An observation of mine from about eight years ago, when I was a mere lad of, um, fifty:
[A]lmost anyone of any age beyond twenty-five or so believes somewhere in his heart of hearts that everything that’s been inflicted on us by the music industry since he got out of college truly and deeply sucks.
I must here concede that this has now been proven untrue, kinda sorta:
In Copyright Protection, Technological Change, and the Quality of New Products: Evidence from Recorded Music Since Napster (NBER Working Paper No. 17503), Joel Waldfogel explores the possibility that technological changes in the music industry “may have altered the balance between technology and copyright law for digital products.” Despite music industry claims that digital piracy harms consumers by undercutting its revenues and reducing the amount of new music that it can bring to market, he constructs indexes of music quality based on critics’ best-of lists, airplay, and sales that show no evidence of a decline in music quality since Napster.
For those of you who missed it, Napster was set up in 1999, set upon in 2000, and set adrift in 2001. (The 2.0 version was a legitimate — i.e. licensed — music service, which was eventually absorbed into Rhapsody.)
What’s declined, of course, is the industry’s market share: it is no longer necessary to sign your life away for up to twenty years to get your music heard. (Lest you think this Never Happens, consider Rick Nelson, who, after a brief stint with Verve, wound up on Imperial for five years, then on US Decca for twenty, though MCA, then the successor to Decca, dropped him after thirteen.) And the buyers, I suspect, don’t care. I just noticed that I have purchased from the Null Corporation, Trent Reznor’s non-label label, pretty much their entire catalog, the last item acquired being the six-track EP by How To Destroy Angels, which I actually bought ($2 in Apple Lossless) while I was writing this.
Which is not to say I never put any coins in the industry’s cup. Susan Boyle is signed to SYCO, a joint venture between Simon Cowell and Sony, and her recordings come out in the States on Columbia. Classical pianist Yuja Wang records for Deutsche Grammophon. And even the odd single I fish out of the iTunes Store is usually part of one of the Big Three catalogs. None of these recordings can be said to deeply and truly suck — at least, not by me.
I will, however, raise an eyebrow at this:
Music is aired on radio less, and sells less, as it gets older; but if a vintage is better, it will receive more sales or airplay after accounting for such depreciation. Using data on the frequency with which songs originally released as early as 1960 were aired on the radio from 2004 to 2008, Waldfogel constructs an airplay-based vintage quality index suggesting that music quality rose from 1960 to 1970, fell until at least 1985, and rose substantially after 1999.
Using radio to judge the quality of music is rather like using toothpicks to judge the quality of furniture.
Aside to Nancy Friedman: I know that title technically should be “Pirates, shmirates,” but force of habit prevailed.