The Value of Popular Music

I had the opportunity last weekend to catch a performance by Graham Parker, one of my favorite pub-wave acts, right here in Minneapolis. (If you don’t know Parker’s work, I recommend starting with Stick to Me and Squeezing Out Sparks, late-70s offerings made with the help of unofficial Stiff Records house band, The Rumour.) He played tunes in what seemed like a pretty even distribution from throughout his career, all superb, but I don’t think I’d be zooming him to suggest that his older numbers were received with even greater warmth than his newer ones got. Surely this is par for the course with rockers of a certain vintage: Given the generational asymmetry that characterizes the consumption and imprinting, so to speak, of pop music—which I imagine we could quantify if we had the right market data in front of us—it shouldn’t be surprising that a rock musician’s early material holds a special value to fans who associate that music with late adolescence and early adulthood. As this crossed my mind during Parker’s set, I entertained a thought that only someone in the field of contemporary music would entertain: What if he had stopped writing songs in 1985? What if he had played a set of old tunes and suitable covers, excluding new material altogether?

Indulge me in a thought-experiment. Let’s assume, even though we know it’s a gross oversimplification, that the value of a piece of popular music rests solely in how much it’s loved by the people who love it—in other words, how highly it’s regarded by genuine fans. After two to four records, then, it follows that songwriting suffers from diminishing returns: Our hypothetical rocker would be better served to keep playing his older songs and, importantly, the older songs of other songwriters. The “standard repertoire” of postwar Anglophone pop music—which, if you think about it, starts off compact and becomes diffuse as the decades tick past—would begin to consolidate itself. A rich possibility-space of interpretation would open up.

But this rather neat setup doesn’t take into account the mechanisms of production and consumption that set the real value of pieces of popular music with no direct regard for how much the fans love them. If pop musicians played and recorded nothing but covers and older chestnuts, how could they make a living? The entire economy of pop music would have to change radically to bring about this wonderland of covers and classics. But I like to daydream about it, because I think it would avail pop music of one of small-C classical music’s most fascinating potentials—the possibility that a particular rendition of a song could be at once the same as another rendition and different from it.

6 thoughts on “The Value of Popular Music

  1. Philipp Blume

    I don’t know if this is actually true, but I’ve been told that salespeople at piano showrooms memorize the hits from the 50′s to the 90′s. They learn to assess the approximate age of their walk-in clients. Then they do the math in their heads and ‘pull up’ the music that was most popular while the client was 16-20 years old. This strategy allegedly is a pretty good way to promote sales. So I don’t think the age of the band is what’s critical. It’s the age of the individual listener.

    An even more banal point is to remember that new acts have to be pretty resourceful to establish themselves. A drop in popularity for their later records might well be a function of their own complacency.

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  2. Colin Holter

    So I don’t think the age of the band is what’s critical. It’s the age of the individual listener.I see what you’re saying – but I also think that there’s a correlation (however loose) between the age of the listener and the ages of bands/performers that listener is likely to enjoy.

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  3. Paul Muller

    “If pop musicians played and recorded nothing but covers and older chestnuts, how could they make a living?”

    Well, I think that is precisely what they do. Here in Ventura we have a theater venue – not huge – and every week a bus pulls into the parking lot and out comes a 60′s, 70′s or 80′s rock band to do a one-night show. They fill the hall, get a payday and move to the next town. Groups I thought were long disbanded or dead turn up to play their gigs and all the 40 and 50-somethings turn out to hear the bands that they listened to when they were 20. Same with our county fair. If your band had a hit or two – even 40 years ago – there is an audience waiting in places like my town.

    Most in the pop music industry now see the 60′s through 80′s as a sort of bubble when it was possible to make real money through mass sales of records and CDs. Those days are long gone and performance remains the best way to make a living as a musician.

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  4. Phil Fried

    “If pop musicians played and recorded nothing but covers and older chestnuts, how could they make a living?”

    Music can be of a time and place and perhaps that remembrance is even more important than the music that perfumes it.

    Nostalgia aside I must agree with Paul.

    In fact it can be argued that a great deal of “up to date” sampled music is just reworked oldies.

    Phil Fried

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  5. CathyAnn

    I would like to add this about Graham Parker, if he stopped making music in the 80′s what statement would he have completed?
    All if not most artist have a growing up phase where the logic improves to continue a thought process or start another. Thats part of maturity. Times change views change or stay they same and so the music must continue.
    Otherwise you have folks playing chestnuts so to speak.
    You can’t start a progression if no one will see it through til the completion.
    I have listen to all of his music from the start and still enjoy listening to the songs live that I didn’t here back when they were new songs.
    Irony is I hear the album playing when Graham performs live. So for me the first spark is the best.
    Old or new songs still can teach us a thing or two about moving on with acceptance and not shutting out progress.
    Thanks keep listening, Graham Parker Rules!

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  6. Jon Silpayamanant

    “If pop musicians played and recorded nothing but covers and older chestnuts, how could they make a living?”

    I suspect there are far more musicians in cover bands than in ‘original music’ bands. And the audiences for each kind doesn’t tend to overlap much. I think that’s one of the issues that rarely gets brought up in discussions of the relevancy of classical music groups that stick to the old warhorses–there are probably proportionally as many cover bands, special event bands and tribute bands that doe the same in the pop music world.

    And in general, if you’re talking about the local musician circuit, it will be the cover bands that get paid relatively well while the original bands (hoping to some day make it big) generally end up on the lower end of the pay scale in the clubs that happen to cater to local original music (which are far fewer in number than venues that regularly employ cover bands).

    Folks, in general, are far more interested of hearing their favorite oldies without having to constantly pay the full stadium ticket prices (which in some cases can rival the ticket prices of Symphony concerts).

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