Tuesday, 26 May 2015

War at 33 and a Third

There has been some major popular music news. The headline: people stop listening to new music at 33. At this age they no longer make an effort to keep up with popular music. They retreat, instead, to the music of their youth. Although the data behind this revelation is American in origin, the story has been reported globally. It has been covered everywhere from Fox News to the NME.
            It has also been subject to some criticism, mostly from older listeners who are claiming they are still hip. Among them is the Guardian’s Tim Byron, who is one of the few journalists to address the source of this news story. It’s not that hard to find: the data comes from a blogpost by Ajay Kalia, who is the ‘taste profiles product owner’ for Spotify. Kalia has analysed these taste profiles – the personal data of Spotify users – to find out which artists each user is listening to and how often they are hearing them. He has then coupled this data with each artist’s popularity ranking, as determined by the Echo Nest. At present, according to their ‘hotttnesss’ rating, Taylor Swift is the most popular artist in America. Finally, Kalia has quantified the results in a demographic manner. He has looked at each age group of Spotify users and worked out whether they are listening to popular artists or not.
            The results are perhaps to be expected. Kalia has found that young people are ‘almost exclusively streaming very popular music’; their listening experience seldom travels beyond the latest Billboard charts. In contrast, as people get older, ‘mainstream music represents a smaller and smaller proportion of their streaming’. According to Kalia, they stick with what they already know: ‘they are who they’re going to be’.
            Tim Byron has two main grounds for complaint. The first concerns the dubious methodology. He points out that ‘Kalia uses the popularity of an artist on Spotify as a proxy measure for the newness of that music’. Quite rightly, Byron argues that just because an artist has a low popularity ranking, it doesn’t follow that they have been knocking around the block for a bit. After all, isn’t this supposed to be the era of the long tail, in which new niche artists can beaver away in successful obscurity? Conversely, just because an artist has a high popularity ranking, it doesn’t mean they are new. Kalia even cites examples in his article that suggest as much. Eminem, he tells us, comes in at around number 50 in the popularity charts. This is an artist whose first album was released in 1996. Muse hover around the 250 spot. They have been with us since the late 1990s. Alan Jackson is ‘about # 500’. Jackson was born in 1958.
Byron suggests that the data can be looked at another way. Rather than old people being behind the times, they are instead adept at searching out niche subgenres. In support of this idea, he points towards the Australian radio station Double J, which is aimed at older listeners and has a more diverse playlist than its sister station, Triple J, which is targeted at youngsters. And so, whereas Kalia depicts a ‘coolness spiral’ that we spin outwards on as we approach death, Byron instead posits the idea that we spin towards coolness. The elderly are experimental. I’m not sure that he’s right. Surely one of the reasons why Kalia’s data has received such widespread coverage is because he has tapped into a common understanding. As we get older, we do feel our grasp on popular music slipping away. On the other hand, Byron is correct to point out flaws in Kalia’s reading of the data. For example, Kalia’s taste profiles indicate that men stop listening to popular artists earlier than women. In Kalia’s opinion, this means they are subject to a ‘taste freeze’: they have stopped searching for new music. Surely, though, the issue at stake is the escape from mainstream music. Men are more snobbish about the charts than women are. They are consciously trying to avoid popular artists in their need to identify with the edgy and the unknown.
There have been many previous studies of demographics and taste.  Kalia’s, though, has received more attention than any of them. Why is this the case? One reason is that it puts a definite age at which our move away from the popular becomes terminal. What’s more, it is a pertinent musical number: 33 is the speed at which a vinyl LP plays. This format, lest we forget, was originally targeted at adult listeners. What is curious, however, is that at no point in his article does Kalia use the number 33. This leads us to Byron’s other problem with the research: he takes issue with the way it has been reported. The coverage of the survey has a repetitive quality. The internet is now populated with articles titled ‘People Stop Listening to New Music at 33’. A news agency somewhere has taken Kalia’s information and condensed it. They have also highlighted what they want to see.
The age of 33 in fact comes from a link in Kalia’s article. This takes us to a separate blog, in which 33-year-old Steven Hyden tells us that his peers ‘are married with kids, mortgages, and lots of other important real-life stuff that takes precedence over finding new bands to like’. Kalia’s own work features a similar age at which interest in popular music declines, but it is the less memorable and less specific demographic of the ‘average listener’ who is in their ‘mid-30s’. Byron takes issue with the fact that, whereas the original article has qualifications (notably the number of times Kalia says ‘on average’), this hedging of the data is removed in the media reports. Consequently, a less nuanced picture emerges. That said Byron is also guilty of only seeing what he wants to see. Although Kalia’s main focus is on the way that older people ‘stop keeping up with popular music’, he does suggest a separate reading of his data. He believes that some adults will deliberately search out ‘less-familiar music genres . . . from artists with a lower popularity rank’, at which point his analysis looks much like Byron’s own.
There is one final quirk in the way that the data has been reported. Byron notes that the original analysis is not specifically concerned with new vs. old music. He’s right: the term ‘new music’ doesn’t appear once in Kalia’s article. And yet it is there in the headline of every re-run of this story. The term is used in the Fox News report, it is there in the article in the NME. In fact, even Byron uses it. His piece is titled ‘I’m 33 and Still Listen to New Music’. And this is what interests me most of all: when did new music become such a cult?
I was at school in the 1970s. At this point the taste battle wasn’t between young people, who liked ‘new music’, and adults who liked the past. Youngsters were instead supposed to progress beyond juvenile pop music towards an adulthood spent listening to classical music, MOR and jazz. What’s more, most of the musical landscape was new. It was the arrival of the compact disc that started to change things. The CD vastly increased sales of back catalogue. Consequently taste could now be split between those who listened to pop music of the present and those who listened to popular music’s past.
In the 1990s people started to use the term ‘new music’ strategically. BBC’s Radio One signalled its intention of aiming for a younger demographic by adopting the policy of ‘new music first’. This sponsoring of new music helped to justify the licence fee, as does the BBC’s more recent slogan, ‘in new music we trust’. The 1990s was also the era in which the record industry started to court government. There were numerous official reports, which sought ministerial backing for anything from the high price of CDs to the extension of copyright. In these reports the term ‘new music’ can regularly be found. The industry campaigned for its restrictive policies by suggesting that it took risks on untried artists and untested sounds.
More recently, people have started to use the term ‘new music’ as if it were a genre. It is used as such in the Fox News story, in which panelists are asked if they like new music? ‘I think it’s totally over-rated’ one of the representatives replies. But what is ‘new music’? If it’s simply the music that is released by newly signed artists, how can it all be bundled up together with people either claiming to be for it or against? If it is music that is supposed to be at the cutting edge, how does this square with the fact that today’s young artists are frequently described as being uninspired and retrospective? If it is music that the listener hasn’t heard before, does it matter whether this music was released last week or early in the last century? Maybe what the whole war at 33 is really all about is whether people are into new new music: are they listening to sounds that qualify as being modern when it comes to the artist’s age and their approach? If this is what is at stake, we’re going to have look somewhere other than taste profiles and hotttnesss ratings if we want to find out the true novelty of the new. 

Tuesday, 19 May 2015

Quiz Team Aguilera

From the 1950s through to the 1990s there was great awareness, in Britain at least, of what was going on in the pop charts. It wasn’t just the number one record that was common knowledge, the rest of the Top 30 was widely known as well. One way that this can best be revealed is though general knowledge quizzes, whether these are shown on television or held in pubs. The best contestants have a remarkable memory for the music of the 1970s, 1980s and early 1990s, but it fades once the Britpop era is over. This tendency can be heard regularly amongst the contestants on Ken Bruce’s ‘Pop Master’ on Radio 2, and it’s also something that Richard Osman of Pointless has noted. When asked what, as a quiz show presenter, he had learnt about the British public’s general knowledge, he replied ‘Anyone that was famous in the 1970s or 1980s is gonna be famous forever’.
            Of course age has something to do with this. Many quiz show contestants are middle aged and are much better at recalling the music of their youth than they are at recalling the music of their first mortgage. But it’s not just this: these contestants also have a good knowledge of music that was made before they were born. I do too: when I look at the Top 30 of any week in the 1960s, I’m struck by the fact that I know just about every song. When I look at the Top 30 of a week in the 2000s, I feel pained that I hardly know any. Moreover, young people do take part in quiz shows such as Pointless and they too are rubbish at the pop music of the modern era.
            There are a number of reasons why the British pop charts have less centrality than they used to, but the most important is that British media has less centrality these days. The BBC’s pop radio station, Radio One, had an audience of millions before it started hemorrhaging listeners in the mid-1990s. Top of the Pops, the BBC’s television chart show, regularly had an audience of 15 million in the 1970s; this had declined to less than three million by 2004. The sales figures of the British music press have also declined drastically: the NME sold 300,000 copies a week in the 1970s; it sells under 15,000 today. In the 1960s the charts were front-page news of the British music journals. They were also news in the British daily press. In the present day the tabloids still cover pop, but this coverage is focused on gossip rather than on who is number one in the charts.
            The overall effect of this is that the average listener’s knowledge of chart music is spread more thinly. In the pre-internet years, the committed pop fan would be quite capable of carrying each week’s Top 30 in their heads. They would know all the tunes and they would know about their rise and fall. Such matters do not pre-occupy people any more. Rather than surveying the Top 30, it is only the very biggest records that register widely. We live in an era of blockbuster hits: ‘Take Me to Church’, ‘All About That Bass’, ‘Let it Go’, ‘Let Her Go’, ‘Happy’, ‘Royals’, ‘Blurred Lines’, ‘Get Lucky’, ‘Gangnam Style’. The rest of the Top 30 merely props up these songs; it exists to catch out the contestants of quiz shows.

Friday, 1 May 2015

The Likely Lads Test

No Hiding Place’, broadcast in 1973 as part of the first season of Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads?, is one of the most memorable episodes of a British sitcom. If you have seen it, and have an interest in sport, you are unlikely to have forgotten it. The premise is simple. The English football team is playing Bulgaria in a game that kicks off at midday. The television highlights of the match won’t be shown until 10.00 in the evening. The ‘likely lads’, our Geordie heroes Terry and Bob, try to avoid hearing the result so they can enjoy the full drama of the game when it is shown on TV.
            This is not easy. A hairdresser tells them they’ll ‘never make it . . . there’s the radio, evening papers, television news’. On top of this, their friend Flint gets wind of their media blackout and enters into a bet with them that they won’t escape the score. Terry and Bob make a good go of it. They run for home, so that they can flee Flint and his radio that is broadcasting the game. Home isn’t safe either. The phone rings, but rather than pick it up, out of fear it will be someone wanting to talk about the game, they seek sanctuary in a church. Flint tracks them down there and is about to announce the result when a vicar appears. This intervention provides Terry and Bob with an opportunity to escape. On the run for the rest of the day, they avoid news of the game by giving blood and attending a talk on flower arranging at the local Women’s Institute. Eventually, they settle on their sofa as the TV broadcast is about to begin. But they’ve left the front door unlocked. Flint enters. They let him win the bet, with the proviso that he leave without telling them the score. They then turn on the TV. It is showing ice skating rather than the football. Terry and Bob look dumbfounded. And then a commentator explains that the England v Bulgaria game has been postponed because of a waterlogged pitch.  
            This is the likely lads’ ‘longest day’, one they describe as being ‘endless’. They live in a world where the news is everywhere – on radio, on television, in the papers, on the phone. Avoiding it is like avoiding life itself. ‘No Hiding Place’ is still worth watching, and not only because it’s such an elegantly constructed sitcom. To see it again is to be reminded that media saturation is not a new thing.
But is ‘No Hiding Place’ timeless? The programme has been remade. This century’s most famous Geordie duo, Ant and Dec, assumed the roles of Terry and Bob in a version broadcast in 2002. What’s interesting about this remake is how similar it is to the original. Once again our heroes are told they will ‘never make it . . . there’s the radio, evening papers, television news’.
In some ways there’s been a greater leap between 2002 and 2015 than there was between 1973 and 2002. The world wide web was up and running in 2002, but less than half of UK homes were connected to it, while only 6% had broadband. Wi-Fi barely existed; there were no smart phones. There was no MySpace, let alone Facebook. Twitter was still four years away, and it would be eight years before we had Instagram.
You see where I’m going with this? If ‘No Hiding Place’ were to be remade today, it wouldn’t just be newspapers, TV and radio that Terry and Bob would have to avoid; there would be all manner of social media to escape and all sorts of interconnectivity to unplug. Moreover, if technological futurists are right, 2015 is just about the last time that ‘No Hiding Place’ could be reworked. In a few years time we’ll all have Google glasses wrapped around our faces and we’ll be hardwired to the internet. If we’ve told our machines that we’re interested in football, then avoiding the scores will be impossible.
A side-effect of current levels of mediation is that the story is becoming as important as the game. In Britain, football highlights are still shown in the evenings of a big match day. However, as well as reviewing the game itself, these programmes now feature highlights of the players’ tweets that followed it. Moreover, such is the voracious appetite of social media for content, we’re now weighed down with stories that have nothing to do with the game itself. Gossip rules.
This situation is amplified when it comes to popular music. In sports the results do still matter. In music, it is now difficult to know what the real output of an artist is. Is the gossip there to back up a musical career, or is the musical career there to back up the gossip?
In 1973 it would have been possible to make a version of ‘No Hiding Place’ that focused on pop music rather than football. Flint could have placed a bet with Terry and Bob that they would never make it through a week without knowing what was number one in the charts. This would have been difficult, as the best-selling record was major news at this time. Radio One’s chart show was heard by millions; Top of the Pops, the television equivalent, was watched by even more. The Top 30 was published in the music press, which back then had a vast reach. It was also published in the tabloid newspapers, which in the 1970s were read by the majority of the population.
You couldn’t make this pop version of ‘No Hiding Place’ today. I regularly ask my university students what’s number one in the charts. Despite the repetition of my tests, it is rare that any of them knows the answer. And this is young people who are studying popular music. In the 1970s, most mums and dads would know what was number one. It’s safe to say that hardly any would today.
And yet they may well know what Lady Gaga has been up to, or Rihanna, or Kanye West. Today’s tabloids feature several pages of pop gossip. They don’t feature the charts. And young people aren’t the only ones who use social media. The middle aged and elderly are online. They might not be using the internet to connect to Radio One, but their Twitter feeds may well be telling them about Justin Bieber’s misdemeanours. Have they heard his music? Probably not.
It’s enough to make you want to break out into song. The Likely Lads theme tune will do: Oh, what happened to you, whatever happened to me? What became of the people, we used to be?