No. But that doesn’t mean new music isn’t withering on the vine. This article in The Atlantic addresses many of the problems, which can be reduced down to the drying up of investment risk capital in the industry. This has been a function of digital technology and the explosion of new content across all creative industries. In the age of physical media, content sales were king, but in the digital information age data is king. The industry must pivot around that reality and it probably means the disintermediation of many industry functions that served the sale of physical media. Article and comments are reprinted in full because we need to understand this new world.
Old songs now represent 70 percent of the U.S. music market. Even worse: The new-music market is actually shrinking.
By Ted Gioia
The Atlantic January 23, 2022.
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. [Well, the problem is lack of growth, since these revenues are coming from existing catalogs. Record companies are churning their catalogs because it’s costless and risk free.]
The 200 most popular new tracks now regularly account for less than 5 percent of total streams. That rate was twice as high just three years ago. The mix of songs actually purchased by consumers is even more tilted toward older music. The current list of most-downloaded tracks on iTunes is filled with the names of bands from the previous century, such as Creedence Clearwater Revival and The Police.
I encountered this phenomenon myself recently at a retail store, where the youngster at the cash register was singing along with Sting on “Message in a Bottle” (a hit from 1979) as it blasted on the radio. A few days earlier, I had a similar experience at a local diner, where the entire staff was under 30 but every song was more than 40 years old. I asked my server: “Why are you playing this old music?” She looked at me in surprise before answering: “Oh, I like these songs.”
Never before in history have new tracks attained hit status while generating so little cultural impact. [This is likely because the music culture today is so diffused. Diversity of musical tastes and the sheer volume of new music means the audiences are fractured into thousands of pieces.] In fact, the audience seems to be embracing the hits of decades past instead. Success was always short-lived in the music business, but now even new songs that become bona fide hits can pass unnoticed by much of the population.
Only songs released in the past 18 months get classified as “new” in the MRC database, so people could conceivably be listening to a lot of two-year-old songs, rather than 60-year-old ones. But I doubt these old playlists consist of songs from the year before last. Even if they did, that fact would still represent a repudiation of the pop-culture industry, which is almost entirely focused on what’s happening right now.
Every week I hear from hundreds of publicists, record labels, band managers, and other professionals who want to hype the newest new thing. Their livelihoods depend on it. The entire business model of the music industry is built on promoting new songs. [Yes, but this business model is dead. It was built on physical product. The new model is built on data network monetization.] As a music writer, I’m expected to do the same, as are radio stations, retailers, DJs, nightclub owners, editors, playlist curators, and everyone else with skin in the game. Yet all the evidence indicates that few listeners are paying attention. [Digital media and communications have disrupted these professions dedicated to promoting and distributing physical product.]
Consider the recent reaction when the Grammy Awards were postponed. Perhaps I should say the lack of reaction, because the cultural response was little more than a yawn. I follow thousands of music professionals on social media, and I didn’t encounter a single expression of annoyance or regret that the biggest annual event in new music had been put on hold. That’s ominous.
Can you imagine how angry fans would be if the Super Bowl or NBA Finals were delayed? People would riot in the streets. But the Grammy Awards go missing in action, and hardly anyone notices. [Award shows are based on mass markets – those markets have disintegrated.]
The declining TV audience for the Grammy show underscores this shift. In 2021, viewership for the ceremony collapsed 53 percent from the previous year—from 18.7 million to 8.8 million. It was the least-watched Grammy broadcast of all time. Even the core audience for new music couldn’t be bothered—about 98 percent of people ages 18 to 49 had something better to do than watch the biggest music celebration of the year.
A decade ago, 40 million people watched the Grammy Awards. That’s a meaningful audience, but now the devoted fans of this event are starting to resemble a tiny subculture. More people pay attention to streams of video games on Twitch (which now gets 30 million daily visitors) or the latest reality-TV show. In fact, musicians would probably do better getting placement in Fortnite than signing a record deal in 2022. At least they would have access to a growing demographic.
Some would like to believe that this trend is just a short-term blip, perhaps caused by the pandemic. When clubs open up again, and DJs start spinning new records at parties, the world will return to normal, or so we’re told. The hottest songs will again be the newest songs. I’m not so optimistic.
A series of unfortunate events are conspiring to marginalize new music. The pandemic is one of these ugly facts, but hardly the only contributor to the growing crisis.
Consider these other trends:
- The leading area of investment in the music business is old songs. Investment firms are getting into bidding wars to buy publishing catalogs from aging rock and pop stars. [Yeah, because it’s low risk/high return. Financiers and music companies can’t afford to lose money.]
- The song catalogs in most demand are by musicians who are in their 70s or 80s (Bob Dylan, Paul Simon, Bruce Springsteen) or already dead (David Bowie, James Brown). [All you have to pay are royalties, and you don’t have to pay those unless you’re selling.]
- Even major record labels are participating in the rush to old music: Universal Music, Sony Music, Warner Music, and others are buying up publishing catalogs and investing huge sums in old tunes. In a previous time, that money would have been used to launch new artists. [It’s where the low risk money is.]
- The best-selling physical format in music is the vinyl LP, which is more than 70 years old. I’ve seen no signs that the record labels are investing in a newer, better alternative—because, here too, old is viewed as superior to new. [Physical media cannot compete with digital media because digital media builds networks without llimit. Those networks get monetized by the digital distributors.]
- In fact, record labels—once a source of innovation in consumer products—don’t spend any money on research and development to revitalize their business, although every other industry looks to innovation for growth and consumer excitement. [It’s about risk capital – and the collapse in revenues means the evaporation of risk capital.]
- Record stores are caught up in the same time warp. In an earlier era, they aggressively marketed new music, but now they make more money from vinyl reissues and used LPs.
- Radio stations are contributing to the stagnation, putting fewer new songs into their rotation, or—judging by the offerings on my satellite-radio lineup—completely ignoring new music in favor of old hits.
- When a new song overcomes these obstacles and actually becomes a hit, the risk of copyright lawsuits is greater than ever before. The risks have increased enormously since the “Blurred Lines” jury decision of 2015, and the result is that additional cash gets transferred from today’s musicians to old (or deceased) artists. [Copyright is fairly meaningless in the digital world – as most software makers discovered long ago. The record cos. made the mistake of suing their best customers.]
- Adding to the nightmare, dead musicians are now coming back to life in virtual form—via holograms and “deepfake” music—making it all the harder for young, living artists to compete in the marketplace. [Haha – Night of the Living Dead. Maybe they’re Grateful?]
As record labels lose interest in new music, emerging performers desperately search for other ways to get exposure. They hope to place their self-produced tracks on a curated streaming playlist, or license their songs for use in advertising or the closing credits of a TV show. Those options might generate some royalty income, but they do little to build name recognition. You might hear a cool song on a TV commercial, but do you even know the name of the artist? You love your workout playlist at the health club, but how many song titles and band names do you remember? You stream a Spotify new-music playlist in the background while you work, but did you bother to learn who’s singing the songs?
Decades ago, the composer Erik Satie warned of the arrival of “furniture music,” a kind of song that would blend seamlessly into the background of our lives. His vision seems closer to reality than ever.
Some people—especially Baby Boomers—tell me that this decline in the popularity of new music is simply the result of lousy new songs. Music used to be better, or so they say. The old songs had better melodies, more interesting harmonies, and demonstrated genuine musicianship, not just software loops, Auto-Tuned vocals, and regurgitated samples. [No, the problem is search and discovery. Recommendations from streaming servers are self-interested and worthless, so baby boomers just drop out. The market has become so large and diverse that audiences can’t find music and artists can’t find their audiences.]
There will never be another Sondheim, they tell me. Or Joni Mitchell. Or Bob Dylan. Or Cole Porter. Or Brian Wilson. I almost expect these doomsayers to break out in a stirring rendition of “Old Time Rock and Roll,” much like Tom Cruise in his underpants.
Just take those old records off the shelf
I’ll sit and listen to ’em by myself …
I can understand the frustrations of music lovers who get no satisfaction from current mainstream songs, though they try and they try. I also lament the lack of imagination on many modern hits. But I disagree with my Boomer friends’ larger verdict. I listen to two to three hours of new music every day, and I know that plenty of exceptional young musicians are out there trying to make it. They exist. But the music industry has lost its ability to discover and nurture their talents. [Exactly. There’s no way to pay A&R people anymore. The record cos. depend on social media and streaming services.]
Music-industry bigwigs have plenty of excuses for their inability to discover and adequately promote great new artists. The fear of copyright lawsuits has made many in the industry deathly afraid of listening to unsolicited demo recordings. If you hear a demo today, you might get sued for stealing its melody—or maybe just its rhythmic groove—five years from now. Try mailing a demo to a label or producer, and watch it return unopened. [Probably a function of ‘beats’ and sampling regurgitating proven music.]
The people whose livelihood depends on discovering new musical talent face legal risks if they take their job seriously. That’s only one of the deleterious results of the music industry’s overreliance on lawyers and litigation, a hard-ass approach they once hoped would cure all their problems, but now does more harm than good. Everybody suffers in this litigious environment except for the partners at the entertainment-law firms, who enjoy the abundant fruits of all these lawsuits and legal threats.
The problem goes deeper than just copyright concerns. The people running the music industry have lost confidence in new music. They won’t admit it publicly—that would be like the priests of Jupiter and Apollo in ancient Rome admitting that their gods are dead. Even if they know it’s true, their job titles won’t allow such a humble and abject confession. Yet that is exactly what’s happening. The moguls have lost their faith in the redemptive and life-changing power of new music. How sad is that? Of course, the decision makers need to pretend that they still believe in the future of their business, and want to discover the next revolutionary talent. But that’s not what they really think. Their actions speak much louder than their empty words. [Most existing music co. execs are playing an end game. They been bleeding everything they can from the industry since the advent of the mp3.]
In fact, nothing is less interesting to music executives than a completely radical new kind of music. Who can blame them for feeling this way? The radio stations will play only songs that fit the dominant formulas, which haven’t changed much in decades. [Regurgitate what worked in the recent past.] The algorithms curating so much of our new music are even worse. Music algorithms are designed to be feedback loops, ensuring that the promoted new songs are virtually identical to your favorite old songs. Anything that genuinely breaks the mold is excluded from consideration almost as a rule. That’s actually how the current system has been designed to work. [Recommendation engines running machine algorithms are worthless for subjective art. We need to get humans back in the loop, like tuka.]
Even the music genres famous for shaking up the world—rock or jazz or hip-hop—face this same deadening industry mindset. I love jazz, but many of the radio stations focused on that genre play songs that sound almost the same as what they featured 10 or 20 years ago. In many instances, they actually are the same songs.
This state of affairs is not inevitable. A lot of musicians around the world—especially in Los Angeles and London—are conducting a bold dialogue between jazz and other contemporary styles. They are even bringing jazz back as dance music. But the songs they release sound dangerously different from older jazz, and are thus excluded from many radio stations for that same reason. The very boldness with which they embrace the future becomes the reason they get rejected by the gatekeepers. [The gatekeepers will soon be gone. It’s a failed business model.]
A country record needs to sound a certain way to get played on most country radio stations or playlists, and the sound those DJs and algorithms are looking for dates back to the prior century. And don’t even get me started on the classical-music industry, which works hard to avoid showcasing the creativity of the current generation. We are living in an amazing era of classical composition, with one tiny problem: The institutions controlling the genre don’t want you to hear it. [The only two genres that make money are…you guessed it: Country and Hip-Hop/Rap. So that’s all we hear.]
The problem isn’t a lack of good new music. It’s an institutional failure to discover and nurture it. [This is one of the two major problems that result from digitization. A low cost structure that creates too much supply with an inability to monetize. Streaming doesn’t solve either of these problems.]
I learned the danger of excessive caution long ago, when I consulted for huge Fortune 500 companies. The single biggest problem I encountered—shared by virtually every large company I analyzed—was investing too much of their time and money into defending old ways of doing business, rather than building new ones. [This is what suits and lawyers do.] We even had a proprietary tool for quantifying this misallocation of resources that spelled out the mistakes in precise dollars and cents.
Senior management hated hearing this, and always insisted that defending the old business units was their safest bet. [Of course.] After I encountered this embedded mindset again and again and saw its consequences, I reached the painful conclusion that the safest path is usually the most dangerous. If you pursue a strategy—whether in business or your personal life—that avoids all risk, you might flourish in the short run, but you flounder over the long term. That’s what is now happening in the music business. [Yes, coporate businesses are short-sighted.]
Even so, I refuse to accept that we are in some grim endgame, witnessing the death throes of new music. And I say that because I know how much people crave something that sounds fresh and exciting and different. If they don’t find it from a major record label or algorithm-driven playlist, they will find it somewhere else. Songs can go viral nowadays without the entertainment industry even noticing until it has already happened. That will be how this story ends: not with the marginalization of new music, but with something radical emerging from an unexpected place. [Yup – try www.tukaglobal.com.]
The apparent dead ends of the past were circumvented the same way. Music-company execs in 1955 had no idea that rock and roll would soon sweep away everything in its path. When Elvis took over the culture—coming from the poorest state in America, lowly Mississippi—they were more shocked than anybody. It happened again the following decade, with the arrival of the British Invasion from lowly Liverpool (again, a working-class place, unnoticed by the entertainment industry). And it happened again when hip-hop, a true grassroots movement that didn’t give a damn how the close-minded CEOs of Sony or Universal viewed the marketplace, emerged from the Bronx and South Central and other impoverished neighborhoods.
If we had the time, I would tell you more about how the same thing has always happened. The troubadours of the 11th century, Sappho, the lyric singers of ancient Greece, and the artisan performers of the Middle Kingdom in ancient Egypt transformed their own cultures in a similar way. Musical revolutions come from the bottom up, not the top down. The CEOs are the last to know. That’s what gives me solace. New music always arises in the least expected place, and when the power brokers aren’t even paying attention. It will happen again. It certainly needs to. The decision makers controlling our music institutions have lost the thread. We’re lucky that the music is too powerful for them to kill.
[Yes, but we’re not talking about human createivity here (which will never die), we’re talking about the business of human creativity. That has changed and maybe broought us back to a digital form of busking. We need to think outside this box.]
NFTs (Non-fungible tokens) are the newest rage in blockchain development. These tokens are issued by the creators of digital assets and then registered on the Ethereum blockchain. The smart contracts associated with the tokens can award ownership rights to the asset with the rights to royalty payments for the marketing or sale of the asset. NFTs seem particularly suited to collectors’ items and can also be applied to physical assets. The sale of the tokens prepays the creator for the value created through his creation. Preselling NFTs for songs could deliver a revenue flow to musicians before the music became a commercial hit. Think of having a digital right of ownership to Happy Birthday or Yesterday or The Mona Lisa. The problem, of course, is that predicting the future value of a creative piece of art today is almost impossible. Remember, Van Gogh couldn’t sell any of his paintings!
This makes NFTs a very speculative asset play.
Click below to view the idea of an NFT art gallery:
The Wall Street Journal has published a series of articles they call The Facebook Files. One article recently queried a dozen “experts” to discuss their ideas of how to fix social media. We at tuka have been focused on this challenge from the beginning, several years ago, and what these commentators reveal is a converging consensus that the problem with social media is scale and emotional triggering based on the speed of information flow. As Winston Churchill was said to quip, “A lie gets halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to get its pants on.” Social media connections have just made this pathology worse.
Our take has always been summed up with one line: A global gossip network makes no sense. So large, centralized networks of 3 billion users make no sense (i.e, FB). Social networking is person-to-person sharing based on mutual trust. So smaller newworks focused on shared interests make sense. This is what tuka is. Technology can then be harnessed to coordinate these networks in ways that reduce the siloing effect so we can all end up sharing more information based on our trusted networks. So what is needed are policies that break down the network effects of scale to open up the social media space to thousands of competitors, all focused on different community interests. Then the interactions across networks help bring us together willingly.
The other problem we at tuka have cited is the centralization and control of information networks and the immense value they create. Data is gold, and we cannot have a handful of private companies own and control the personal data users create. This is akin to giving your labor away, or slavery. The required changes are to decentralize the network using blockchain technologies so that value created can be measured and distributed accordingly to users.
Several of the experts have accurately recognized the problem and what to do about it. The better ideas have been cut and pasted below.
Clay Shirky: Slow It Down and Make It Smaller
We know how to fix social media. We’ve always known. We were complaining about it when it got worse, so we remember what it was like when it was better. We need to make it smaller and slow it down.
The spread of social media vastly increased how many people any of us can reach with a single photo, video or bit of writing. When we look at who people connect to on social networks—mostly friends, unsurprisingly—the scale of immediate connections seems manageable. But the imperative to turn individual offerings, mostly shared with friends, into viral sensations creates an incentive for social media platforms, and especially Facebook, to amplify bits of content well beyond any friend group.
We’re all potential celebrities now, where anything we say could spread well beyond the group we said it to, an effect that the social media scholar Danah Boyd has called “context collapse.” And once we’re all potential celebrities, some people will respond to the incentives to reach that audience—hot takes, dangerous stunts, fake news, miracle cures, the whole panoply of lies and grift we now behold.
The faster content moves, the likelier it is to be borne on the winds of emotional reaction.
The inhuman scale at which the internet assembles audiences for casually produced material is made worse by the rising speed of viral content. As the behavioral economist Daniel Kahneman observed, human thinking comes in two flavors: fast and slow. Emotions are fast, and deliberation is slow.
The obvious corollary is that the faster content moves, the likelier it is to be borne on the winds of emotional reaction, with any deliberation coming after it has spread, if at all. The spread of smartphones and push notifications has created a whole ecosystem of URGENT! messages, things we are exhorted to amplify by passing them along: Like if you agree, share if you very much agree.
Social media is better, for individuals and for the social fabric, if the groups it assembles are smaller, and if the speed at which content moves through it is slower. Some of this is already happening, as people vote with their feet (well, fingers) to join various group chats, whether via SMS, Slack or Discord.
We know that scale and speed make people crazy. We’ve known this since before the web was invented. Users are increasingly aware that our largest social media platforms are harmful and that their addictive nature makes some sort of coordinated action imperative.
It’s just not clear where that action might come from. Self-regulation is ineffective, and the political arena is too polarized to agree on any such restrictions. There are only two remaining scenarios: regulation from the executive branch or a continuation of the status quo, with only minor changes. Neither of those responses is ideal, but given that even a global pandemic does not seem to have galvanized bipartisanship, it’s hard to see any other set of practical options.
Mr. Shirky is Vice Provost for Educational Technologies at New York University and the author of “Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age.”
Jaron Lanier: Topple the New Gods of Data
When we speak of social media, what are we talking about? Is it the broad idea of people connecting over the internet, keeping track of old friends, or sharing funny videos? Or is it the business model that has come to dominate those activities, as implemented by Facebook and a few other companies?
Tech companies have dominated the definition because of the phenomenon known as network effects: The more connected a system is, the more likely it is to produce winner-take-all outcomes. Facebook took all.
The domination is so great that we forget alternatives are possible. There is a wonderful new generation of researchers and critics concerned with problems like damage to teen girls and incitement of racist violence, and their work is indispensable. If all we had to talk about was the more general idea of possible forms of social media, then their work would be what’s needed to improve things.
Unfortunately, what we need to talk about is the dominant business model. This model spews out horrible incentives to make people meaner and crazier. Incentives run the world more than laws, regulations, critiques, or the ideas of researchers.
The current incentives are to “engage” people as much as possible, which means triggering the “lizard brain” and fight-or-flight responses. People have always been a little paranoid, xenophobic, racist, neurotically vain, irritable, selfish, and afraid. And yet putting people under the influence of engagement algorithms has managed to bring out even more of the worst of us.
The current incentives are to ‘engage’ people as much as possible, which means triggering the ‘lizard brain.’
Can we survive being under the ambient influence of behavior modification algorithms that make us stupider?
The business model that makes life worse is based on a particular ideology. This ideology holds that humans as we know ourselves are being replaced by something better that will be brought about by tech companies. Either we’ll become part of a giant collective organism run through algorithms, or artificial intelligence will soon be able to do most jobs, including running society, better than people. The overwhelming imperative is to create something like a universally Facebook-connected society or a giant artificial intelligence.
These “new gods” run on data, so as much data as possible must be gathered, and getting in the middle of human interactions is how you gather that data. If the process makes people crazy, that’s an acceptable price to pay.
The business model, not the algorithms, is also why people have to fear being put out of work by technology. If people were paid fairly for their contributions to algorithms and robots, then more tech would mean more jobs, but the ideology demands that people accept a creeping feeling of human obsolescence. After all, if data coming from people were valued, then it might seem like the big computation gods, like AI, were really just collaborations of people instead of new life forms. That would be a devastating blow to the tech ideology.
Facebook now proposes to change its name and to primarily pursue the “metaverse” instead of “social media,” but the only changes that fundamentally matter are in the business model, ideology, and resulting incentives.
Mr. Lanier is a computer scientist and the author, most recently, of “Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now.”
Clive Thompson: Online Communities That Actually Work
Are there any digital communities that aren’t plagued by trolling, posturing and terrible behavior? Sure there are. In fact, there are quite a lot of online hubs where strangers talk all day long in a very civil fashion. But these aren’t the sites that we typically think of as social media, like Twitter, Facebook or YouTube. No, I’m thinking of the countless discussion boards and Discord servers devoted to hobbies or passions like fly fishing, cuisine, art, long-distance cycling or niche videogames.
I visit places like this pretty often in reporting on how people use digital tools, and whenever I check one out, I’m often struck by how un-toxic they are. These days, we wonder a lot about why social networks go bad. But it’s equally illuminating to ask about the ones that work well. These communities share one characteristic: They’re small. Generally they have only a few hundred members, or maybe a couple thousand if they’re really popular.
And smallness makes all the difference. First, these groups have a sense of cohesion. The members have joined specifically to talk to people with whom they share an enthusiasm. That creates a type of social glue, a context and a mutual respect that can’t exist on a highly public site like Twitter, where anyone can crash any public conversation.
Smallness makes all the difference. These groups have a sense of cohesion.
Even more important, small groups typically have people who work to keep interactions civil. Sometimes this will be the forum organizer or an active, long-term participant. They’ll greet newcomers to make them feel welcome, draw out quiet people and defuse conflict when they see it emerge. Sometimes they’ll ban serious trolls. But what’s crucial is that these key members model good behavior, illustrating by example the community’s best standards. The internet thinkers Heather Gold, Kevin Marks and Deb Schultz put a name to this: “tummeling,” after the Yiddish “tummeler,” who keeps a party going.
None of these positive elements can exist in a massive, public social network, where millions of people can barge into each other’s spaces—as they do on Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube. The single biggest problem facing social media is that our dominant networks are obsessed with scale. They want to utterly dominate their fields, so they can kill or absorb rivals and have the ad dollars to themselves. But scale breaks social relations.
Is there any way to mitigate this problem? I’ve never heard of any simple solution. Strong antitrust enforcement for the big networks would be useful, to encourage a greater array of rivals that truly compete with one another. But this likely wouldn’t fully solve the problem of scale, since many users crave scale too. Lusting after massive, global audiences, they will flock to whichever site offers the hugest. Many of the proposed remedies for social media, like increased moderation or modifications to legal liability, might help, but all leave intact the biggest problem of all: Bigness itself.
Mr. Thompson is a journalist who covers science and technology. He is the author, most recently, of “Coders: The Making of a New Tribe and the Remaking of the World.”
This is an interesting explanation of how digital networks affect culture. Comments in RED.
How We’ll Forget John Lennon
A few years ago a student walked into the office of Cesar A. Hidalgo, director of the Collective Learning group at the MIT Media Lab. Hidalgo was listening to music and asked the student if she recognized the song. She wasn’t sure. “Is it Coldplay?” she asked. It was “Imagine” by John Lennon. Hidalgo took it in stride that his student didn’t recognize the song. As he explains in our interview below, he realized the song wasn’t from her generation. What struck Hidalgo, though, was the incident echoed a question that had long intrigued him, which was how music and movies and all the other things that once shone in popular culture faded like evening from public memory.
Hidalgo is among the premier data miners of the world’s collective history. With his MIT colleagues, he developed Pantheon, a dataset that ranks historical figures by popularity from 4000 B.C. to 2010. Aristotle and Plato snag the top spots. Jesus is third. It’s a highly addictive platform that allows you to search people, places, and occupations with a variety of parameters. Most famous tennis player of all time? That’s right, Frenchman Rene Lacoste, born in 1904. (Roger Federer places 20th.) Rankings are drawn from, essentially, Wikipedia biographies, notably ones in more than 25 different languages, and Wikipedia page views.
In December 2018, Hidalgo and colleagues published a Nature paper that put his crafty data-mining talents to work on another question: How do people and products drift out of the cultural picture? They traced the fade-out of songs, movies, sports stars, patents, and scientific publications. They drew on data from sources such as Billboard, Spotify, IMDB, Wikipedia, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, and the American Physical Society, which has gathered information on physics articles from 1896 to 2016. Hidalgo’s team then designed mathematical models to calculate the rate of decline of the songs, people, and scientific papers.
The report, “The universal decay of collective memory and attention,” concludes that people and things are kept alive through “oral communication” from about five to 30 years. They then pass into written and online records, where they experience a slower, longer decline. The paper argues that people and things that make the rounds at the water cooler have a higher probability of settling into physical records. “Changes in communication technologies, such as the rise of the printing press, radio and television,” it says, affect our degree of attention, and all of our cultural products, from songs to scientific papers, “follow a universal decay function.”
Last week I caught up with Hidalgo to talk about his Nature paper. But I also wanted to push him to talk about what he saw between the mathematical lines, to wear the social scientist’s hat and reflect on the consequences of decay in collective memory.
How do you define “collective memory?”
The easiest definition would be those pieces of knowledge or information that are shared by a large number of people.
Why does collective memory decay matter?
If you think about it, culture and memory are the only things we have. We treasure cultural memory because we use that knowledge to build and produce everything we have around us. That knowledge is going to help us build the future and solve the problems we have yet to solve. If aliens come here and wave a magic wand and make everyone forget everything—our cars, buildings, bridges, airplanes, our power systems, and so forth, we would collapse as a society immediately.
The relative power of scientists has diminished as we exited the printing era and went into this more performance-based era.
In your mind, what is a classic example of collective memory decay?
I thought everybody knew “Imagine” by John Lennon. I’m almost 40 and my student was probably 20. But I realized “Imagine” is not as popular in her generation as it was in mine, and it was probably less popular in my generation than in the generation before. People have a finite capacity to remember things. There’s great competition for the content out there, and the number of people who know or remember something decays over time. There’s another example, of Elvis Presley memorabilia. People had bought Elvis memorabilia for years and it was collecting huge prices. Then all of a sudden the prices started to collapse. What happened is the people who collected Elvis memorabilia started to die. Their families were stuck with all of this Elvis stuff and trying to sell it. But all of the people who were buyers were also dying.
You write collective memory also reflects changes in communication technologies, such as the rise of the printing press, radio, and TV. How so?
Take print. Changing the world from an oral tradition to a written tradition provided a much better medium for data. A lot of people have linked the revolution in the sciences and astronomy to the rise of printing because astronomical tables, for instance, could be copied in a reliable way. Before printing, astronomical tables were hand-copied, which introduced errors that diminished the quality of the data. With printing, people had more reliable forms of data. We see very clearly from our data that with the rise of printing you get the rise of astronomers, mathematicians, and scientists. You also see a rise in composers because printing helps the transmission of sheet music. So when you look at people we remember most from the time when print first arose, you see ones from the arts and sciences.
What did the mediums that came next mean for science?
The new mediums of radio and TV were much more adaptive for entertainment than science, that’s for sure. The people who belong to the sciences, as a fraction of the people who became famous, diminished enormously during the 20th century. The new mediums were not good for the nuances that science demands. For good reason, scientists need to qualify their statements narrowly and be careful when they talk about causality. They need to be specific about the methods they use and the data they collect. All of those extensive nuances are hard to communicate in mediums that are good for entertainment and good for performance. So the relative power of scientists, or their position in society, have diminished as we exited the printing era and went into this more performance-based era.
At the same time, scientists and the general scientific community have not been great at adapting their ideas to new mediums. Scientists are the first ones to bring down another scientist who tries to popularize content in a way that would not be traditional. So scientists are their own worst enemies in this battle. They have lagged behind in their ability to learn how to use these mediums. Sometimes they focus too much on the content without paying attention on how to adapt it to the medium that will best help it get out.
What does your analysis tell us we didn’t know before about the decay of collective memory?
We began by looking at how popular something is today based on how long ago it became popular in the first place. The expectation is collective memory decays over time in a smooth pattern, that the more time goes by, the more things become forgotten. But what we found when we looked at cultural products—movies, songs, sports figures, patents, and science papers—was that decay is not smooth but has two defined regimes. Then there’s the second regime in which it has a much longer tail, when the decay is smoother, and the attention is less. [This implies that artistic innovation, which departs from the popular, will take longer and a more focused, or niche, audience to catch on; its durability and network dissemination determining how successful it is.]
I’m surprised how the U.S., a country with people doing so many things, can become so monothematic on such a vast scale.
When we started to think about decay, we realized we could take two concepts from anthropology—“communicative memory” and “cultural memory.” Communicative memory arises from talking about things. Donald Trump is very much in our communicative memory now. You walk down the street and find people talking about Trump—Trump and tariffs, Trump and the trade war. But there’s going to be a point, 20 years in the future, in which he’s not going to be talked about every day. He’s going to exit from communicative memory and be part of cultural memory. And that’s the memory we sustain through records. Although the average amount of years that something remains in communicative memory varies—athletes last longer than songs, movies, and science papers, sometimes for a couple of decades—we found this same overall decay pattern in multiple cultural domains.
In your forthcoming paper, “How the medium shapes the message,” you refer to the late cultural critic Neil Postman who argued that the popular rise of TV led to a new reign of entertainment, which dumbed us down, because entertainment was best suited for TV. Is that what you found?
We found evidence in that favor, yes. Because the fraction of people who belong to the sciences, as a fraction of all of the people that become famous, diminishes enormously during the 20th century. It would completely agree with that observation.
Do you agree with Postman that we’re all “amusing ourselves to death?”
I don’t think we’re amusing ourselves to death. I’m not like that much of a pessimist. I do think life is also about enjoying the ride, not just about doing important things. And new mediums like TikTok, a kind of Twitter for videos, are great for creative expression. People are doing amazing little performance skits on TikTok. The entertainment and artistic components of every new medium are not bad per se, but every medium can be hijacked by extreme people who know how to craft entertaining messages, especially when they want to advance a certain agenda.
What type of information is best suited for the Internet?
It’s hard to think of the Internet as a medium. It’s more of a platform in which Facebook, Twitter, email, and TikTok are different mediums. They each send their own type of message. A picture that does well on Instagram doesn’t necessarily shine on Twitter, where people are expecting something else. The behavior and the engagements are different. Twitter, for example, is about being controversial. You know, one way to get chewed up on Twitter is to try to be in the center! I use Twitter a little, but not that much. I find that it’s a little bit hostile. I’m a family type of guy, so I use Facebook. In Facebook, at least in my circle, you put more detail into comments and are a little bit more thoughtful.
Now people like Elon Musk are in the center of culture. Young people now look up to entrepreneurs the way we used to look up to musicians.
Is collective memory decaying more rapidly because communication technologies are so much faster?
I would love to know that but I can’t. Some people would say collective memory decays based not on calendar time but the speed at which new content is being produced. We forget Elvis because the Beatles came up and we forget the Beatles because Led Zeppelin came and we forget Led Zeppelin because Metallica came up, and so forth. But things become very dear to a generation and people will not forget about them just because new content came in. So decay would be something characteristic of humans, not the volume of content. To separate those two things, we would need to look at content from very different time frames. At the moment, we don’t have the richness of data that we would need to answer that question.
Still, don’t you think the speed at which online information is tearing through our brains has got to be leaving some path of destruction in collective memory?
I don’t know. I grew up in Chile, which of course is small compared to the United States. I came to the U.S. for the first time in 1996. And one of the things that still surprises me is how monothematic American culture can be. In 1996 it was all about O.J. Simpson. Everybody talked about O.J. Simpson. He was everywhere on TV. Just like Trump today, he consumed the entire bandwidth. I’m surprised how a country with so many people, and with people doing so many different things, can nevertheless become so monothematic on such a vast scale. Today we have so much more content than in 1996 because of the rise of the Internet and the ability of people to create content. But look at the percentage of all conversations and online communications that are consumed by Trump. So in that context, I don’t think content is being replaced so easily. I don’t see that much of a rise in diversity. [This indicates the winner-take-all nature of network and popularity metrics. Content creators become famous for being famous.]
That’s really interesting. Because one of the common criticisms of the current information glut is we have no shared cultural center. Everybody has their own narrow interest and we have no shared cultural bond, no John Lennon.
Is that a collective memory phenomenon or is it because nowadays the guys in the middle of the culture are different guys? Different people come into the center of culture because of the type of mediums that are available. There have been musicians for thousands of years, and for most of that history, musicians have not been wealthy. It was only when there was a medium that allowed them to sell their music—vinyl, magnetic tapes, and discs—that they were able to make money. I think that generated a golden era of pop music in the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s. And that’s associative to a communication technology that was dominant at that time. Radio and discs were a way to distribute those popular idols’ musical performances. When that technology was replaced by simple forms of copying, like the ability to copy files on the Internet, all that went away. [This explains why the music industry of physical media, with its high-profit margins, is not coming back.] Now people like Elon Musk are in the center of culture. He’s not John Lennon. It’s a very different type of leadership, a different type of model for young people. But Musk’s first job was an online payment start-up. And I think a lot of young people now look up to entrepreneurs the way we used to look up to musicians.
Did you come away from your study with insights into what may or may not cause something to stick in collective memory?
I read a very good book recently called The Formula by Albert-Laszlo Barabas. He says you can equate quality and popularity in situations in which performance is clearly measurable. But in cases in which performance is not clearly measurable, you cannot equate popularity with quality. If you look at tennis players, you find tennis players who win tournaments and difficult games are more popular. So quality and fame are closely correlated in a field in which performance is measured as tightly as professional tennis players. As you move to things that are less quantifiable in terms of performance, like modern art [or music or books], your networks are going to be more important in determining popularity. [This is why we need a human social network that curates and filters subjective content.]
How should we think about quality in media content?
Well, I would say that collective memory decay is an important way to measure and think about quality. If you publish some clickbait that is popular in the beginning, that gets a lot of views in the first couple of days, but a year later, nobody looks at it, you have a good metric. The same is true if you publish a more thoughtful piece that might not be as popular in the beginning because it didn’t work as clickbait—it required more engagement from the readers—but keeps on building readers over time. So the differences in longevity are important metrics for quality. [So unless we have a dynamic social network that can curate subjective contents and filter it into its proper consumer niche, quality becomes an ignored step-child to the popularity of art.]
That goes back to a paper I did when I was an undergrad about the decay functions of attendance of movies. There were some movies that had a lot of box office revenue in the first week but then decayed really fast. And there were other movies that decayed more slowly. We created a model in which people would talk to each other [this is what happens with an OSN] and communicate information of the quality of the movie. And that model only had one parameter, which was how good was the movie was. So the quality of the movie would increase or decrease the probability that people would go watch it. We could then look at the curves and infer how good the movie was, based not on the total area it was shown, or on the total revenue, but on the shape of the curve. That was interesting because there were movies that were really bad like Tomb Raider, which at first was a box office success. But if you put it on our model, you would see that it was just hype, people watched it, hated the movie, and the curve decayed really fast.
Cultural innovation and quality depend on human curation of content and word of mouth through a social network.
Nice article on Ray Bradbury.
In an interview with James Day, Bradbury said imagining, or “fantasizing” as he put it, was essential to survive and grow. The most important part of a child’s day was the time right before he went to sleep, when his imagination received the whole range of his mind, allowing him to dream himself into becoming something.
Imagination didn’t simply help the person who imagined. Imagination was a line of dominoes, which, once activated, would set off a chain reaction that could inspire who knows who or how many people.
Man requires art. …not only because art can address the problems politics can’t, such as problems of the soul (see Bradbury’s story “A Piece of Wood”), but also because art, in a real way, strips away the material to reveal the real.
At tuka, we fully agree that to create, share, and connect with others using our imaginations and our artistic expressions is to fully realize our potential and who we are as human beings.
All we need is the right playground…
Q: What do musicians do?
A: Create and share their art!
Q: How does a musician make money?
Hint: It’s all about the data.
The argument here is really about product flow vs. art. According to Spotify, the quality of artistic expression is not what’s important to listeners, it’s all about the product flow. An oversupply of crap is still, well, crap. Spotify needs data, not music. They want to use musicians to mine their data network value to justify their share price.
Streaming services as distribution networks are not friends to artists.
More than eight in ten people working in culture and the arts feel those with “controversial opinions” risk professional ostracism.
More than eight in ten people working in culture and the arts feel those with “controversial opinions” risk professional ostracism.
The Freedom of Expression survey commissioned by Arts Professional magazine found in its research of 500 professionals that more than 80 percent thought that “workers in the arts and cultural sector who share controversial opinions risk being professionally ostracised”.