Nation of Beancounters

Why do people think that the quality of music is declining?

Posted in Explained from Scratch by Navin Kumar on March 4, 2012

When it’s simply not true.

Imagine that 100 songs are produced annually. 10 of these are “good” and 90 are “bad”. This is true for Year 1 as well as Year 2. If a listener in Year 2 listens to all songs from Year 1 and Year 2, he’d conclude that the quality of songs is the same in both years (10% good). If, on the other hand, he hears only the good songs from Year 1 and all the songs from Year 2, he’d conclude that Year 1 produced 100% good songs while Year 2 produces 90% crap. Thus, music quality appears to be declining.

Good songs (“timeless classics”) survive – bad songs do not. When you listen to music from the 60s or 70s, you’re listening to the good music from the 60s and the 70s – music that your friends recommend to you. On the other hand you hear (courtesy VH1 and MTV) all the (popular) music that was produced this year, good and bad. Thus it appears that a higher proportion of the music produced in the past was of good quality. Joel Waldfogel (see the link above) adjusts for this survivorship bias and reaches the opposite conclusion – thanks to the spread of technology music quality is improving.


3 Responses

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  1. Arnav Kacker said, on March 4, 2012 at 4:36 pm

    In addition, another point you ought to mention, though I don’t know the degree of applicability, is that since content generation capabilities are spreading wider with the advent of SoundCloud and the like, people are not restricted to the airwaves in order to satisfy their musical cravings. As a result, music aficionados (those are the ones claiming the quality decline) have spread themselves out so thinly over this vast variety of music available that their tastes can not aggregate the numbers to make the charts. The ones that do make the charts are the narrow overlap of various demographics which is getting narrower everyday. (And not necessarily the music they all love but just the music they all would tolerate listening to. Hence, the music on the charts would in probability be just a small fraction of an aficionados playlist which he’d deem tolerable.)

    Another thing is that unlike the 80s where disco music was omnipresent, inside and outside clubs, there is a vast, vast quantity of music today which people would only listen to in the context of a club and would never ever deem to be good music. Curious phenomenon but charts which aggregate sales data don’t account for that. And there is plenty of this music occupying chart spots. Useless remixes, guilty pleasure dance numbers etc.

    Just thought I’d add these thoughts.

  2. Kane said, on July 28, 2012 at 8:22 pm

    I percieve that MTV and VH1 play only the popular modern music, and good music is harder and harder to find now. This leads me to believe that the quality of music listeners is declining, and the standard is going with them. It is a society thing I guess. Everything is opinion.

  3. geluid verhuur Amsterdam said, on March 15, 2013 at 2:20 pm

    Indeed Kane, everything is opinion. (“We only know, that we know nothing” covers it quite completely). But the theory of this survivor bias is very applicable on this case, imo o;-)

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