What’s That Sound: Can New Music Survive?

As a music writer who always has one if not both feet in the past, I rarely find myself anywhere near “timely,” but did you happen to read the recent piece in the Atlantic, “Is Old Music Killing New Music?” In his thorough, data-rich, and up-to-date article, author Ted Gioia touches on many of the recurring issues I’ve been contemplating in these pages as the resident back-catalog music explorer, many of which I haven’t given enough consideration from the other point of view. If you haven’t read his article, It’s worth your time to at least give it a glance (The Atlantic lets you peek behind their paywall a few times a month, but your subscription dollars are what now keep this great American magazine alive).

Taking somewhat of a scattershot approach, the basic launch point of Gioia’s treatise is the latest numbers from the music analytics firm, MRC which show that current, new music accounts for only 30 percent of the songs that were streamed in 2021 (70 percent being of older, catalog music) and that the 200 most popular new tracks only account for less than 5 percent of overall streams. Meanwhile, consider the cumulative billions invested in cultural relics, a massive expenditure underway to acquire the rights to the songwriting catalogs of the giants of 60s and 70s rock, along with the actual artifacts of that indelible era, their master recordings.

Taken together, these two facts (and a number of others) present a number of problematic questions for new music, some of them existential, especially for those who rely on public interest in new offerings for a living, the publicists, managers, record execs, and artists themselves. Where will the investment money come from to nurture new talent? Without substantial investment, public attention, and a sufficient chance to profit, will the intrinsic thrill of creation and performing be enough to motivate new generations of musicians and songwriters? We have lately seen so many of our cultural pillars and treasured institutions crumble before our eyes. I don’t think it’s too dramatic to ask, is what we’re witnessing the descent of new music in a slow death spiral?

The other major item in current music news is the swift exodus from Spotify by Neil Young (followed by his cohorts, CSN, Joni Mitchell, and various lesser luminaries) in protest to that famously stingy streaming platform’s profiting off of the ad revenues generated by the COVID disinformation campaign disseminated by its well-paid, ultra-popular podcaster, Joe Rogan. This may seem unrelated to the subject at hand, but it underscores a plain truth. Consider that well-established, senior catalog artists don’t have to worry much about the reach into new audiences that Spotify provides, something that is a prime concern for up and coming bands for whom outreach is everything. For these music makers, their managers, publicists, and labels, playing along with the streaming model, a system that pays back so little directly to artists is just a fact of life (Spotify’s per-stream rate is about half of Apple Music’s, which is still just a fraction of a cent per play). Where everyone rightfully complains about the laughable payouts that the streaming industry provides, these legacy artists have the option of selling their catalogs and sailing away on their wooden ships. New and lesser established artists can’t so easily leave the map that Spotify provides their potential audience to find them. 

Clip from Clueless, “All the Young Dudes” (World Party)

Before we attribute too much of this imbalance to the meritocracy of superior music (yes, I like you know young people who listen to a lot of the same older music that shaped their parents’ taste), we’d be well advised to remember the main lesson of Malcolm Gladwell’s insightful inquiry into success, Outliers, and that’s this simple truism: success aggregates. Those who find themselves in more advantageous positions tend to be the ones that get to reap most of the rewards, which gives them the edge to reap more and more rewards. This Outliers Principle, that success mounts and accumulates as a reflection of established power structures, would seem to apply as much for the music itself as for the bands and artists that created it. With the post-mainstream, DIY programming model that streaming offers, new artists and bands don’t get access to the millions of ears that a radio or MTV centered world once provided. Their biggest chance to reach outside of their small circle is to get their song placed on a widely watched TV show or movie, but there too, they are at a real disadvantage. Recognizable, older songs that have already had a chance to embed themselves into the collective consciousness get more of the coveted placement opportunities, especially when it’s a message and not just a mood that needs to be reinforced.

Consider the still mega-popular 1995 teen movie, Clueless. In the scene where fashionista Cher is puzzled by the baggy jeans and untucked flannel the guys of her generation insist on wearing, the song that gets the placement is not a contemporary rap song or a mid-90s grunge rock hit, but a note-perfect cover of the well-known 70s Mott the Hoople song (actually written by Bowie), “All the Young Dudes.” Great song for a great scene – an obvious choice, especially considering that the filmmakers are from that generation and the song is so firmly entrenched in the public imagination. But by what process did “All the Young Dudes” become so iconic? Through decades of continual airplay, ubiquitous reinforcement to the point that even high school kids 20+ years heard it and immediately got the joke (and still do). New music just can’t convey that sort of cultural shorthand and the sad irony is that while “All the Young Dudes” has been collecting royalties and selling records for 50 years, it now gets these big licensing deals too. With the paltry royalties that streaming pays, these days real income for new artists is basically limited to placement opportunities, but it’s still older music that mostly gets licensed to ads, film, and TV shows. Or, better said, it’s the older, better established music that earns the kinds of placements that garner the big money that new artists need to fund themselves, as well as the attention they need to survive out in the wilderness.

It would seem that the inverse of the Outliers Principle is what we should really be worried about. Just as success aggregates to the powerful, the tendency for new music to atrophy and die off before it can gain a foothold and become self-sustaining is emerging as a very real danger. That figure – the 200 most popular new tracks only account for less than 5 percent of overall streams – is the one that gave me a chill (MRC classifies “new music” as being released within the last 18 months). With the means to garner attention diminishing and the number of artists with new music exploding, coupled with the dwindling of funds to new artists, worrying about the survival of music as a continually regenerating force is not the stuff of dystopian fantasy. It’s real and it’s something we should work hard to reverse.

Growing up listening to rock radio with a subscription to Rolling Stone, I was an easy target for record labels and publicists. They knew where to find me. And I was all ears. That was another time; we now live in a ruthless, marketing-ruled digital age, spending our days as consumer “nodes” dodging spam, endlessly filtering out come-ons and promotions from every direction, in almost every aspect of our lives. I’ve written about this before – we’ve all had to defend our mental turf for survival, and sadly, our filters have become overgrown. We end up blocking out nearly everything being pushed at us out of reflex, simply to retain ownership of our own gray matter. 

In this hyper-marketed environment, everyone is selling, pushing, hyping, broadcasting, but as Gioia aptly puts it, hardly anyone is listening. There is definitely great music out there but it has very little chance of reaching us unless we can each of us devise and commit to a personal strategy for drawing down our digital defenses in the hope of letting in something new. The sheer number of newly produced tracks that are added to streaming platforms every week is daunting. Just thinking about trying to keep up is exhausting. Makes you nostalgic for a functioning mainstream, doesn’t it?

But let’s not go back to those payola days. What we need in this hyper-democratic era isn’t less democracy, it’s more. Instead of a mainstream that dictates tastes, we need DJs – humans choosing and presenting new music, ideally interspersed with older, more familiar songs for context. Forgive me, but what we sorely need is not a mainstream, but a taste-stream

“Curation” is the buzzword du jour around many corporate boardrooms for a good reason. It’s not just music – positively inundated with choices in this modern digital world, we are in dire need of guidance. An Amazon search can yield hundreds of options; it’s pretty brilliant how they’ve affixed this unexplained “Amazon Choice” badge to specific products. We assume this status is granted based on quality or reviews, but for all we know, these are products with the biggest profit margins for Amazon itself. The point is that we are drowning in choices and Amazon knows that we will grab at the closest lifeline.

To use a better metaphor, we are music lovers but alas, we’re also music consumers stranded in a blizzard. We need someone to guide us to safety. We need DJs. Now, and badly.

Let’s go back to that most chilling figure. The 200 most popular tracks released in the last 18 months only account for 5 percent of all music streamed. That means that no individual songs are gaining any traction right now. It’s the flip side of hyper-democratization – no cultural cohesion (no political cohesion either, which is even more distressing). Lots of metaphors come to mind for these slipshod times, but the one that gives me the willies is a heart in fibrillation, unable to keep itself in sync enough to generate the strong beats that will keep the body alive. We are already watching a slow-motion political collapse across the West. Let’s do what we can to stop a cultural collapse too. Calling all curators. Give us your playlists! 

Apple Music Playlist, Can New Music Survive?

Do you rely on friends (or like me, teenage daughters) to keep you updated on what’s new in music? I hope you are passing along anything extraordinary. Here’s what I’ve been picking up from friends, aggregators, curators, family, and my own close encounters in the musical world.

AOIFE O’DONOVAN, MADISON CUNNINGHAM

“Passengers” (Aoife O’Donovan with Madison Cunningham)

Normally found fronting the sublime newgrass band Crooked Still, vocalist Aoife O’Donovan pairs up with phenom Madison Cunningham to create the Haim-ish sounding “Passengers,” an infectious bit of hooky, refined pop that positively fizzles. The final track on her otherwise atmospheric just released, Age of Apathy album where O’Donovan pines on the title track, “Oh to be born in the age of apathy,” Makes me think she had to have been thinking of the famous curse, misattributed to Chinese sources, “may you live through interesting times.” If singer-songwriter-guitarist Madison Cunningham is not a familiar name, it should be. Her 2019 stellar debut album Who Are You Now has been followed up by single releases through the pandemic, the best to my ear is “Poses.” Her jazz-inflected indie folk is informed by a 70s harmonic sensibility and a sophisticated musical vocabulary. Great voice, with a musical ear and lyrics worth considering, Madison Cunningham is a major talent of our times and deserves a groundswell of support.

HAIM

“Gasoline” (Haim)

Speaking of Haim, they are a sister-band that gets better with each new album, cresting last year with their Woman in Music, Pt. III release. What I like about them is their dedication to finding and exploiting hooks while presenting lyrics that reflect modern sensibilities and a palpable sense of ethical struggle that indicates a mind at work (to quote Hamilton quoting The West Wing). Perhaps a little more well-known than a lot of their counterparts, Haim is getting more cohesive and intentional all the time and deserves every play they get.

ST. VINCENT

“Melting of the Sun” (St. Vincent)

Critical darling and generational talent, St. Vincent is, without a doubt, the real deal. A knockout performance on SNL last year did raise her profile, but the fact that she is not yet a household name after a bunch of great albums (my favorite is her self-titled masterwork from 2014) shows how we are living through a time with no zeitgeist. Last year’s release of Daddy’s Home was the closest thing the music world could come to a major event and “Melting of the Sun” works as a prototype for her 70s funk-inflected vision. A skilled and interesting guitarist, Annie Clark, a.k.a. St. Vincent is equally at home with analog and digital music making. She represents the pinnacle in modern art rock, carrying on the legacy of Bowie, Kate Bush, and a long line of musical seekers. Daddy’s Home is a bit of a genre exercise, but it’s got a lot of appeal and is a good place to start your expedition if you are new to her vital, essential music.

RYLEY WALKER

Ryley Walker, Live in KEXP Studio

If you haven’t heard of Ryley Walker, you’re in the majority but if you’re a fan of the introspective, droning folk music of Nick Drake, Walker’s got what you like with a little more grit. The Chicago native broke through in 2015 with his excellent Primrose Green album and has been putting out great stuff ever since. An accomplished fingerstyle guitarist in the Bert Jansch tradition, Walker’s newest release, his So Certain EP leans toward clean, lush electric guitar textures with his signature acoustic in there glimmering too. I hear some early prog feel in there as well, an influence he acknowledged for his most recent album, 2021’s A Course in Fable, something he retains for the new EP, but in a more pastoral flavor reminiscent of Steve Hackett’s dreamier turns in early Genesis. But Walker is his own musician and words can only go so far to describe music that is moving and packed with weight and intention. Highly recommended.

PAPERCUTS

Papercuts, Live in KEXP Studio

Another forward facing band with a foot in the past is the soft-rock loving, slightly psychedelic California band Papercuts (actually a long-running solo project by multi-instrumentalist Jason Quever). The new album, Past Life Regression is in pre-release with two singles out now (“I Want My Jacket Back” is, according to Quever, a pop meditation on craving normalcy at the end of the 2020 election cycle, and it’s some catchy wistfulness that will undoubtedly hook you). I’m not a great purveyor of genre-splitting but, if you’re into indie pop, specifically, dream pop, you’ll want Papercuts on your map. Melodic, hypnotic, and never boring, a PopMatters review of their first album referred to them as a “marching band on quaaludes,” I find them to be a nice cross between Donovan and the Flaming Lips with enough Velvet Underground mixed in to menace their charm. Good stuff. 

LIAM KAZAR

“Shoes Too Tight” (Liam Kazar)

A longtime bandmate to many, including Jeff Tweedy, Liam Kazar steps out as frontman on his 2021 album, Due North, and it’s a collection of songs soaring with melody and brimming with good humor and a funky, mid-tempo rock feel that begs to be heard. Reminiscent of the best of 70s pop-rock melodists but with up-to-the-minute contemporary production, Due North is good candy that you might find irresistible. Tweedy says of Liam’s music, “Whenever I hear one of his songs for the first time I almost immediately start thinking to myself, ‘oh yeah! This song! I love this song.’ It’s a magic trick very few people can pull off, making something brand new feel like a cherished memory.” Following Tweedy’s advice, Kazar started writing for himself instead of other people and Due North is the first of what is undoubtedly a string of great albums from the Kansas-based, Chicago native.

THOMAS DOLLBAUM

“Florida” (Thomas Dollbaum)

When you hear his new song, “Florida,” you may ask what is Thomas Dollbaum mumbling about? Well, a lot. Don’t let the low-key baritone dripping with ennui fool you, Dollbaum is an ambitious songwriter bursting with poetry, vitriol, and regret with a palpable yearning for redemption. Hard to fathom that this is his first album; when he sings, “Nothing good comes from Florida/Including you” it’s clear he’s talking about himself, playing that Dylan trick with pronouns that worked so well all over Blood on the Tracks. The clearest comparison I hear to this new artist is The National because of the muted vocal delivery, but I hear a lot of the best parts of Jim Morrison in the grandeur and scope here. “Florida” builds to a symphonic peak reminiscent of “L.A. Woman” and Dollbaum’s focus on details puts him in the good company of rock’s great poets. Not to be missed, Thomas Dollbaum is an emerging artist that will remind you what we’re here for as music fans looking for what’s new and compelling.


As someone who can most often be found digging into the past to find underloved gems, I’m not an authority on what’s new in music. I, probably like you, can’t keep up with the latest microtrends (twee anyone?), and with the constant barrage of new music being released, it’s pretty impossible to stay current. That is not to say that I, like you, don’t have a vested interest in keeping the prospect of a life making music alive for the emerging talent as well as our favorite bands and artists out there struggling to survive.

What can we do? I don’t purchase CDs or downloads, but I do buy vinyl for myself and my daughter who is a record collector now. Concert tickets (preferably outdoors for our medically high-risk family) are something we save our money for. Are you a Patreon of any of your favorite bands? It’s the equivalent of a “donate” button but you do get some insider perks like bonus cuts and exclusive video interviews.

The best thing we can do, I think, is keep listening, keep making music important. And keep encouraging the young people in our lives to do the same. It’s not an exaggeration to say that TikTok is taking over the coveted, central space that music once occupied in the culture. New music is at a structural disadvantage and the numbers are not encouraging, but who can say what will happen as nature runs its inevitable course? The legacy artists that are currently dominating the streaming platforms will not be around forever. It may be a morbid note to close on, but hope for the future could just be obscured by the massive shadow of titans as they live out their last days on earth dominating the public imagination. Music has endured because it feeds the soul, and as long as humans possess a depth of feeling and a need for meaning, music will be in demand. That may be a hopeful or ominous sentiment, depending on your personal point of view.

CREDITS:

Drowning Hand Photo by Ianmer Basio
Desert Photo by Mario Cuadros
Stream Photo by TruShotz from Pexels

LINKS:
Rylee Walker Talks Moving to Vermont and His New Album
The Surprising Endurance of Twee
TikTok and Microtrends