Is the Music Industry Suffering Because There is Too Much Music?

Recent reports show that iTunes Store music sales have dropped around 13%. Overall album sales dropped 8% in 2013. Fewer people are buying music, and more are streaming it. Yet most people using streaming services aren’t paying for their music; only 28 million people worldwide were paying a subscription fee for their music in 2013. The rest are happy to put up with ads in between the hits to get music for nothing.

At the same time, rumors suggest that Apple is trying to get record labels to sign on for $5 monthly subscriptions. It’s true that, if the price were lower, more people might be willing pay to stream music; but are there enough people who care about music that much to be willing to pay anything at all?

Are There Enough Songs?

In 1991, Bob Dylan said:

"The world don’t need any more songs. […] They’ve got enough. They’ve got way too many. As a matter of fact, if nobody wrote any songs from this day on, the world ain’t gonna suffer for it. Nobody cares. There’s enough songs for people to listen to, if they want to listen to songs. For every man, woman and child on earth, they could be sent, probably, each of them, a hundred records, and never be repeated. There’s enough songs. Unless someone’s gonna come along with a pure heart and has something to say. That’s a different story. But as far as songwriting, any idiot could do it. If you see me do it, any idiot could do it.

Perhaps the problem isn’t about owning vs. streaming music, or piracy vs. paying; perhaps it’s simply that there’s too much music, and most people simply don’t care enough about music.

I’ve been a music fan since the 1970s. I had lots of albums back in the day, and spent a lot of time with friends, going to concerts, discovering new music, playing my finds for others, and going to used record stores to look for obscure bands. When I discovered classical music, I found a genre with a rich history, and thousands of works to discover, and have spent a few decades doing just that.

But I’m an exception. I don’t know many people (other than on internet forums and newsgroups) who care enough about music to do more than buy a couple of CDs a year (or, now, downloads). Most people simply want a soundtrack to their lives. They don’t care very much which songs they hear. Sure, they get pulled in by the latest hits, and may even buy some songs to listen to, for a while, on their mobile phones. But the half-life of a pop song is no more than a month or two, and those songs get forgotten as new earworms work their way up the pecking order.

I sent a draft of this article to my friend Doug Adams, who, I know, has similar musical discovery experience. He said something very fitting.

"Most people will never crave a new musical experience. They just want to hear songs that don’t suck while they work, drive, and do other activities. Music is just wallpaper. It brightens their day. Discovering new music is fine as long as it sounds like the stuff they already like. Radio, and streaming, survives on that premise.

He’s right: most people want music that’s familiar. That’s why genres such as smooth jazz exist: because the music isn’t demanding, and it all sounds alike. That’s why bands like Mumford & Sons exist: every one of their songs sounds the same.[1]

A Golden Age of Music

We’re living in a golden age of music. Back in the day, we didn’t have so many ways of listening to music. There was radio, and, well, other than your collection or that of your friends, there was nothing else. You chose between AM and FM. AM played nothing but the top 40 hits, and FM, at least for a while, played “album rock,” non-hit cuts from albums, and even entire sides or albums late at night.

Then came MTV; a bit later, the internet came, with digital music and the ability to store thousands of songs on a single device. Digital downloads – and piracy – meant that the amount of music we could access at any time increased by several orders of magnitude. Now, with streaming services, we can choose from tens of millions of tracks, picking the exact music we want to hear when we want to hear it.

Of course, that assumes that we know what music we want to hear. As we have more music available, a few clicks away,, people are spending less time building up collections and becoming familiar with music; they’re spending more time shuffling through pre-packaged playlists that are little better than what the radio offers. Sure, any subscriber to a streaming service can check out the latest Taylor Swift album, but also music by Miles Davis, John Cage, or some old Delta blues. But most people still go for the hits, and the streaming services promote that music, because they know it gets played a lot. It’s familiar; it’s not surprising.[2]

And music is more fragmented than ever. There are hundreds of genres and sub-genres of music; tens of thousands of artists. It’s harder and harder to find anything new. The iTunes Store currently has more than 43 million “songs;” if you assume an average of four minutes a song [3], it would take more than 7,853 years to listen to each of these songs once. As more and more music is released, there’s less of a chance of anyone discovering more than those few songs that float to the top.

As Dylan said, any idiot can write songs; now, any idiot can record them too, and that contributes to the glut. All an artist needs is a laptop and a microphone.

Maybe there is just too much music. Maybe the music industry needs to stop trying to peddle everything and get back to the way it worked a few decades ago, nurturing artists, helping them grow, and developing labels with unique character. I’m not naive; I know it’s too late, but as the music industry laments its decline, it’s time to consider that the reason might not be piracy or freeloading, but simply the fact that it’s too easy to hear music, and that most people simply don’t care about what they hear.

  1. I crave new musical experiences. And this thought brought back a memory. It was July 27, 1977, just two weeks after the huge blackout in New York City. With some friends, I was hanging out by Cunningham Park in Queens. One guy had a boombox, and we tuned into WNEW, the wonderful radio station that played album rock. DJ Alison Steele was playing the new Grateful Dead album Terrapin Station. On side two, the title track, we heard the Grateful Dead with an orchestra; strings and flutes and oboes! (I just put it on as I was writing this, and I can, somewhere in my reptilian brain, recall that first feeling of surprise hearing that song.)  ↩
  2. I don’t currently subscribe to any streaming services, but if I did, I would definitely use it to discover unfamiliar music, new genres, like old blues, Indian classical music and classic country; all genres that have a small presence in my music library, but that I would like to know more about. I’d like to expand my knowledge of jazz, too; I have a lot of music by a few artists, and I’d like to learn more about the complex history of that genre.  ↩
  3. This is a guesstimate, but it balances a higher number of short songs with longer tracks, such as those found on classical recordings. But it doesn’t matter that much what estimated duration one uses; the resulting number is suitably ridiculous no matter how you slice it.  ↩