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Top 40 Music, Kids These Days, and the Bland Middle

Is popular music today worse than it was when I was a teen in the 90s and was more aware of popular music? Of course! Generational decline is an ironclad law. Millennials are the worst!

On her blog, Libby Jacobson has a nice analysis of this, comparing a Top 40 list from 1996 from one today. She notes that in the 1996 list, “only Alanis Morissette had two songs in the Top 40,” while in today’s list,

Taylor Swift has two songs in the Top 5. Meghan Trainor has two songs in the top 10. Maroon 5: Two songs in Top 20. Ariana Grande, Nicki Minaj, Sam Smith, Sia, and Ed Sheeran appear twice in the list. When you include collaborations, Drake, John Newman, Tove Lo and Juicy J also appear multiple times on the list. Not only does pop music all sound the same these days, the mainstream-successful stuff is largely being made by the same people.

She concludes that “pop music is converging both in terms of style/sound and in terms of the talent & personalities producing it” and asks young people to “put down the Taylor Swift and go exploring.”

The thing is, I’m not sure she’s reading the data correctly. Let me offer an alternative take, while admitting that I could be totally off.

I bet if you look at the percent of the music-listening public who listed to/heard/recognized each of the songs on the top 40 lists, you’d fine that it’s declined dramatically between 1996 and today. In other words, the most popular music today isn’t as popular as the most popular music in 1996.

Music has always had call it a “bland middle.” There’s always been a set of bands that are both popular and kind of all sound the same. (I say this as someone who chiefly listens to 90s punk rock, which is quite often utterly interchangeable.) There are people whose taste runs to that bland middle, but there area great deal of people whose tastes don’t.

One thing rather dramatically different about music today from when I was a kid is how easy — and cheap! — it is to access both a lot of it, and a lot of variety. Used to be, I had to save up for a CD, which was around ten or fifteen bucks, and then listen the hell out of it until I had money for another. With Spotify, I can pay that much on a monthly basis to have unlimited access to basically any song there is. This has the effect of dropping the marginal cost of music exploration to zero and making such exploration very easy. Just click around and listen.

Let’s say that among the audience for music, there are 100 “tastes.” There are 100 kinds of music people prefer, with different people ranking those tastes differently. If music is expensive, you’re less likely to try all 100 tastes. Instead, you’ll stick with the ones that you know you like. And if exploration is difficult, you’ll be less likely to even know about all 100 possible tastes, and even within your preferred tastes, you’re likely to only know about the most popular bands because those are the ones everyone else knows about and so are the ones you’ve heard of.

But if music is cheap, you’ll try out more, if not all, of the 100. And within each, you’ll try more bands. (This is made even easier by services like Pandora or Spotify Radio, which let you in effect say, “Here’s my particular taste. Find me things within it I don’t know about.”)

What does this all have to do with the makeup of the Top 40 list? Well, the Top 40 list is a relative ranking of popularity. It’s the most popular stuff at any given time, but it doesn’t tell you how popular that stuff is compared to the most popular stuff from yesterday or years ago.

So my hypothesis is that in 1996, the average number of tastes that had a sizable share of the listening public’s attention and the average number of bands each person listened to within those tastes was lower than today. Today, individual people’s tastes likely diverge more, and within those tastes they likely listen to more variety.

Thus what looks like more variety in the Top 40 in 1996 is actually representative of less variety among the public as a whole. More of those 100 tastes are popular enough to make the Top 40 because people have converged more on a subset of those 100. And what looks like a lack of variety in the Top 40 today is actually representative of more variety among the public as a whole. People are more divergent in their tastes and they’re listening to more bands within those tastes, which means the taste/band combinations that make the Top 40 are those that only slightly edge out all the others people dig. And those are likely to reside in the bland middle.

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People Don’t Owe You Money Just Because You Think You’re Awesome

Sorry, but it’s true.

Erin Biba doesn’t get paid much when she writes for online outlets and she’s pretty sure that’s other peoples’ fault. In a very silly essay at Medium, Biba explains how her “talent, critical thinking, ability to ask the right questions, and skill in explaining super complex topics”—presumably developed during her “$60,000 graduate journalism degree from Medill”—entitles her to more than the market’s willing to pay.

I can write and report a kickass story with my eyes closed and one hand tied behind my back. But the algorithm that decides how much I get paid for all that badass-ness doesn’t put any value on how good I am. It cares not at all how well written this story is or how much experience I have. All that’s important is how many times you guys click.

The going rate for this essay, she tells us, is “two and a half cents per click.”

Let me start by noting that, while $0.025 doesn’t sound like a lot, it’s actually not too bad. The essay runs just 612 words and they’re rather ranty and unpolished. I hope it took her less than an hour to write. But it’s likely getting a ton of traffic, as stuff that goes viral on Medium tends to do. How much? I don’t know. Probably more than my most popular column at Libertarianism.org this last year, at the very least, and that got 14,567 clicks. If I’d earned her rate, I’d have pocketed $364. Which isn’t bad. If she hits even twice that, she’ll get a nice pile of cash.

Still, the trouble with Biba’s tirade isn’t the numbers. It’s the sense of entitlement and the lack of, well, critical thinking and asking the right questions.

The core of her argument is just that online writing pays authors based on the traffic their writing generates and offers lower pay than many print outlets. Those print outlets, unable “to quantify the value of [the author’s] contribution to their business by counting clicks,” tend to pay more, and thus often pay to produce “great stories” instead of “the most popular ones.”

Biba reads this as print outlets “understanding the importance of a good writer,” while online sites care little for quality and want only traffic. Yet here’s an opportunity for Biba to ask one of those right questions she says she’s so skilled at asking. Namely, if the sort of writing print appreciates is so great, why are print sales in decline? Related: If those sorts of stories, the kind Biba wants to write, are so obviously better than the “journalism written entirely by amateurs with no experience, no education, and limited talent,” why do online outlets—which can meansure readership—ask for the latter and not the former?

Perhaps it’s that there’s just more of an audience for short and simple than there is for long and deep. And perhaps that’s always been the case, but in the past, in the print-only world, there wasn’t a way to measure it. So editors assumed everyone liked what they like (i.e., in-depth stories), when in fact most people actually would’ve preferred Buzzfeed listicles.

The fact is, if lots of people want what you produce, if what you produce is in demand, the market will compensate you accordingly. If Biba pulled in big checks when we had no way of measuring how much people actually wanted her writing, but now doesn’t when we do, then perhaps the problem is people just aren’t interested in what she writes. No matter how expensive her journalism degree or how talented she’s pretty sure she is.

Except, of course, for this particular instance of Millennial entitlement. I imagine it’ll pay her pretty well.

This essay original appeared at AaronRossPowell.com.