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. 

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