Music is more than just pretty noises…

“Music is prophecy. Its style and economic organisation are ahead of the rest of society. It makes audible the new world that will gradually become visible.” – Jacques Attali, Noise

“For the modes of music are never disturbed without unsettling of the most fundamental political and social conventions.” – Plato, Republic

Here is an interesting graph:

Which I came across in an interesting piece of research:

Furthermore, consider the following:

And take note of the three spikes: ca. 1978, ca. 1994, and ca. 1999.

Now compare with Adiv’s data and you will see that since 1973 (the first year for which we have RIAA data on sales/revenue) there have been three major upward swings in the BPM: between 1977 and 1978, the average BPM of the three most popular songs for those years shot up from 66 to 112, then in 1994 to 1995 we have a jump from 76 to 111, and finally from 1998 to 1999 the average for the year jumps from 63 to 113. So basically, when the mood changed from “Hotel California”and “Mull of Kintyre” to “YMCA” and “Staying Alive”, we saw a massive spike in sales. Ironically enough, it was “Livin la Vida Loca”, at 178 BPM, which was responsible for the pre-September 11 jump in tempo.

Now, I am aware this is big thumbsuck at the moment, since the actual yearly figures are apparently a closely guarded secret which you have to pay the RIAA to get, so I can’t plot with the accuracy I’d like. Nevertheless, I’m going to stick to my guns regarding the three upticks I’ve described above (and the idea that tempo is related to sales), and here’s why:

Aram Sinnreich points out here that this is a completely freaky pattern which he and his buddies at the Federal Reserve Bank can’t explain. As you can see, global music sales actually predict dollar strength, when all the theory suggests it should be the other way round. The solution to the riddle is that music works ahead of the economy because it is the densest code that humans possess, and therefore capable of communicating systemic change more efficiently than any other means. In other words, more information is gathered while listening to three minutes of music than by spending three minutes reading, watching a film, or looking at Guernica. Music front runs everything. In essence, music is the future.

Now, you may have noticed that, while I am trying to make a case for a link between the average tempo of a given year’s songs and the sales for that year (and therefore, by extension, the health of the general economy!), sales start to drop off dramatically in 1999 (and continue to do so today), while tempo does not. Surely this invalidates the theory that music contains the blueprint for what follows?

Actually, no. What it does do is point to a decoupling/recoupling of the economy. Firstly, you have tot take into account that the commodification of recorded music happened slowly, and until the 60’s live music was still a huge part of industry revenue. It was only after World War II that the industry deliberately changed its focus to recorded music. So by the 1960s you still have the residual live music model in the background. By the time the 70s roll round, however, this is now finally gone, and music exists in recorded form, with the live performance acting as a function of the revenue generated by recording. Therefore, Michael Jackson can tour BAD because it is a hit in terms of record sales, and not the other way round. Therefore, the time period circa 1960 – 1999 represents the period in which music was completely commodified, and during which, therefore, the links between music and the economy are easiest to spot.

In 1999 two things happened which changed both the music industry and the economy: Napster, and the repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act. Together, these two events and the trends they represent would ensure complete reversal of the music sales/live performance relationship which had existed during Michael Jackson’s heyday. The reversal was so complete that Madonna would set a new record drop off in sales precisely because CDs were being bundled with concert tickets. How did this state of affairs come about?

Napster enabled music to free itself from the false economy of copywright which was used to exploit the technology of mass produced music. In other words, recorded music was de-commodified. Glass-Steagall enabled the banking system to trade in ways which built tier upon tier of debt servicing yet more debt, in effect commodifying money itself. The results of both moves were the same, and anyone watching what had happened with P2P sharing of music would have realised that a monetary crisis was on the way: as soon as recorded music could be reproduced and shared almost infinitely, it’s economic value went to zero, and just as soon as money itself was reproduced and shared in ever greater feats of leveraging and hypothecation, its economic value started to decline. Music was ahead of the economy because people don’t have to sit around in board meetings waiting to take a vote before they can download the latest Christina Aguilera track. The system started to feed into itself when the deflationary cycle prompted consumers to reign in spending on music (exactly as they had during the 1929 crisis), catching the music industry on two fronts, and leading to a decade of decreasing sales. Therefore, since 1999, music has been progressively decoupled from the market, and sales data is increasingly ineffective as an indicator of consumption.

So why is tempo still increasing?

Well, just because what we call the economy is failing, doesn’t mean that economic activity is not happening. Remember how in the 90’s growth and GDP were universally accepted as yardsticks for economic prosperity? Look at how that turned out: unstable, completely insane growth led us all down the rabbit hole of debt in search of a prosperity which was all smoke and mirrors. Since we have the same people in charge of the economy now as then (to all intents and purposes), I see no reason why such blindness should suddenly cease. All evidence is to the contrary. Using debt to pay off debt is ridiculous. Printing money to pay off debt is the Zimbabwean solution, and further erodes consumer faith in the value of money. The fact is that the Masters of the Universe cannot see the forest for the trees, or simply don’t want to, or can but refuse to say/do anything. What the last fifty years proves is that there is a definite disconnect between the way in which we evaluate an economy, and the real value of that economy. This disconnect is now reflected in music.

In addition, we must acknowledge that the music industry has for the last 50 years been increasingly manipulated. The idea that the popularity of recording artists or hit songs are in some way determined by the public has now entered the realm of the mythological.  Likewise, the idea that a particular ‘sound’ is created through through feedback between artist and audience – in the time-honoured manner – has been quaint for a while. The prevailing tempo of popular music is now dependent on industry executives and is no longer the province of the artist or the audience. Such a state of affairs cannot be sustained for long, however, and at last we see music acting to free itself from this model. Good news for music, musicians, and music loveras. Bad news for the Masters of the Universe.


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