There’s a simple antidote to the endless circular “pop music was better in the old days” debate: actually listen to the songs. A new interactive tool lets you do just that. But warning: it may not be as pleasurable to turn back time as you think.

We all know how this goes – music used to be better, and then accelerating in the digital / Millennial-driven age of the past decade or so, it got much worse.

The problem is that your memory of pop music past is already filtered to what you like, whereas a listen of the current top pop hits isn’t. That means that when we recall the great music of the past, while we will invariably think of some chart-toppers, we’re also likely removing a bunch of stuff that didn’t stand the test of time.

Now, I can explain that, but it’s much easier to hear it. And an interactive Flash-based tool, calling on streaming music, does just that.

http://polygraph.cool/history/

There’s a little subtle editorializing by the creators. Apart from hoping this will shut you up about music in the old days, the player by default whisks you to 1997. That’s two decade ago – so if music has gotten steadily worse, it should be at least marginally better than what you’ve got now – but it takes you straight to Hansen’s “MMMbop.” No amount of 90s nostalgia is likely to help you forgive that number, or at least you can’t rank it terribly high as far as lyrical sophistication.

Some other trends are clear. Musical genre and instrumentation have changed – literally, pop music now is basically unrecognizable from pop music in 1958. The year I was born, 1978, is dominated by disco. The constant is change itself, if anything, more than it is something we might measure in quality. Loudness wars are real, too, but we might recall that this is partly the impact of corporate-owned radio trying to sound as loud as possible, combined with technological advancements in both processing and listening devices (for better or for worse).

Nor is any of this linear. Cue up 2015, and you’re treated to Mark Ronson’s “Uptown Funk!” – a clear stylistic throwback.

Another significant change is how much more dominant non-white and female artists are in recent music. It’s significant to note the impact of payola and out and out racism on the charts from decades past – another reason why I think, whatever musical merits they might have, complaints about today’s music need to be judged with some suspicion.

Even having made these arguments before, though, I’m struck listening by how much unremarkable music is on the older charts. Some stuff is simply terrible; other tracks are fine but dated or bland. Musical quality may not always progress, and no one who believes in independent taste is going to celebrate the commercial music industry to begin with. But one thing we do have is some benefit of distance in judging music.

Oh, and by the way, I also find that even as I’ve defended recent pop, the pop music on charts from the past few years is often actually pretty darn good. It’s louder, it’s more digital, to be sure – but it also shows some bravery in production and sound and there’s some good writing. Basically, whatever the year, pop charts have some cheese and some substance, and you have to do your own filtering. But isn’t that what you’d expect in a mass media popularity contest? Wouldn’t you expect that sometimes the masses do latch on to things you’d like some of the time, and at other times don’t?

Sure enough, the folks at Polygraph have other experiments hooking into Spotify and so on that explore these issues.

Most significant is a set of charts that compares chart performance from when a track was released to its play count on Spotify today. Some of those results are puzzling – I’m not sure why Spotify fans prefer the Bee Gees over Gloria Gaynor, exactly. Others are telling: Nirvana’s “Smells like teen spirit” is simply a lot more popular than it was when it came out.

And, as usual, looking at the Spotify results – there’s no accounting for taste.

screenshot_363

http://poly-graph.co/timeless/

And these tools should tell you the other fundamental difference between Now and Then: now we have a lot more data. We have actual listening data, thanks to streaming, and not only sales. We have the ability to instantly listen to any song, ever – as this tool demonstrates. And I think we have so much data, in fact, that it’s almost impossible to predict what the impact of data will be on the business.

Tony Visconti got a little worked up at this year’s South by Southwest, fashioning a dystopian science fiction story:

Taking place 10 years in the future, the story revolves around a senior A&R expert at the planet’s only remaining major record label. (It’s called The Universe.) Businesspeople around the world sync their schedules by taking drugs that block their circadian rhythms, letting them control their sleep schedules; the label releases just one single a week, recorded by the winner of a lottery and crafted by the label’s employees. The A&R employee spends entire days listening to Jimi Hendrix records and dreaming of the good ol’ days. When he begs his boss to sign a talented street musician, he’s told signing artists based on talent is too risky. Distraught, the employee commits suicide by leaping from the balcony of his Sydney condo. Visconti started getting choked up as he read the story’s final lines.

David Bowie’s producer is terrified by the music industry’s ‘downward spiral’ [The Verge]

While I have indescribable respect for the man, it seems while he may think he’s some sort of combination of Philip K Dick and Arthur Miller … he should possibly stick to the music business.

It’s unclear how much real input Mr. Visconti has for this vision. For one thing, even his story is revealing – it’s fully rooted in the old music business, since it ignores the fact that recording and releasing and even promoting music now takes far less risk than it once did. It may get the big pop side of the equation right, but it ignores plenty of other trends. And no matter how talented he may be, Visconti lacks a certain humility in failing to recognize the fact that his own evaluation is effectively self-centered on the model of his own career. (Well, they did ask him to speak, so he’s certainly entitled to that perspective – and we should listen – but we should also assume it won’t paint a complete picture. Or produce great sci-fi.)

The real question I have: with access to data like Spotify’s, how long will something like a Billboard chart – or even the pop moniker – remain relevant? Is it great pop music that’s endangered, or old-fashioned charts? My money is on the latter. In the meantime, we’ll keep listening.

Oh, and the one thing that is definitely dead? Your productivity. Now that you have those links. Sorry. (Yes, what will kill music will actually be interesting interactive infographics, because we’ll all fail to get work done. I need some of those circadian-rhythm destroying drugs about now.)

Previous rant on the topic:
Music is getting worse, unless, of course, it isn’t

  • B.C. Thunderthud

    First of all, MMMbop is a great pop song, full-stop. I definitely agree that time filters out much of the mediocre music of the past and things are never as bad today as this age-old argument suggests.

    However, I would say a couple of things are true; first in today’s environment the songs that manage to become ubiquitous are less diverse, the business is dominated by a few huge multi-nationals and even by a fairly small number of prominent songwriters and producers. Second, that stylistically, evolution slowed to crawl a long time ago. If you look at any three or four year period in the 1960s pop music changed more drastically than it has in the last 25 years, e.g., MMMbop is very much in the mold of the Jackson 5 or the Osmonds, sure they added some record scratches but that’s about the level of innovation we’ve gotten in the modern age. I would argue that the last new major genre to emerge was techno, 30 years ago. Drum & Bass maybe as a sub-genre, but in general we’ve been iterating cycles of revival for two or three generations. Kanye is considered a genius for ripping off late-90s IDM. It’s not absurd to say that the experience of the casual listener is impoverished relative to other times in the not-so-distant past.

    • NRGuest

      Let’s be fair though, has there really been anything truly new in music since the 90’s? I think the problem comes more from the appropriation of these genres into pop than the lack of musical innovation.

      If these pop artists weren’t hailed as innovators, and people properly acknowledged their debt to past genres and artists, I think a lot of us pop-haters would have far less of a problem with it.

  • Graham Metcalfe

    “The year I was born, 1978, is dominated by disco.” Well, maybe not (at least in terms of disco). The top selling albums in that year were by Steve Miller Band, VanHalen and the soundtrack to Grease. I was in college then, and I can pretty much attest that disco was popular as a dance genre, but everyone was listening to Fleetwood Mac, Lynard Skynard, Steve Miller, etc. For those of us who were Prog fans things were still cooking with Genesis, Yes, Pink Floyd and ELP (not to mention some of the more obscure Prog bands like PFM, Nektar, etc). So I think people and the media perceive that disco was king in the 70’s, it’s just not true.

    • foljs

      He meant that Disco was king in the places that mattered, e.g. New York.

      • Lindon Parker

        Oh yes how silly of me ….LOL

    • Lindon Parker

      1978? Well yes disco was BIG but so was Punk

    • I remember 1978 and it was clearly WAR between the the Disco Sucks “Rock and Rollers” and Dance Music (Disco Fans). I was big into the Prog Bands mentioned above but it was getting stale and Disco was FUN! Steve Miller Etc may have been popular but at the school dances, Quinces and Sweet Sixteens (and I assume Bar/Bat Mitzvahs) the “Saturday Night Fever” soundtrack was king. (I lived outside Washington DC and later Miami). A few weeks ago I was at a Bat Mitzvah, and it was lot a dance remixes of Pop tunes, but I remember very clearly when the DJ Dropped a sick Skrillex “Monsters and Sprites” remix All the boys (who’s dancing was forced and lacklustre at best) Suddenly, collectively lost their minds, (and limb control) and then party really got started. However you never hear Skrillex on the Radio here in Miami unless it’s on the college station or that Justin Beiber Jack/U song)

      FWIW: I have two teenage daughters and listen to pop music on the Daily, I have never been a “pop” music fan (outside Disco in the 70’s) but have come to have an appreciation for modern pop, It’s not that bad really. (But it will be a frosty peppermint patty day in Hell before I willingly listen to Kanye or Drake)

      • Graham Metcalfe

        The musical tastes are always pretty situational. I was in college when disco started getting big, so I can’t speak to what they were doing at a younger age. I’m a west-coaster and spent a number of evenings at Dylan’s in Westwood (they even had the quintessential lit floor in one of the areas). But outside of a dance venue only a few people listened to disco “recreationally.” And yeah I do remember “DISCO SUCKS!” but it was great to dance to. Anyway…it’s just modified funk for a pop audience. BTW…early Kanye is pretty good (1st album or two).

        • I’ll buy into that, outside of WKYS (the Disco Station in DC) I pretty much rejected Pop Radio and listened to Prog rock Yes, Genesis(Pre Phil Collins Vocals), Tangerine Dream type stuff and believe or not, the Sex Pistols. (Yeah wrap your head around that- 3 Genres that are “Triametrically” opposed. I guess I don’t like to be put in a box.

  • Will

    So great! I seem to get into an argument, er discussion, once a year where I try to make your ‘you have already filtered the past’ point. Now there’s data. 🙂

    Total sidebar but I’m with B.C.—MMMbop is exactly what a sugary pop song should be. Speaking of filters, you may have to dust them off a bit to remember the radio environment that song surfaced in: a constant shitstorm of “yerh” fake emo I’m-so-earnest-it-hurts “alternative” to nothing horrors produced by Yerh bands that were copying other Yerh bands who were copying the Stone Temple Pilots (who were copying Pearl Jam). It was an awful time for radio. I remember MMMBop as a total breath of fresh air—a bunch of dorky midwest kids actually being earnest in their silliness.

  • NRGuest

    It seemed like there was a lot of movement until 2009, at which point the movement just slowed down a lot. I wonder if that’s part of the perception that things are more homogeneous now?

    Also, the little internet anomaly of “the Harlem Shake” was pretty amusing. I don’t think any other song had the same movement pattern it did, I wonder if that will become more typical in the future?

  • Holmes

    I respectfully disagree with the optimistic view of the music in this article. No amount of talk about how it’s filtered, what’s making it to spots of popularity and so on can really wash over the apparent truth that you can sense. It still just remains, music, in general but especially all branches of ‘pop’ music, quite unfortunately just isn’t as good as it used to be. I’m actually starting to suspect that a lot of people don’t even really know what good music even is.

    Let’s spell it right out – music now just doesn’t have as much Feel or groove (whether that’s funk, relaxed, groovy, tight or whatever), expressivity isn’t as deep, doesn’t show as much musical command, understanding and mastery, isn’t as soulful or imaginative, isn’t as inventive and on and on. And I don’t think it’s just an illusion to refer to the music of 60s and 70s say as a sort of golden era. There just seemed to be lots of real talent around in all different styles. It seemed that musical competition was fierce and people practiced a lot, jammed out a lot, were really aware of how things were feeling, whether it was happening or not. And the resultant content was deep, full of life and soul, with spine-tingling magic like qualities. The music changed and developed, in the 50s there were different styles of jazz, in the 60s and 70s – rock and funk, electronic styles in 80s/90s. There have been no real musical shifts for decades now.

    It seems to me that a whole few generations of people, the young people, have completely dropped the ball when it comes to music, with a seemingly arrogant lack of reverence for the musical history. The whole pop music scene for example, seems full of posers and fakers with no real talent to behold, even the ones that are being claimed to have it. Where are the current say: Jimi Hendrix, James Brown, Joni Mitchell, Miles Davis, Beatles, Pink Floyd, etc., and now sadly my mentor, Prince, of the day. Checking their smart-phones? Not practicing enough. Busy making statements as to how impressed they are with such and such ‘icon’ or ‘legend’ in an attempt to lend themselves some credibility, when it’s plain to hear that they haven’t the foggiest idea of what made them great.

    I’m starting to see now why he felt the need to go on about the ‘real music by real musicians’ mantra. It seemed obvious that people generally weren’t digging and doing their homework, drilling stuff down, making sure it was really happening. The rhythms of current stuff is too straight, melodies lack a lilt or phrasing and are too on the grid. I think there is a way to learn music properly, having reverence for past traditions, internalize the feels and then move on and develop into something new. But this new stuff really just feels like music made by people that aren’t really musical, people that can’t really sing or play and so on. Hopefully it’ll all turn around and people will start realizing what’s missing and what needs to happen. ‘It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing’ (no, not the swing quantize function).

    • wesen3000

      You might enjoy the “beat scene” (not the best name, right…):

      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ek2-5UUnl9w

      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J-Y-ToHlxLQ

    • gawddad

      ok dad

    • nothingnatural

      This article from the Seattle Weekly (Oct 2006) comes to mind when I read the discussion that is coming out of this CDM post and the one from a few months ago. From the article:

      The basic DNA of popular-music criticism came from the people who wrote for Rolling Stone and Creem in the ’60s and ’70s. They were the first to write about pop interestingly and at length; they loved rock of that pop-historical moment’s Beatles/Stones/Dylan school more than anything else; and their language and perspective and taste have been internalized by pretty much everybody who’s followed them, even people who’ve never actually read their stuff. That’s the foundation for our house.

      And this is the reason I never have much use for most music journalism, whether professionally delivered through media or from amateurs at work, at parties, and on the internet. It’s subject to a pervasive value system that elevates one particular set of attributes– complexity, obscurity, perceived authenticity, and longevity– over another set– immediacy and familiarity, simplicity, utility– which results in an unbearable self-important “authorities” judging current popular music against the early output (it’s never their recent work) of dead or much-aged artists. It could be pop, it could be jazz, it could be rap, it could be techno… for all of these genres, the golden eras were never that golden at the time, and the idea that it was a cohesive era of high artistry is a myth you’ve been sold years after the fact by marketing departments and music critics.

      I wrote this on my iPhone while listening to Beyonce’s latest.

      ETA: Ann Powers of NPR Music has a thoughtful discussion about this very topic going on over at her Facebook page, featuring various other music journalists.

      • wesen3000

        thanks for those links

    • G. Polya

      There’s more technical skill and “talent” than ever before. Every city has a guitarist, or five that can play all of Hendrix, Joni Mitchell, Beatles, Pink Floyd and James Brown. In comparison, each of those artists only had to play their own music. Stars have no trouble assembling touring bands or getting session musicians for specific projects. However, the general public is largely uninterested for music for musics sake.

      • Holmes

        Yes, that’s a good point, there are still loads of musicians around with skill and talent. I’m one of them. Of course whether said musicians are able to pull it off as well as originators such as Hendrix is still debatable. It’s one thing to be able to merely play it, but how you play it is what matters, the musicality, feeling, spirituality.

        But anyway, the more interesting angle on that point is that those people: the musicians, the heads, used to actually be the ones in these big time spots of ‘popular’ music (to keep within the context of this article being discussed). The charts were full of people that were actually really good at what they did, that had a special thing going on, that had messages they wanted to spread. And the music could be full of feeling, good vibes and very deep indeed. Of course the scene wasn’t uniform, but I think there was a lot of good stuff. Now, it just seems quite strange as the big-timer music scene and pop music stars seem very geeky, lacking in raw talent or ability, having vacuous mentalities, immature, dry cynical vibe and so on. It’s like seeing a bad mickey mouse high school talent show or something, like there are no cool people left in popular music.

        And again, the lack of reverence that seems apparent shows a real underestimation on the part of said young stars as to how great the earlier music really was, as if they’re really just dealing with music on a very superficial level, like ‘oh yeah, i get it, you just do that and then you do this…’ And that’s partly why the music tends to not be very deep, profound, or transcendental. To address one of the other posts here, that doesn’t necessarily mean something technical or complex (although I don’t think it hurts for people to actually know what they’re doing, e.g. don’t be lazy and learn your theory and technique).

        As for your last point, ‘the general public is largely uninterested in music…’. Well, the fact that you even said that is telling, but it is what I’ve suspected. I think music is on the back burner so to speak, and the attention and focus is skewed and largely superficial. There’s too much noise and distraction. Hopefully, some kind of change of collective consciousness will happen and a there’ll be a sort of renewed revival. I’d say what I think might help but it’s taboo.

  • Holmes

    I respectfully disagree with the optimistic view of the music in this article. No amount of talk about how it’s filtered, what’s making it to spots of popularity and so on can really wash over the apparent truth that you can sense. It still just remains, music, in general but especially all branches of ‘pop’ music, quite unfortunately just isn’t as good as it used to be. I’m actually starting to suspect that a lot of people don’t even really know what good music even is.

    Let’s spell it right out – music now just doesn’t have as much Feel or groove (whether that’s funk, relaxed, groovy, tight or whatever), expressivity isn’t as deep, doesn’t show as much musical command, understanding and mastery, isn’t as soulful or imaginative, isn’t as inventive and on and on. And I don’t think it’s just an illusion to refer to the music of 60s and 70s say as a sort of golden era. There just seemed to be lots of real talent around in all different styles. It seemed that musical competition was fierce and people practiced a lot, jammed out a lot, were really aware of how things were feeling, whether it was happening or not. And the resultant content was deep, full of life and soul, with spine-tingling magic like qualities. The music changed and developed, in the 50s there were different styles of jazz, in the 60s and 70s – rock and funk, electronic styles in 80s/90s. There have been no real musical shifts for decades now.

    It seems to me that a whole few generations of people, the young people, have completely dropped the ball when it comes to music, with a seemingly arrogant lack of reverence for the musical history. The whole pop music scene for example, seems full of posers and fakers with no real talent to behold, even the ones that are being claimed to have it. Where are the current say: Jimi Hendrix, James Brown, Joni Mitchell, Miles Davis, Beatles, Pink Floyd, etc., and now sadly my mentor, Prince, of the day. Checking their smart-phones? Not practicing enough. Busy making statements as to how impressed they are with such and such ‘icon’ or ‘legend’ in an attempt to lend themselves some credibility, when it’s plain to hear that they haven’t the foggiest idea of what made them great.

    I’m starting to see now why he felt the need to go on about the ‘real music by real musicians’ mantra. It seemed obvious that people generally weren’t digging and doing their homework, drilling stuff down, making sure it was really happening. The rhythms of current stuff is too straight, melodies lack a lilt or phrasing and are too on the grid. I think there is a way to learn music properly, having reverence for past traditions, internalize the feels and then move on and develop into something new. But this new stuff really just feels like music made by people that aren’t really musical, people that can’t really sing or play and so on. Hopefully it’ll all turn around and people will start realizing what’s missing and what needs to happen. ‘It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing’ (no, not the swing quantize function).

  • Brent Williams

    I have to agree with Holmes, below, to some point, though it makes us both sound old and out of touch. Sure, you can write a song with only a laptop and no knowledge of how to play any instrument, but nine times out of ten it is the time spent learning a craft that shines through into a great tune, not the luck of hitting upon a few good notes in a sequence.

    Kind of like a Liberal Arts Education: pretty worthless, unless you want to have interesting conversations and understand why things are happening around you.

    I do see a situation in which the laptop IS the instrument, but the same amount of time, in both study and practice, needs to be put in, in order for the analogy to stand.

    • Random Chance

      Then there’s also an amount of luck in with what gifts you were born and in what neighbourhood to which parents, how you were treated at school, what intellectual and emotional influences you were exposed to and so on. You don’t need a liberal arts education (or any formal education) to have interesting conversations or understand the world around you. A formal education might even hinder you and weigh you down because you cannot think (warning, tired cliche ahead) outside the box which is easier if you don’t have so many boxes to begin with.

      But I’ll agree that in my experience you can have more meaningful conversations with people who have higher eduction. On the other hand, I’ve had many dissatisfying conversations with such people because I found them shallow even in their own field of expertise. Which agrees with my final point that it’s more a function of how you are. Same with music: If you have some level of knowledge or ability you will notice other things in music than the rest of the people.

    • foljs

      “””I have to agree with Holmes, below, to some point, though it makes us both sound old and out of touch. Sure, you can write a song with only a laptop and no knowledge of how to play any instrument, but nine times out of ten it is the time spent learning a craft that shines through into a great tune, not the luck of hitting upon a few good notes in a sequence.”””

      Historically the best pop/rock songs have been written by people who were inferior in musical knowledge and technical dexterity.

      Dylan could hardly strum, the Beatles were master of no instrument they played, the Stones were mediocre musicians, all the way to the Kraftwerk, Aphex Twin and so on…

      Where are all those gems from master musicians?

      • Brent Williams

        You are right, foljs. There is often honestly, ingenuity and freshness to be found in an instrument wielded by an amateur.

        Those qualities don’t *exactly* carry over into electronic instruments, but I take your point.

        Though the artists you mention may lack technical virtuosity, I hesitate to call any of them amateurs. Proficient at their instruments, every one. Songwriting is the real skill at work there, and I agree you don’t need an instrument to gain it.

        “Where are all those gems from master musicians?”
        I think you bring up a very interesting bit, there. I tend to agree that virtuosos and great pop tunes don’t often go together. Have I ever bought a Malmsteen or Vai record? No. Worth examining.

        Look, I just contradicted my own point! Oh, well. It’s only the internet.

      • Elekb

        I wouldn’t say that is the “rule” in pop music. Jimi Hendrix was a master of his guitar and crafted quite a few gems of pop music that get played everywhere to this day.

        David Bowie was arguably a master of his instrument as well (voice), and a master songwriter, as well as a competent (not brilliant) instrumentalist (guitar, piano, sax). Bjork would also fall into this category – she has clearly mastered singing, songwriting, and electronic music arrangement and production; and although she clearly is not a good “traditional” instrumentalist, i’m sure she had at least some proper music training and harmony / piano lessons while growing up. If you look hard enough you’ll find more examples.

  • the role of machines I find rather interesting. I was born in 1968. it was still considered that people playing was what made the music. we felt that the ego of the musician was important. to play well. capture a performance. then came the multi track, then came computers. nowadays we listen to machines which are programmed. and we think they need to be programmed by humans, ego, but that’s another thing that will be something of the past. a lot of music is a matter of choosing presets. for drumpatterns, but also for effects. and we tend to think it’s all about us, the editor, us the composers, but it’s not. I am sure we go to something that it fully automated. sort of random music based on stuff you like. auto composition. because, let’s face it: music is not about the ego of the musician or the ego of the composer. music, like all art, like all work, will be automated one day. and sure, humans will still be needed, but that’s probably the listener who can design what he would love to hear. preset stuff. we store all the things we love from the past into presets. like instagram filters. easy.

  • VR is a good example. using VR any user creates his own experience. what about VR music? soon I believe!

    • foljs

      “””any user creates his own experience”””

      Yes, the ultimate art form of the future would be solipsism and/or masturbation.

  • Guest

    Back in the day, we had way better charts. Nothing like today’s newfangled charts.

  • lala

    Culture got got a lot more diverse since mr. Visconti was hip.
    The time of the superstar is over.
    There is no new Michael Jackson or David Bowie that every child on the planet knows,
    Not sure if this is good or bad, we’ll see.

  • Elekb

    “It’s unclear how much real input Mr. Visconti has for this vision. For
    one thing, even his story is revealing – it’s fully rooted in the old
    music business, since it ignores the fact that recording and releasing
    and even promoting music now takes far less risk than it once did. It
    may get the big pop side of the equation right, but it ignores plenty of
    other trends.”

    No.

    While releasing music costs next to zero (just add your track to the millions of soundcloud tracks already out there), recording costs, while they have gone down, are still considerable if you are not a bedroom computer music enthusiast. While a lot can be done at home, it’s hard to capture a band or an orchestra’s performance in a bedroom studio.

    Promoting is increasingly difficult now that there is a deluge of trash in the Internet drowning out new talent, and only major league players usually have the clout – and money – to navigate the media (digital or otherwise) and shine a light on a new performer. New artists rarely have money to pay an agent or PR person to get the message across in the various media.

    Also, considering that apparently nobody has to pay for music these days (until someone decides to force search engines to actually comply with law – see Prince), labels (even smaller, independent ones) are increasingly wary of investing on new artists, particularly those that appeal to niche or less popular genres, and this is something I can attest to at an anecdotal level. A situation which forces musicians to spend time, effort and money on promotion, PR, media-chasing, bureaucracy,
    non-musical production and logistics, and concert booking, while still juggling with part-time jobs to put food on the table and waste energy that should be spent on their actual work.

    Was the old system fair? Of course not. But at least there was *a system* and you knew what you could count on and what you were up against, one that sometimes enabled support for independents and also allowed some creative element of surprise even in the mass media pop music millieu.

    As for whether music has gotten worse, that’s totally subjective as always. Although I intensely dislike the Auto-Tune riddled, standardised and quantised homogeneity of current pop and electronic dance music, I’ve had the experience of re-listening to past hits of old and discovering rose-coloured glasses I was not aware of wearing. You links will just make the experience even more enjoyably embarrassing, I guess. Thanks for the heads up. But I still disagree with you.

    • Freeks

      “While releasing music costs next to zero (just add your track to the millions of soundcloud tracks already out there), recording costs, while they have gone down, are still considerable if you are not a bedroom computer music enthusiast. While a lot can be done at home, it’s hard to capture a band or an orchestra’s performance in a bedroom studio.”

      Well, i for one, own professional recording studio. Built in 2000 and there was a lot of major label records done. Now it’s different. It’s only for peoples own records. There is several producers recording bands in high quality from cheap to free. World is full of these studios. Making self released records is so cheap that any band can do it.

      And for orchestra’s. Really, how many records even use full orchestral sounds? Ensembles can be recorded in any proper studio.

      Promoting have been hard always. No change there. But that don’t stop people from releasing good records. Everybody understands that most likely nobody will buy/hear your record. And that don’t stop people. People who complain are the ones who have lost their income. Bands never had any proper income and i rather work for free for bands i like than some crap for Universal.

      • Elekb

        “Now it’s different. It’s only for peoples own records.” Yes, because there is no more investment due to piracy and market constraints.

        “Making self released records is so cheap that any band can do it.” define cheap – unless you are just using a mic for vocals and doing everything else in a bedroom studio with a PC and a MIDI keyboard, it’s never actually cheap to make a professionally-sounding recording, AFAIK. Recording drums, guitars, mixing, mastering… Last album one of my bands self-released cost a small fortune on studio time and mastering / post-production.

        “Really, how many records even use full orchestral sounds? Ensembles can be recorded in any proper studio.” Clarification: besides orchestras I also meant any musical ensemble with more than half a dozen people (larger rock bands like Arcade Fire types, jazz big bands, etc.). There’s still some of those around. Actually, these production constraints limit the kinds of music being made. If there are no studios for proper, live performance-in-studio recording of larger ensembles, you’re left with Frankenstein records: musicians recording solo and having their performance stitched onto other recordings or pre-packaged loops. Maybe one of the driving reasons for too much homogeneity in pop/rock music these days. Also, yes, there are still some orchestras left for the time being. And yes, I often notice when soundtracks have been recorded with mechanical digital samples.

        “People who complain are the ones who have lost their income.” Well, yes. I tend to get annoyed when people use my services on a daily basis (i.e. listening to my music) and feel entitled to not pay me for my work, causing me to lose a small, but no negligible part of my income. But maybe that’s just me.

        “There is several producers recording bands in high quality from cheap to free. ” Please introduce me to them.

        “i rather work for free for bands i like than some crap for Universal.” If *you* enjoy working pro bono, fine – it’s *your* individual decision and I praise you for it. It’s commendable and I also do it on occasion, usually after I’ve managed to pay my bills.

  • Elekb

    I also think current pop hits sound worse (compression and loudness wars, digitalised vocals, overuse of electronic loops and sequencing, etc.) and have much simpler and dumbed-down musical structures, but I don’t think the downward shift is that apocalyptic yet. Having said that, I do feel that those “era-defining” pop hits are becoming harder and harder to come by, but I can’t pin down all the reasons, apart from market issues. I think another major difference we notice now, as some commenters have
    pointed out, is the lack of figures like Bowie or Prince that serve as
    “guiding lights” for the pop world.

    As for Hanson – I never did understand why they still get so much vitriol. Sure “MmmBop” is a bit of an mindless tune, but it’s also an effective and catchy pop song. And even during the 90’s some of the stuff being played on the radio was probably even worse – euro-technopop hit “I’m a Barbie Girl” comes to mind. Oh well.

  • N

    You write somewhere that “In the meantime, we’ll keep listening”.

    That’s the problem though: Hardly anyone listens today. And I mean outside of a limited number of music nerds (sure those exist, but there are also people also who buy vinyl or listen to Enrico Caruso. That doesn’t mean that either will be making a comeback in any meaningful way).

    When people say “pop music was better in the old days” I find it too narrow to focus on whether individual songs were better or worse.

    Pop (rock, etc.) music was not just about the songs, but about the community — the connection people got from others listening to the same stuff, and the whole thing being a big discussion.

    This has all but been minimized, with the explosion in 1000 microgenres and “everybody is an artist now” ease of release. Yes, everybody is an artist, but they are now “only famous to 15 people” (as Momus once said) rather than “only famous for fifteen minutes” (as Warhol said). And music loses a large part of the potency (cultural and communal) it had when half the nation listened to the same song. Today can have a #1 hit and 8 out of people not even having heard it, much less know the lyrics. Back then you couldn’t escape it.

    Plus, pop music and its world back in the day had a special allure to young people, if not for anything else, for the fact that not much else was going on. For someone in Alabama or Luxemburg pop music was a window into another special world.

    Now there’s cable and 100s of channels, YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, mobile apps, Snapchat, Instagram, gaming and more (plus half of the movies are made specially for 16 year olds or 35 year olds with the interests of 16 year olds, e.g. Batman, Avengers and co). So pop music takes nth place, not mere second.

    • PaulDavisTheFirst

      This is almost backwards.

      How many songs/videos are now on YT with 10’s of millions of views that would never have gotten close to that in the 60′-00’s era?

      Almost everyone carrying a smartphone with them now has more access to their own/streamed/web-accessible music than ever before. Music can be the accompaniment to almost anything you do in life, for very little cost and extremely little effort.

      People who are deeply into music (like most of us who read CDM) tend to forget how unusual we are, and how even in the supposed heyday(s?) of music, we were still unusual back then too. Noting that most people today don’t put music listening high on their list of time priorities really doesn’t say much at all – that’s been true ever since the advent of recorded or even broadcast music.

    • Polite Society

      Yeah, you just have to look at the number of people listening to music on public transport these days compared with 10 years ago. I used to be the only person, now, the people without headphones are the minority.

  • Thomas Piper

    Non- white can you be more specific LOL. Don’t Erase Us ( Say Erase us fast LOL)

    • Edit• Reply•

  • Freeks

    Mmmbop was produced (even written by?) by The Dust Brothers. Imo one of the best american producer groups 😉

  • aaron

    Top 5 charts don’t reflect shit about a culture or generation. Maybe abit more so now (when you look who’s topping the charts its almost all teen/20something music as oppossed to many light & easy or movie hits). How clear is it to see the charts didn’t reflect the 90s for example. How many grunge bands you see in the top 5? “Electronica”? Punk / Ska?, Rap? Etc.. Exactly, a small minority. What The site does, it does well, but its just historical top of the chart information and nothing else. You’re extrapolating and positioning a conversation into topic where it doesn’t fit.

    Just because alot of mom’s and kids bought the Lion King single or a bunch of dads bought the newest Phil Collins radio hit, doesn’t mean it reflects the generation of the time. You have to look at what was actually doing well en masse / cluster, not on 1 by 1 sampling of a top 5.

    The site is cool but it has nothing for and can do nothing for the topic you’re trying to pour on about for no reason other than anti-age-hipster-not-everything-sucks-in-younger-generations-you’re-just-old preaching.

    Bleh.

  • Matt Jackson

    Holy crap! 86 I think every sing top 1 song is made with a DX7!!!