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Why new music can't compete with old music

Older music crowding out new music. (Evrim Aydin/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)
Older music crowding out new music. (Evrim Aydin/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

When host Peter O’Dowd asked his 13-year-old daughter what songs are popular on TikTok right now, she responded with “Put Your Head On My Shoulder” by Paul Anka from 1959.

Music writer Ted Gioia has been talking about this old music trend. Everywhere he goes, he hears old songs from back in his day.

The other day, he heard a young clerk in a store singing “Message in a Bottle” by The Police from 1979. And while dining in a restaurant full of people younger than 30, he asked his server why the place was playing old songs.

“She looked at me in surprise and she said, ‘Well, I like this old music.’ And I think that’s true everywhere now,” he says. “But the question is, what’s happened to the new music?”

Older musicians like Bob Dylan, Stevie Nicks and Bruce Springsteen are selling the rights to their music for hundreds of millions of dollars. Big names like these have always been popular — but some research suggests the vast majority of new downloads today are songs that are at least two years old.

The market is rapidly shifting toward old music, he says: In the United States, 70% of music demand is for old songs and it’s increasing every year. And the top 200 most popular songs right now only account for 5% of total streams — and that small percentage has fallen by half over the last three years.

The pandemic-era drive for nostalgia and desire to return to the way things were has played a role in the shift, he says. Gioia hopes people start embracing new songs and styles when the pandemic ends but fears the trend might last.

That’s because the music industry prefers to invest in old songs rather than new talent, says Gioia, who writes the Substacks newsletter “The Honest Broker.”

In the last year, the music industry spent $5 billion buying the rights to old songs — but only a fraction of that went toward new artists, he says.

“This is more than just a pandemic or a short-term blip,” he says. “The whole music industry is moving us back more towards old music.”

Talented new artists like Billie Eilish and Olivia Rodrigo are making great music. As a music critic, Gioia listens to hours of new music and discovers exciting new artists all the time.

But it’s harder to find those artists now than ever before, he says. Now, a lot of the more interesting new songs are self-produced or come from indie labels.

The music industry works in a way that’s fundamentally different than in the past, he says. Algorithms create feedback loops that try to imitate and repeat what was previously successful.

“The music industry has become so conscious,” he says, “they feel the safest bet is the old song.”

Back in the day, the music industry made money selling albums and always needed a new one to see. But now, the money comes from streaming — and old songs make just as much as new songs, he says.

“[The music industry has] no incentive to develop new artists if they can convince you to listen to the same old Paul Anka songs or Elvis Presley or Bob Dylan songs over and over again,” he says. “That is just as profitable for them as new music.”

Gioia likes old songs as much as anyone, but he says it’s not good for the culture. Now, he says every month of the year feels like December.

“In December, we’re used to hearing the same holiday songs year after year, and they really don’t change,” he says. “Here’s the problem: Music is now like that in January, February, March, April, the whole year. Now we’re just listening to the same old songs over and over again.”

And Gioia points out that the bestselling movies and books are new.

“I really think that if we had more forward-looking leaders in the music business, this wouldn’t be happening,” he says. “But they’ve become very cautious as any old industry does, I guess.”

Elvis is one example of an artist who was radical when he first hit the scene. “Jailhouse Rock” was “a daring song to put on the radio back when Elvis first appeared,” he says.

But now, Elvis’s music comforts people, brings back nostalgia and reminds people of their parents or early life. The way people perceive him has changed, Gioia says.

“What I’m looking for is some new sound that shakes things up just the way Elvis did back in the day,” he says. “I’m hoping those days aren’t behind us forever.”


Devan Schwartz produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Chris BentleyAllison Hagan adapted it for the web.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

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