so optimistic.
A perfect storm has hit the music ecosystem. A series of unfortunate events are conspiring to marginalize new music. The pandemic is one of these ugly facts, but hardly the only contributor to the growing crisis.
Consider these other trends:
The hottest area of investment in the music business is old songs—with investment firms getting into bidding wars to buy publishing catalogs from aging rock and pop stars.
The song catalogs in most demand are by musicians in their 70s or 80s (Bob Dylan, Paul Simon, Bruce Springsteen, etc.)—if not already dead (David Bowie, James Brown, etc.).
Even major record labels are participating in the shift, with Universal Music, Sony Music, Warner Music, and others buying up publishing catalogs—investing huge sums in old tunes that, in an earlier day, would have been used to launch new artists.
The hottest technology in music is a format that is more than 70 years old, the vinyl LP. There’s no sign 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 & development to revitalize their businesses, 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 day, 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.
When a new song overcomes these obstacles and actually becomes a hit, the risk of copyright lawsuits is greater than ever before. The risks have increased enormously since the “Blurred Lines” jury decision of 2015—with the result that additional cash gets transferred from today’s musicians to old (or deceased) artists.
Adding to the nightmare, dead musicians are now coming back to life in virtual form—via holograms and deepfake music—making it all the harder for a young, living artist to compete in the marketplace
As record labels lose interest in new music, emerging performers desperately search for other ways of getting exposure. They hope to get their self-produced tracks on a curated streaming playlist, or license their songs for use in advertising or the closing credits of a TV show. But here’s the problem—these options might generate some royalty income, but do little to build name recognition.
You might hear a cool song on a TV commercial, but do you even know the name of the artist? You love your workout playlist at the health club, but how many song titles and band names do you remember? You stream a Spotify new music playlist in the background while you work, but did you bother to learn who’s singing the songs?
Decades ago, composer Erik Satie announced the arrival of ‘furniture music’—a kind of song that would blend seamlessly into the background of our lives. That seemed like a radical notion at the time, but this vision of the future is rapidly turning into the banal reality of today. And the lack of excitement among consumers is palpable.
Some people—especially baby boomers—tell me that this decline in 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.
Just take those old records off the shelf
I'll sit and listen to 'em by myself. . .
I can understand the frustrations of music lovers getting no satisfaction from the current songs, though they try and they try. I also lament the lack of imagination on many current hits. But I disagree with their larger verdict. I listen to 2-3 hours of new music every day, and I know that there are plenty of outstanding young musicians out there. The problem isn’t that they don’t exist, but that the music industry has lost its ability to discover and nurture their talents.
There are many reasons for this, some of them quite alarming. For example, the fear of copyright lawsuits has made many in the music 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.
That’s a bizarre situation, no? The people whose livelihood depends on discovering new musical talent face legal risks if they take their job seriously. And that’s only one of the deleterious results of the music industry’s over-reliance on lawyers and litigation—a hardass 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.
But the problem goes much 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 in the music business. 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? The radio stations will only play songs that fit the dominant formulas, which haven’t changed much in decades. That’s even more true for the algorithms curating so much of our new music—the 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.
Even the music genres famous for shaking up the world—rock or jazz or hip-hop—face this same deadening industry mindset. I love jazz, but many of the radio stations focused on that genre play songs that sound almost the same as what they featured ten or twenty years ago. In many instances, they actually are the same songs.
That doesn’t have to be the case. 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 very reason. The very boldness with which they embrace the future becomes the reason why they get rejected by the gatekeepers.
The same thing is happening everywhere. A country record needs to sound a certain way to get played on most country radio stations or playlists—and that sound dates back to the last century. And don’t even get me started on classical music, 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.
So the problem isn’t a lack of good new music. It’s an institutional failure to discover and nurture it.
I learned the danger of excessive caution long ago, when I consulted to huge Fortune 500 companies. The single biggest problem I encountered—shared by virtually every large company I analyzed—was investing too much of their time and money into defending old ways of doing business, rather than building new ones. We even had a proprietary tool for quantifying this misallocation of resources—which spelled out the mistakes in precise dollars and cents.
But senior management hated hearing this, and always insisted that defending the old business units was their safest bet. After I encountered this embedded mindset again and again and saw its consequences, I reached the painful conclusion that the safest path is often the most dangerous. If you pursue a strategy—whether in business or your personal life—that avoids all risk, you might flourish in the short run, but you flounder over the long term. Sad to say, that’s what now happening in the music business. Keep your head in the sand long enough, and you suffocate.
The leading companies in music had many chances to reinvent themselves over the last quarter century, taking bold action that might have transformed themselves and the entire culture. But they didn’t want to take any risks. They could have invested in new technologies—but didn’t, instead allowing Silicon Valley companies to swallow up most of the profits from music in the 21st century. They could have signed and nurtured new talent—but didn’t, preferring to invest in 50-year-old songs. They could have embraced exciting new sounds—but didn’t because the algorithms and dominant formulas reward rehashes of the old sounds.
Even so, I refuse to accept that we are in some ugly 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. Things can go viral nowadays without the entertainment industry even noticing until it has actually happened. And that will be how this story ends—not with the marginalization of new music, but with something radical emerging from an unexpected place.
In fact, that’s how all the apparent dead ends of the past were circumvented. Music company execs in 1955 had no idea that rock ‘n’ roll would soon sweep away everything in its wake. When Elvis took over the culture—coming from the poorest state in the US, lowly Mississippi—they were more shocked than anybody. And it happened again the following decade, with the arrival of the British Invasion from lowly Liverpool (again a working class city, unnoticed by the entertainment industry). And it took place again when hip-hop emerged from the Bronx and South Central and other impoverished neighborhoods, a true grass roots movement that didn’t give a damn how the close-minded CEOs of Sony or Universal Music viewed the marketplace.
And if we had the time, I would tell you that the same thing has always happened—with the troubadours of 11th century or Sappho and the lyric singers of ancient Greece or the artisan performers of the Middle Kingdom in ancient Egypt. Musical revolutions come from the bottom up, not the top down.
The CEOs are the last to know.
That’s what gives me solace. New music always arises in the least expected place, and when the power brokers aren’t even paying attention. And it will happen again just like that. It certainly needs to. Because the decision-makers controlling our music institutions have lost the thread. We’re lucky that the music is too powerful for them to kill.