We’re Drowning in Nostalgia (and It’s Partly My Fault)
Oh, I kid the Deadheads. I make no secret of my love for box sets, and if I can get pleasure out of a 53-disc Miles Davis box I certainly understand how 80 discs of the Dead is attractive to the Sugar Magnolias of the world.
The reason that the Dead article jumped out at me is that I'd just finished reading a Billboard story about Tom Petty making a second album with Mudcrutch, his pre-Heartbreakers band. Reading the two pieces back to back didn't fill me with 80-disc Mudcrutch anticipation, but rather a sense of impending doom: How much more nostalgia can we take before we collapse beneath its massive sonic weight?
I'm as guilty as anyone, perhaps even guiltier. Recently, right here on Diffuser, I published essays about Sgt. Pepper's 48th birthday and the Buzzcocks' Spiral Scratch. Heck, I'm Diffuser's Roots of Indie columnist -- my job depends on being nostalgic.
Job duties aside, though, the truth of the matter is that I would still be listening to old music and looking forward to career-spanning box sets even it wasn't my gig. I like the music that I like, and because I'm a bit older, it's a bit older. I'm not alone: Just a few weeks ago, Beth Kellmurray covered a study that found that most people age out of new music sometime in their thirties. (Note: I don't think we really needed a study to demonstrate that, as we've all been subjected to the middle-aged relative who wants to turn us on to the magic of ABBA.)
It's really an interesting phenomenon. For the majority of my life, popular music has been a youth phenomenon, and it still is, for the most part. Labels aren't targeting acts like Rihanna and Kanye to guys like me, but then again, they aren't targeting $700 box sets to Rihanna fans.
Why try to convince a middle-aged dude to download a Taylor Swift song for a buck when you can sell him a Grateful Dead box set for 700 times that price?
What 80-disc sets tell me is that rather than fight the fact that listeners' preferences tend to calcify in their thirties, the labels have learned to exploit this obvious truth. Why try to convince a middle-aged dude to download a Taylor Swift song for a buck when you can sell him a Grateful Dead box set for 700 times that price? Giving the people who have the money what they want just makes good business sense.
Where I'm struggling, though, is if we're fed a steady stream of leftovers, how is the next generation ever going to develop its own unique tastes? I'm not talking about pop music here -- there's no 100-hologram Katy Perry brain implant awaiting us in the future. I'm talking about the punch you in the gut, make you feel like someone is talking only to you relationships that prior generations have with Bob Dylan, the Clash, the Replacements and Wilco.
The good news is that there's never been a better time to be either a music fan or a musician. There are so many ways for bands to get their music out there now that no artist is obstructed by a major label rolling its tumbling dice on a tried and true act. Your audience is out there waiting for you -- you just need to find them.
That's the theory, anyway. The truth of the matter is that the democratizing influence of the internet has resulted in such an overload of new music that it's almost paralyzing. Some folks dive right in and swim around, others (I'm looking at you, thirtysomethings) panic and retreat to their trusted Weezer and Radiohead.
So the question is this: If the major labels are only interested in investing in nostalgia and pop, how does a new band rise above the sea of noise that is the internet? Or maybe the better question is: How can you break out of the nostalgia trap?
My prescription: Take two tickets and call me in the morning. Take off your earbuds and get down to your local club, or hit one of the many summer festivals in the coming months. There's nothing like experiencing music live, and even if the only reason you bought a ticket was to see the headliner you're going to get exposed to some new music courtesy of the opening act. Just a few weeks ago I was turned onto Connor Kennedy, a very welcome surprise of a musician opening for an established act.
We have to make room for new music, both in the industry and in our pysches. That doesn't mean throwing out the old, it just means that we can't wallow in it. There's a batch of young musicians out there who are every bit as talented as their box-set-worthy elders -- they just need a chance to find your impressionable ear holes.
But when you're done checking out all that great new music, don't forget to come back here and read my Roots of Indie column. Nostalgia isn't all bad, after all.