Words: Charlie Lake
Did you know that the average person spends over 18 hours a week listening to music? That is a staggering number of hours when you think about it. This music is getting increasingly older, too. Data suggests that ‘old music’ – defined as that which was released over a year and a half ago - makes up 70% of the entire US music market. The modern-day working musician ought to be fearful of this immense statistic.
Vinyl has seen a real resurgence recently
The number of old albums listened to in 2020 was 522.6M. That figure rose to 623.6M in 2021. Then in 2022, old music dominated popular culture for yet another year. Kate Bush’s ‘Running Up That Hill’ (1985) went viral for months on end due to its in inclusion in a pivotal moment in the latest season of Stranger Things, released in April. The controversy-ridden movie ‘Don’t Worry Darling’, which was released in September, made the soulful ‘The Oogum Boogum Song’ (1966) and dreamy ‘Sleep Walk’ (1959) soar in streaming numbers thanks to their inclusion in the film’s soundtrack. December saw Netflix’s new original series ‘Wednesday’ repopularise ‘Goo Goo Muck’ by The Cramps (1981), as it was utilised in the protagonist’s solo dance scene.
All of these songs became viral due to their involvement in challenges and video trends on the social media platform TikTok. They are not the only ‘vintage’ tracks to become massive hits again thanks to the social media platform. Other songs such as Fleetwood Mac’s ‘Dreams’ (1977) and Bill Withers’ ‘Just the Two of Us’ (1980) were also streaming and enjoyed by many millions last year. TV shows are incorporating more and more old music as the years go by. Take, for example, my personal favourite series, Black Mirror. The show, masterfully written by the great Charlie Brooker, uses almost exclusively ‘old’ music to soundtrack its episodes. The Smiths, The Stranglers, Beastie Boys, Pretenders...you name it. Even Irma Thomas’s ‘Anyone Who Knows What Love Is (Will Understand)’ (1968) is featured in five separate episodes. All of this serves as a good barometer for how popular culture perceives and utilises the so-called ‘golden oldies’.
"People often associate old music with fond memories of their youth or important moments in their lives, creating a sense of nostalgia..."
The reasons for this surge of old music are far-reaching, and it is not necessarily because all new music is bad, per se. Vinyl and other physical music sales have gone up considerably in the past decade. Many people are buying into the nostalgia and supreme uncompressed sound quality compared to digital files. It feels more like ‘owning’ the art than saving it digitally or even buying a CD of the same album would. The opening gatefold on a double LP, extra artwork, lyrics sheet and included posters make for a more complete product than anything else a customer can physically purchase from the artist. This all explains why vinyl sales reached their highest level in 20 years in 2021. Urban Outfitters sells mostly what can be described as ‘cult classics’ (new and old) in their clothing stores and online, attracting younger customers to this particular physical format.
Another rather obvious reason is nostalgia; a natural human emotion that arises when we reflect on past experiences, particularly positive ones, and long for them, nostalgia is ever pervasive. People often associate old music with fond memories of their youth or important moments in their lives, creating a sense of nostalgia and emotional attachment to the songs, that makes them want to continue to play these songs again and again. Many old songs have been covered or sampled by modern artists, keeping them fresh, relevant and introducing them to new audiences. Even if, like me, you were not alive to experience the original version of 1978’s ‘Rasputin’ by Boney M, a song which has also been hugely popular on TikTok, the familiarity of a nearly 50-year-old hit is still strangely comforting.
Bill Withers has come back to forefront of contemporary culture
Furthermore, old music also reflects the cultural and historical context in which it was created, giving listeners a glimpse into the past and providing a window into different eras and social movements. John Lennon’s iconic song ‘Imagine’ from 1971 became an anthem for the peace movement, with its message of hope and unity resonating with people around the world who hoped for disarmament. Bob Dylan’s 1963 song ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’ also became an anthem for the anti-war and civil rights movements, with its lyrics asking pointed questions about peace, freedom, and justice. In the same vein, ‘Fight the Power’, Public Enemy’s 1989 hit song, became a rallying cry for the hip-hop generation and the Black Lives Matter movement, with its message of resistance and empowerment. People embrace the symbolism behind these songs in the same way that they champion certain symbolic and revolutionary items of clothing; for example, the miniskirt, military surplus clothing, tie-dye clothing and punk fashion, and carry its meaning into the present.
Furthermore, could the reason people turn to ‘old’ music be that new music is over-manufactured, lacklustre, and boring? Well, possibly, although it is not fair to extrapolate the example of a few drab new hit songs to every new song from the past few years. It is true, though, that never in history have new tracks attained hit status while generating so little cultural impact. Success has always been short-lived in the music business due to the mercurial nature of the charts and the sheer mass of music produced. However, now even new songs that become bona fide hits can pass unnoticed by much of the population. In fact, a recent study by Deezer found that people stop discovering and listening to new music at the age of just 30, essentially reducing the listener base of fresh hits to a modicum of the population.
"There is no stigma of old music, everything is new music, and a good hit song of old will always be a hit..."
This was perfectly illustrated by the recent reaction when the Grammy Awards were postponed, or rather the lack of reaction, because the cultural response was virtually non-existent. There was no sign of annoyance or regret from any music professionals or anyone with skin in the music game on social media. That is simply bizarre, considering that it is invariably the biggest music awards show of any year. This shift is highlighted by the decreasing number of people watching the Grammy show. The ceremony’s viewership dropped by 53 percent in 2021 compared to the previous year, falling from 18.7 million to 8.8 million. This made it the least-watched Grammy broadcast ever. The majority of the core audience for new music also chose not to tune in, with around 98 percent of people aged 18 to 49 opting to do something else instead of watching the year’s most significant music celebration. A decade ago, 40 million people watched the Grammy Awards. That is a meaningful audience, but now the devoted fans of this event are starting to resemble a tiny subculture.
Even major record labels are participating in the rush to old music: Universal Music, Sony Music, Warner Music, and others are buying up publishing catalogues and investing huge sums of money in old tunes. In a previous time, that money would have been used to launch new artists, but the times they are a-changin’. This is a serious misfortune for emerging performers who desperately search for other ways to get exposure. Their goal is to get their self-produced tracks featured on a streaming playlist that is carefully selected or to license their music for use in the end credits of a TV show or in advertisements. Although these options may bring in some royalty income, they are not very effective in terms of building name recognition. This is real shame for those trying to break onto the scene.
Old music continues to be popular because it has a certain timeless quality that transcends the particular era in which it was created. Many classic songs and compositions have stood the test of time because they are expertly crafted, with memorable melodies, poignant lyrics, and emotional resonance that speaks to people across generations. Creators of current cultural artefacts revitalise these hits and reintroduce them to new audiences by weaving them into TV shows, film, samples in songs, adverts, and so on. There is no stigma of old music, everything is new music, and a good hit song of old will always be a hit.