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The decline of popular music

A vivid childhood memory that I have when I was 11 years old, is coming home from school in the winter just as it was getting dark around 4pm, and coming home to my mum. She would make me a tea, and as a pre-dinner snack we would quite often have some Bovril on toast (with thick, crusty white bread) which was delicious, and we’d take it with our tea into the front room to eat it, where my mum would have the Radio on – Radio 2 to be precise.

Fast forward a few years later, and at the age of 14 (a little later than some of my friends) I finally discovered music, got my first record player, and with pocket money started buying 7″ singles. The first single I ever bought was in the summer of 1986, Madonna’s ‘Papa Don’t Preach‘ and I remember buying it from Boots (yes, Boots the chemist used to sell records!) for a £1 – discounted, as it had been number one in the charts already and was now falling away. I took it home and put it on – only to hear ‘Ain’t no big deal‘ the B-Side track. “That’s funny” I thought “They’ve put the labels on the wrong way round”, so took off the needle flipped it over only to hear ‘Ain’t no big deal‘ – it had been pressed on both sides!

I took it back to the nice lady at the record counter in Boots who promptly didn’t believe the 14 year old scallywag who was trying to wind her up, and only when I insisted did she then play it around the back, and I heard her say “Ooh, he wasn’t making it up!” to her colleague as she discovered the same. Years later, I massively regret this – and wonder how much it would be worth on eBay to a Madonna collector who could have a 7″ single mis-press with the B-Side track on both sides.

The first song in my 1986 playlist

The first song in my 1986 playlist

Anyway, ‘Papa don’t preach‘ is the first the record I ever bought, and thus would appear on the first ever paper list that I made of ‘My favourite records’ when I got to the end of the year. A year later when i got my first cassette walkman, I would make a compilation of my favourite records – mainly the ones i had bought, but some I had taped off the radio too – and took it with me.

Years forward again, and that tradition continued when I got my first CD Recorder, and then (even easier, and a format that I still like) a MiniDisc player – every time I bought a new current single, or record that I had enjoyed that year, I would add it to my compilation CD or MiniDisc for that year.

My Playlists

My Playlists

Enter… iTunes. Now in the year 2004, when it first came to the Windows platform. Straight away I discovered that you could of course make playlists, and I immediately created a ‘My 2004‘ playlist, for songs that I had bought and/or had been enjoying at that time. And then quite soon I realised that I could retrospectively make playlists for previous years, going all the way back to 1986, and the first time that I had bought a record, which is why the first ever song on my ‘My…‘ yearly playlists is the first 7″ single that I ever bought – Papa Don’t Preach.

And so it went – every week or so I’d updated my ‘current’ iTunes playlist adding in the latest new song that I was enjoyed or had bought – or indeed now of course downloaded, and at the end of the year it would then act as a musical diary of your year. “Oh, THAT song was when I was doing that…!”, and so on. Marking out the good times, the bad times, but in all – just defining your year musically.

And the best way in which it works is one of the simplest – I total up the number of songs that feature in that year for each playlist.

In 1990, when I was at my 18 year-old-self zenith, I had 75 tunes in my playlist for that year which is a very high amount! Yet by 1994 and 1995 it had dipped to just over 30 tunes – a time when I wasn’t enjoying my music so much.

In more recent times I can definitely equate getting an iPod and iTunes to 2005 when my number of favourite songs shoots up to 67, but then dips down in 2007 to 36 when I was having a horrible year of my life. In 2008 and 2009 when I was free from the shackles of the previous couple of years, I proceeded to live live to the full again and my tune count shot up. Look, here’s the graph showing how many songs have been in my yearly playlists…

How many songs in each playlist since 1986

How many songs in each playlist since 1986

Which is why I’m worried about 2014. As I get to the end of the year and I look at how many tunes have made it into my ‘favourites’ for this year, and I can see that it’s at its lowest total for a while. One of them is even a comedy song – The Axis of Awesome with ‘Phone$‘ which I heard before knowing the song that it was a parody of – when I find that song (Wings by Macklemore) I discover that it’s a song on Youtube that’s been played 56 million times and I have never heard it before. Seriously  – a 56 million time played song – that I have never heard of!

So my graph is dropping. In fact it’s dropped to just 27 songs which is the lowest number I’ve ever had in my ‘favourite’ playlists since I’ve been doing it – all 29 years of them. And I’ve thought about it – I’ve thought about it a lot.

I don’t think it means I’m unhappy. It’s simply a sign that I am now in my 40’s and my time is spent on other things that enjoying popular music. Popular music that is harder to discover now anyway, as ‘new music’ on Radio 1 just grates, and yet I am not ready to be my mother and switch over to Radio 2 yet. Which means I listen to 6 Music which plays music that I do like, but not all of it new meaning my chance of discovering ‘new’ tracks has fallen rapidly, and thus the number of new songs appearing my tunes playlists I think will now forever remain low for the rest of my life.

Maybe one day, it’ll dwindle completely – and I do wonder, how old will I be when I stop caring, and not make a yearly playlist at all?

Gotta dash, I just heard the toaster pop. And I need to go and butter it and spread some Bovril on it.

3 responses to “The decline of popular music”

  1. Chris says:

    Not a classic year for new music with manufactured acts taking a lot of the praise. That said, sift out the gimmicky acts as well and there are so great songs by the likes of Ed Sheran and George Ezra. Perhaps that’s why I’ve got more concert tickets for 2015 already booked up than any year recently.

    One thought – did you add more music to your playlists when you knew you were planning on compiling a review of the year?

  2. Richard says:

    I think it says more about the fact that as you get older you’re becoming more selective, and less likely to favourite something on the spur of the moment. Anyway, no good trying to avoid Radio 2, maybe that’s where all the good music has been this year and you’ve missed it! 😛

  3. Radio 2 fan (mum) says:

    And I’m still listening to radio 2, and classic fm as well as my existing music in my iPad. Hardly ever buy anything new. Just love what I have. Nice blog Geoff, let’s have more of this.

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