Is music really getting worse? A group of researchers analyzed around half a million pop songs that were published from 1955 to 2021. They measured things like timbre, pitch, and loudness. It turned out that as time goes by, these things became more homogenized, meaning, today’s songs contain less musical information and there are fewer differences in them. In other words, all songs start to sound the same. But can you measure music in a scientific way? And isn’t “good music” relative?
People are not music experts
It’s proven that if you play any musical instrument (or even write songs), you can better determine which songs are better or worse. As a musician (studying music for 30 years now) I can clearly see that there are tons of really bad songs today. On top of that, many of these songs are highly popular.
One of the reasons for this is that people are not music experts. Most people are not playing a musical instrument, don’t have any music education, and don’t know many songs. A few months ago a 15-year-old kid wrote me a message saying he want to be a hip-hop artist. When I asked him what artists he knows, he couldn’t tell me more than 2 artists, both from the hip-hop genre. Then I asked him: “How do you know you like hip-hop if you don’t even know any other music?”
He didn’t understand what I was talking about. But the truth is, you don’t know what you like until you know a lot of different music genres and songs. If you don’t know any songs, then literally ANYTHING can sound good for you. Because that’s the only thing you know. In other words, if you have never listened to Latin jazz, how do you know it’s not the best music?
Most people are musically uneducated, so they can’t really differentiate between good songs and bad songs. And it’s not even about knowing how to play an instrument or knowing music theory. I know someone how doesn’t know anything about music theory or how to play an instrument, but he is an expert in music because he knows so many songs.
People listen to music for different reasons
Another perspective I have learned about music is that people listen to music for different reasons. You go to a classical concert or a jazz concert for different reasons. Or take dance music. Any dance music like salsa, cha-cha, or formal dances like foxtrot or waltz. You go to a dance class and listen to music for a very different reason. In a dance class, people don’t care about the chord progression, the melody, or the lyrics. There are only two things that are important for people who dance: getting a steady tempo, and the right speed. I worked as a musician on a cruise ship, and I have seen people dancing cha-cha to a pop song. Only because the tempo was right. They didn’t care about the style or the genre. Let alone the composition, the lyrics, or the chord progression.
But people listen to rock songs for a different reason, and they listen to hip-hop for a different reason. Any genre or style can give people meaning, or a feeling of a lifestyle. And sometimes, this feeling is more important than the quality of the music.
Other people just put music in the background while they work, create, or study. Listening to those kinds of background music is not a priority but secondary. It has a different purpose than going to a rock concert. Other people listen to songs when they meditate or exercise – those are also very different purposes.
Low entry barrier
Traditionally, artists could only publish their music through gatekeepers – record labels and radios. And there were quality filters. They only chose the best of the best. On top of that, it cost millions of dollars to record an album in a studio and promote it on traditional channels.
But today, it’s very different. According to Spotify, artists upload 24,000 songs every 24 hours. That’s 1 million new songs every 6 weeks. And this was data from 2018. Since then, these numbers are probably higher. The reason for this is that it’s extremely easy to record and publish a song today.
You can buy a set of microphones and audio interfaces for $1501, download a free DAW, record the song in your bedroom, and publish it on all platforms (iTunes, Spotify, Youtube, etc.) in 24 hours. Now literally anyone, with zero music education, can buy a generic beat, record some bad rap and vocal on it, and publish it easily. This is what we call a low entry barrier. There are no gatekeepers anymore and you don’t need millions of dollars to record and publish a song.
It’s not just the recording and publishing that became extremely easy. Promoting a song also became easy thanks to the internet. You can buy one view on Youtube for as low as $0.002. That’s only $2300 for 1 million views. I’m not talking about fake views. I’m talking about legit online ads with real music listeners! And you can reach so many people so fast that if you have the money, you can reach those 1 million listeners in 24 hours.
There are 56 million millionaires in the world! That is 56 million people who have at least 1 million dollars. If just 0.01% of these people want to become an artist (regardless of their talent or music education), that is still 5600 artists that have the money to buy the views and the popularity.
And that’s not all. If you already have a million followers that you have gathered, you can sell them literally anything. A few years ago, there was a guy who had tons of followers. No, he wasn’t a musician. He was just publishing regular video blogs about his life, that’s how he became kind of a Youtube celebrity. And one day, he decided to publish an album, even though he had zero music education and zero talent. His song became a number 1 hit on iTunes. Just because he had the following. I’m not saying he made the shittiest song I have ever heard, but it was mediocre at most. And since most people are musically uneducated, they were perfectly OK listening to, and even giving money to buy his mediocre music.
Record Labels are profit-oriented
The music industry has changed a lot. Like all businesses, Record labels became more and more profit-oriented. And quality doesn’t matter anymore. Revenue matters. I’m not saying being profit-oriented is a bad thing. It’s just a fact and a reason why there is no quality filter anymore. Record labels don’t experiment anymore. They are going for the sure. They want to make money with a high probability. This is what stockholders want. If I were a stockholder of the record label, this is what I would want. Why would I don’t put my money in it if it doesn’t make me money?
So record labels do two things: produce music that sounds exactly like all the other songs on the radio. That is simple, repetitive, catchy, easy to digest. And secondly, they acquire artists that are already successful, regardless of the quality. The role of the record label is not to educate people or to be responsible about the quality. Their only goal is to make money, no matter what.
What about radios?
I heard many times from musicians that they blame radios. Why don’t radios play better songs? It should be their responsibility to educate people, right? Not really. They are also businesses and their only goal is also to make money. On top of that, many people don’t realize what is the product of a radio.
Most people believe that the product of the radio is music. No, it’s not. The product of the radio is the listener. They sell the attention of the listeners to advertisers. Music is just a tool for them to attract more and more listeners. If for some reason, people wanted to listen to noise all day, radios would play only noise. Well, this video is playing only white noise and it has 87 million views.
The secret pattern behind successful songs
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About the Author
Producer, songwriter at Bánhidy András, and Barrio Latino Hungría. Author of The Rhythm Code.