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Is Old Music Killing New Music?

Ted Gioia joins to discuss the power of nostalgia in pop culture

Kate Bush - Peter’s Pop Show - 1985 Photo by ZIK Images/United Archives via Getty Images

Why does it seem like the old is eating the new in pop culture? This year, the song of the summer is arguably Kate Bush’s “Running Up That Hill”—which was released in 1985. It was launched by the most-watched global TV show of the summer, Stranger Things—an homage to the 1980s. In movies, the biggest hit of the season is Top Gun: Maverick—a sequel to the 1986 film. The ’80s was four decades ago!

The triumph of nostalgia and familiarity in culture is deeper than one summer. The five biggest movies of this year are the second Top Gun, the second Doctor Strange, the sixth Jurassic Park, the 14th Batman-related film, and the fifth Despicable Me. Amazing original films, like Everything Everywhere All at Once, show up here and there, but as far as slam-dunk blockbusters go, the last decade has suffered from a new-movie curse.

There’s a new-music curse, too. Total music consumption is rising across album sales, track purchases, and streaming. But consumption of new music is down. The entire growth in music is happening in so-called catalog music, or older songs.

What’s happening here? Today’s guest is Ted Gioia. We talk about his viral essay “Is Old Music Killing New Music?”, the dearth of young stars in Hollywood, and the rise of risk-aversion in American culture and business.

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Derek explains his argument that old music is killing new music, including how music listening and spending habits have changed over time.

Derek Thompson: So you wrote this viral article “Is Old Music Killing New Music?” I want to start right there. What was your argument?

Ted Gioia: It’s very interesting when you look at the numbers, because there’s a clear trend going on there. I find it a very disturbing trend because over time, more and more of the music consumption in the United States is tilting toward what they call “the catalog.” These are songs that are older than 18 months, but in fact, when you dig into it, it seems like in many ways these are songs that are older than 10, 20, 30 years. And everything seems to be converging here. The data now shows that more than 70 percent of the songs streamed are old songs. Just a few months ago it was more like 65, 66 percent, and so it’s inching up.

Adding on to that, you find that the biggest area of investment in music is publishing catalogs of older artists. And when I say older artists, I mean older artists, people older than me—now that’s seriously old when you get that. But we’re talking about musicians in their 80s, 70s, you have Bob Dylan or Paul Simon, people are snatching up these catalogs. In fact, they’re investing much more in the rights to old music than new music. That’s never been true before in the history of song, unless you go back to the medieval era. You go back 1,000 years you might find something similar. But right now it’s just off the charts, that’s what people want to invest in are the old songs.

And then finally, I’ll just add, anecdotally, wherever I go I hear old music. I go into a store and the people working in the store are all half my age, but they’re listening to the songs I grew up with. I go into a restaurant, the same thing. I asked this server, I said, “Why are you listening to old songs like these?” And she looked at me surprised, she said, “I like these songs.” I thought it was like the boss, I thought there was an octogenarian boss in the back room that was ordering this, but this is just everywhere. And now you see recently with these old songs coming back on the charts, you can’t deny it, the old music is squeezing out the new music.

Thompson: So listenership is tilting toward older music and investment is tilting toward older music, and I’m equally interested in both of these phenomena. Before we get into why this is happening, I’d love you to tell me how unique this moment is. Because I think casual fans have always underrated the importance of old music to the music business. It has always been true that catalogs were incredibly lucrative for the labels, and the same is true for other media by the way. On TV, reruns are lucrative. In the book industry, backlists are really lucrative: Like 9 trillion copies of The Great Gatsby and Catcher in the Rye have been sold in high schools. Like the Bible, for Pete’s sake. So do we have data in music from, like, the heyday of CDs or vinyl where we can point to that data and we can say, “Wow, new music really used to be a bigger deal, but now old is eating new”?

Gioia: The data is murky. I’ve tried to dig into getting information that is consistent over a period of decades, I have not been able to find that. But when you find the patches of information, you see it’s crystal clear that the music industry was built all around new songs for decades, and you could measure it a number of ways. You could see what was on display in a record store. You could listen to what they were playing on the radio. You could see what your buddies had when you went to their homes and looked through their record collection. You could see whose concerts were selling out. There was all this information out there. I wish I could synthesize it into some sort of chart of leading indicators, but that’s hard to do. And in fact, the music industry numbers are more difficult to understand now than ever before, because there was a day when they measured sales, but there are no sales now. When they tell you these are the bestselling songs in the country, they’re not actually talking about sales, they’re talking about people watching a video or whatever. So the data’s getting harder to track.

But I think it’s inescapable, particularly when you see studies year after year now coming from the same market research groups using the same methodology. So, for example, if old music was 67 percent of consumption last year, and this year it’s up to 72, 73 percent, you can’t really deny the numbers. But I’ll be honest, you try to measure them, they’re not good.

The other thing I’d love to be able to measure is how much money teenagers spend on music. I have searched for this data everywhere. But I know there was a time, I mean, going back to my day, you spent a sizable amount of your budget, or your allowance—I guess that was the word you use, your allowance—you might spend a third of your allowance on music. You’re buying up albums or whatever. And now I find, talking to teens, I am asking them, “Do you pay for a streaming subscription?” Usually they just piggyback on their parents’ subscription, and I’d love to be able to measure it. But I think if you found the actual numbers, you would see per capita spending on music of all sorts by younger people has collapsed.

This excerpt was lightly edited for clarity.

Host: Derek Thompson
Guest: Ted Gioia
Producer: Devon Manze

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