The headline made me laugh: Is Old Music Killing New Music?
The news, it seems, is dreadful:
‘Old songs now represent 70 percent of the U.S. music market, according to the latest numbers from MRC Data, a music-analytics firm. Those who make a living from new music—especially that endangered species known as the working musician—should look at these figures with fear and trembling. But the news gets worse: The new-music market is actually shrinking. All the growth in the market is coming from old songs.’
I find this interesting, as a musician and sometime music scholar. I spent many years doing lessons with my middle school and high school musicians, pointing out that centuries went by with human beings presumably making music that we can only guess about now—and lots more centuries went by where we have written scores, but no audio confirmation of what folks were listening to.
The earliest wax cylinder recording of music dates back to 1888, Arthur Sullivan’s ‘Lost Chord.’ Upon hearing his own composition played back, Sullivan said he was ‘terrified at the thought that so much hideous and bad music may be put on record forever.’ Well then.
Commercial radio has been around for about 100 years, accompanied by lots of argument about the best and highest uses of broadcasting. Records—discs, that is, spun at varying speeds and available to the general public—have also been available for about a century.
I am presuming that the ‘old’ music that is slaying new music does not include that vast sweep of music-making prior to the 20th century, even though it’s a pretty large, um, catalog. Also—and this is a simple math problem—doesn’t the growing body of archived music necessitate that newly created music will represent a smaller portion of the whole?
In other words, while I am a strong supporter of music creation, I don’t think the popularity of old music (defined as something released more than 18 months ago) threatens the human compulsion to generate new music. I think it means that music is that rare thing—something that can be experienced repeatedly without growing old or worn out.
This blog was inspired by two things I ran across lately: A thread on Anne Helen Petersen’s Substack, Culture Study which asked readers to name a ‘perfect’ album. And a post from my friend Bill Ivey wherein he suggests his readers ‘create a playlist/compilation album that would be your autobiography through song.’
This is the kind of thing I love to do—I keep a folder on my computer entitled My Songs where I dump recordings that move me, and notes about music that I want to hear again, and again. It’s a mixed bag, pages and pages long, going all the way back to medieval chant, the first stuff that was written down. It’s comfort food for my inner life.
And lately, I have needed some comfort. My husband and I lost a good, good friend a couple of days ago and I needed to wallow in the (old) music that has been the soundtrack of all my life events and friendships.
As I was listening, rambling through the list, simultaneously wiping my eyes and laughing at shared memories, I thought that this might be that autobiographical playlist. Heavy on the sad and the spiritual (not religious, but metaphysical). But also about love. Which never gets old.
Gathering of Spirits (Carrie Newcomer)
There’s a gathering of spirits
There’s a festival of friends
And we’ll take up where we left off
When we all meet again
I cannot remember who introduced me to Carrie Newcomer, but her entire catalog, IMHO, is something close to genius.
Into the Mystic (Van Morrison)
Hark now, hear the sailors cry
Smell the sea and feel the sky
Let your soul and spirit fly
Into the mystic
I played this once, on my flute, for a funeral—but it’s not about the tune, which is kind of pedestrian. It’s about the words and it’s about Van Morrison. I know Van has been a jerk lately, but his gypsy soul is still present in his music.
Dimming of the Day(Richard & Linda Thompson)
You pull me like the moon pulls on the tide
You know just where I keep my better side
A song about love and need and fractured relationships that is both tender and ineffably sad; a once-good thing gone bad. I listened to a half-dozen covers (The Corrs, Bonnie Raitt, Alison Krauss), but settle, always, on Linda Thompson’s pleading original.
I Know You by Heart (Eva Cassidy/Nelson & Harrison)
We were like children, Laughing for hours
The joy you gave me lives on and on
‘Cause I know you by heart
Oh, Eva. Gone way too soon. Her ‘Over the Rainbow’ makes an entirely new song out of Judy Garland’s version—but I like this tune best.
The River Jordan (May Erlewine) Jordan River, Michigan
When you fall in, baptized of all your sins
Oh we all take a swim on the River Jordan
From what I understand they say the promised land is on the banks of the River Jordan
And I must agree I’ve never felt so free
As you, me, the river and the morning
May Erlewine is a northern Michigan singer with a broad range of vocal styles and great songwriting chops. This is one of her older songs, often requested—but that hasn’t stopped her from writing many more and exploring new musical turf. So there.
The Parting Glass (The Choral Scholars @ University College Dublin)
Of all the money that e’er I had
I spent it in good company
And all the harm I’ve ever done
Alas, it was to none but me
And all I’ve done for want of wit
To memory now I can’t recall
So fill to me the parting glass
Good night and joy be to you all
This one dates back to the 17th century. I played this at another funeral (there should always be music at a memorial service). The local Ancient Order of the Hibernians were there to sing, and needed a pennywhistle to keep them ‘on the tune.’ I came into their rehearsal room to run through it—a large group of men in green sport coats and ties. I introduced myself–I’m Nancy Flanagan—and their leader said ‘Sure you are…’ and they all laughed.
God Only Knows (Beach Boys)
I may not always love you
But long as there are stars above you
You never need to doubt it
I’ll make you so sure about it
God only knows what I’d be without you
My favorite Beach Boys song. What’s amazing about this song is that there are so few words, but so much musical depth and infectious vocalizing.
Drift Away (Dobie Gray)
Thanks for the joy that you’ve given me
I want you to know I believe in your song
And rhythm and rhyme and harmony
You’ve helped me along
Makin’ me strong
Oh, give me the beat boys and free my soul
I wanna get lost in your rock and roll and drift away
When I die, this is the song I want played at the funeral. (I want a funeral. Not everyone does.)
In My Life (Sara Niemietz, vocals; W.G. Snuffy Walden, guitar/Lennon & McCartney)
There are places I’ll remember
All my life, though some have changed
Some forever, not for better
Some have gone and some remain
All these places have their moments
With lovers and friends I still can recall
Some are dead and some are living
In my life, I’ve loved them all
Everyone knows the Beatles version. I picked this one to highlight the way a great, subtle guitar sketches the harmonies, which are the soul of this otherwise simple tune. The vocalist is superb, too.
Shovel in Hand (Amy Grant)
Life can change in the blink of an eye
You don’t know when and you don’t know why
“Forever Young” is a big fat lie
For the one who lives and the one who dies
I’m not really a big Amy Grant fan—although I love her husband, Vince Gill. This song, however, is personally important to me. For reasons. And it always, always makes me cry.
For a Dancer (Jackson Browne)
Keep a fire for the human race
Let your prayers go drifting into space
You never know what will be coming down
Perhaps a better world is drawing near
Just as easily it could all disappear
Along with whatever meaning you might have found
Don’t let the uncertainty turn you around
This song is proof that Jackson Browne’s best work was his earliest work, mostly for the craftsmanship of the lyrics.
Say Hey (I Love You) (Michael Franti)
It seems like everywhere I go
The more I see, the less I know
But I know one thing–that I love you
I love you, I love you, I love you
I saw Michael Franti play in Grand Rapids and it was more like a religious experience than a concert. He came out with members of the band as we were waiting in lines in the hot parking lot, holding lawn chairs, and entertained us.
One Love (Koolulam/Bob Marley)
One love, one heart
Let’s get together and feel all right
Hear the children crying (one love)
Hear the children crying (one heart)
Sayin’ “Give thanks and praise to the Lord and I will feel all right”
Sayin’ “Let’s get together and feel all right”
It would be hard to pick a single Bob Marley song, but this recording (at the Tower of David in Jerusalem, with a beautifully diverse crowd singing their hearts out) never fails to move me.
Great mix tape. Interesting that someone thinks that old music is winning out.
Our community theatre has six plays a year. We just saw one about Patsy Cline. When was the last time you heard her songs? What country station plays classic country?
Last year, they had one about the Carpenters. Which rock/pop station plays them now?
A couple of years ago, it was The Buddy Holly Story, with the Big Bopper and Richie Valens too. Where do you hear any of that now?
They also had the Million Dollar Quartet one year– Carl Perkins, Elvis, Johnny Cash, and Jerry Lee Lewis. Again, when? where?
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Exactly. A lot of new music is so over-produced that it’s hard for me to hear (and I realize I am labeling myself in saying so). Criticizing the music that appeals to young people makes one a geezer–since forever– but the technology to custom-tailor ‘new’ music to the lowest common (familiar) denominator so it will instantly hook, and then sell is definitely a thing.