I turn 35 today, which means I should be just about done with discovering new music and getting ready to crawl back under a sonic blanket of grunge and riot grrl for the remainder of my listening life. While that actually sounds kind of good, and I’ll admit that most of the new music I like (Torres, Speedy Ortiz) is pretty similar to the old stuff I liked (PJ Harvey, Liz Phair), I’m still dutifully hitting Spotify each week to check out the new goods. According to their data scientists, though, I’m a unicorn.
But try taking my first sentence and subbing in any other form of culture for music. Would anyone ever argue that there’s an age limit on discovering new TV, or film, or books, or visual art? How come, of all the forms of culture we consume, only music seems to have an age limit?
One of the arguments you hear a lot is that music is a visceral, powerful experience for teens and young adults, and that our response to music changes as we get older. Which makes sense, on one level; as Chuck Klosterman wrote in “Fargo Rock City,” “I’ll never love a band like that again because I’ll never be fifteen again.” When you’re a self-centered kid with blazing hormones, every song seems to speak directly to you — mom and dad don’t understand you! Popular kids are lame! You’ll never get over your first love! As you mature and things calm down, you probably come back around to liking or at least respecting your folks, and you don’t need Nine Inch Nails or Linkin Park to get you through the tough times.
But that doesn’t mean new music can’t hit you in an emotional way at any age. I played the new Sufjan Stevens album for my 70-year-old dad and he was deeply moved by it. I’m not only constantly hearing new stuff, but hearing it in different ways — Liz Phair’s “Exile in Guyville” was a great album when I was thirteen, but I relate to it in a totally different way at thirty-five.
Enough anecdata, and back to the question — why does this only seem to happen in music?
For one, the whole production model is a little different, although film is starting to skew this direction. Think of it this way — unless an artist is a true visionary, all the albums they make over the course of a career will sound roughly the same. That’s not a bad thing, it’s just the way it is — artists and bands generally don’t radically cross genres. They might experiment, but a rock band is not going to suddenly pivot to EDM overnight. Film does this a little with sequels and prequels and series, but it’s rare that you’ll get a solid version of the same series with the same cast every two years, while that’s totally plausible in music. It’s much easier to stick with certain bands for a lifetime because many of them will put out new music and continue to tour, and you don’t need to do any more work. You can feel like you’re discovering something new, because you’re listening to a new album, even though it probably sounds a lot like all the old albums.
The engagement metrics around music are different as well. Film and TV and books are easier to measure — did you watch it (or read it) or not? Music is a little squishier. I’ve never consciously listened to a Meghan Trainor song, because I don’t hate myself, but I’ve heard it at the drugstore and in commercials. Did I engage with it? Technically, yes, but not really. Did I discover it, in the sense that I know it exists? Yes, but I’ll probably never interact with it on any other level. Because music is so ephemeral now, we’re probably constantly hearing new stuff; we’re just not retaining any of it.
Then we come to marketing, which I’ve been banging my drum about for a while. Most (though not all) new music marketing skews toward twenty-somethings and teens. There’s a reason car ads for the olds feature classic rock and car ads for the kids feature fun. Aside from artists like Adele, who seem to transcend age-groups, there’s a line — new pop for the kids, throwbacks and “old people music” for the others. Concerts are marketed almost entirely to young people unless they are reunion tours or the occasional classy festival. A huge part of the reason people in their thirties and up stop interacting with new music is that the music and touring industry make it very hard to interact with it.
Which is kind of silly, because older people tend to have more money, and are old enough to remember the days when music wasn’t just free-flowing free information. We will buy your stuff! We might not buy t-shirts, because we have to wear grown-up clothes to work, but we’ll buy the shit out of a classy silk screen on an album cover we can frame. We’ll pay extra to see a show at a reasonable hour in a nice venue. Our money is yours for the taking, music business, if you’d look up from chasing the next big thing for five minutes.
Maybe we also need to revisit the metrics around what counts as music consumption. Going out to a concert is a much bigger ask than watching a TV show or a movie or reading a book, with the added negative that concerts generally only happen once or twice in each city, between certain hours. Maybe consumption is watching a live stream of a show, or passing an album on to a friend, or putting it on at a dinner party. Make consuming new music easier, and people of all ages will likely take you up on it.