Archive for the ‘Music’ Category

Part 1: How the Popular Music of the 80’s Can Help You Predict the Future

If you want to get a glimpse into the future you can try calling Miss Cleo or you can try looking at evidence and make an educated guess. That’s forecasting, which often appears to be more of an art than a science. It requires you to be able to identify a specific pattern and then follow that to its logical conclusion. This is actually more difficult than it sounds because, like our ability to see faces in rocks, clouds, and burnt pieces of toast, it’s human nature to see patterns where none exist.

Texas Sharpshooter Fallacy: The name comes from a joke about a Texan who fires some shots at the side of a barn, then paints a target centered on the biggest cluster of hits and claims to be a sharpshooter

There is also a strong temptation to cherry pick data that supports your preconceived opinions. This is particularly true in politics where most analysis if often obfuscated by a dispute over what constitutes a fact. Popular music doesn’t inflame passions in quite the same way and complete data is available from Billboard Magazine, the undisputed industry standard which has tabulated the popularity of songs since the early 40’s.

Now I don’t pretend to know anything at all about making music, in fact I couldn’t carry a tune even if it came with a handle. However this is not about the music itself, rather it’s about the patterns caused by the rise and fall of individual songs, particularly the ones that charted on the Hot 100 which also formed the basis of the top 40 radio format that was ubiquitous in the eighties. This weekly chart tracked song by song, the progression of arena rock into grunge, the transformation of disco into hip hop, and everything else. Unlike the glacial pace of change in politics, the music industry reacts quickly to cultural shifts causing dramatic and clearly identifiable changes in sound from one era to the next.

In June of 1980, 65-year-old Frank Sinatra had his last chart hit, a cover of Liza Minnelli’s New York, New York. Four months later twenty year old Paul Hewson (pictured) and his band-mates (better known as U2) had their first hit with I Will Follow. Sinatra’s song encapsulates many elements from his hey day in the forties, the singing style, the full orchestra and the fact that it was a recent cover. Having several versions of the same song charting at the same time by different artists was once the norm. U2 on the other hand were the driving force behind a new genre of music called alternative rock, which finally reached its zenith in the early nineties. Change itself, no matter what the field of study, is both constant and evolutionary .

One piece of data is that matters not at all is the date itself. January 1st, 1980 and December 31st, 1989 are just arbitrary end points. However this doesn’t mean that the eighties didn’t have a sound and style distinct from the decade that preceded it and the one that followed. In 1981 the Beastie Boys started out as a four piece punk band, by 1984 they had abandoned their instruments as they transitioned into a rap group. In 1991 they started playing instruments on their records again and would for the rest of their career. This wasn’t an accident. The punk rock movement of the late 70’s was in a large part a reaction to the over emphasis on technical proficiency by the arena rock bands of the seventies. Whenever you see a list of the greatest guitarists or greatest drummers, etc., they always come from that era. The idea that you didn’t need to be an expert craftsman to make music that was worthwhile was an emerging trend in 1981. In contrast the alternative scene of the early nineties was very much a reaction against the perceived phoniness of commercially produced music from the eighties. The emerging trend then was an emphasis on authenticity and that meant writing your own songs and playing your own instruments.

There were as far as I can tell three prevailing trends that define the music that we associate culturally with the eighties. A punk sensibility, a more polished commercial sound, and a sense of visual style, particularly with the new bands coming out of the UK. The New Wave as it was called emerged from obscurity in 1979 and quickly took over the entire music scene. How that change happened, and why it evolved a decade later into hip hop and grunge is explained by another important element of forecasting, fractals.


Part 2: Fractals – How the Medium Can Be The Music

A fractal is simply a sub-part of a whole, a piece that by itself holds little value. However certain combinations of fractals can have a profoundly greater value than the sum of the individual parts. The formula for gunpowder is 10 parts sulfur, 15 parts charcoal and 75 parts saltpeter. It’s an explosive combination but only in that specific ratio. Now this is a simple formula with only three fractal relationships (sulfur & charcoal)(sulfur & saltpeter)(charcoal & saltpeter). If there were a fourth element, the number of relationships rises to six, a fifth element creates ten relationships. Chimpanzees share 96% of the same DNA as humans, however that 4%, even if there were only 100 parts in total, is a difference of 394 relationships.

This sequence 3 =(1+2), 6 = (1+2+3), 10 = (1+2+3+4), and so on, are known as triangular numbers because each number adds another layer to an equilateral triangle.

Music in some form or another has likely been around since the time humans and chimps first deviated from a common ancestor. It has evolved over that time much like a living species. However the phenomenon of hit song is a relatively recent creation as the ability to sell prerecorded music has only been available since the late 19th century invention of the gramophone. Prior to that artists were limited to an audience within reach of their voice. Not surprisingly the first person to sell a million records had a very powerful voice. It was Enrico Caruso, a turn of the century opera singer.

To this day, the average hit song is around three minutes long. While that may seem arbitrary, it actually matches the physical limitations of the wax phonograph cylinders which were the first form of recorded media. Over the next hundred years whenever there was a dramatic change in musical style it was always driven by an outside environmental force in much the same way that it took a meteor to wipe out the dinosaurs and accelerate human evolution. On the eve of the Great Depression there was a confluence of three big developments.

The biggest star of the 1920’s was Al Jolson, in the 1930’s it was Bing Crosby. Al Jolson was known for wearing black face and having an over the top, exaggerated style, Crosby had a more subtle, soothing style. The style that made Bing Crosby famous wasn’t possible any earlier because it required the use of an emerging technology, a microphone. Bing Crosby would go on to sell far more records than anyone had ever done. A feat no doubt assisted by the fact that recorded media, which had been in flux for a number of years, finally settled on a consistent format, the 10-inch, 78 rpm disk. They were cheap to manufacture, and the record players themselves were inexpensive, thus the masses could afford them even in the depths of the Great Depression. Crosby became the most famous recording artist the world have ever known, a reach no doubt assisted by another emerging technology, broadcast radio. I doubt neither his talent nor his hard work in achieving that success but it’s hard to imagine that he would have been able to accomplish all that if he had been born ten years earlier, or conversely ten years later when he would have competed against Frank Sinatra and many other similar talents.

The next big change in the music scene was the extinction of the big bands, which many attribute to a hail of Comets. While Bill Haley’s version of Rock around the Clock was certainly the tipping point for Rock and Roll being accepted as mainstream, the demise of the big bands was already in the works. Much of it was due to economics, as Bill Haley with six Comets was a less expensive act to produce than the Bill Haley’s Orchestra would have been. However part of the answer lies in another emerging technology, in this case it was the 7″, 45 rpm records which fit nicely into a Seeburg Jukebox. By the mid-fifties these Jukeboxes had a capacity of 50 records (100 songs) thus providing an outlet for musicians free from the payola schemes and conservative corporate advertisers that controlled broadcast radio. A jukebox hit was a serious threat to these entrenched interests. The Billboard Magazine charts came about after people began to question the validity of industry produced Hit Parade charts.

Billboard’s Hot 100 chart didn’t appear until the late fifties, by then interest in jukeboxes had waned, rock and roll had fully integrated onto mainstream radio and even African-American music had slowly gained acceptance to the point that Race Records (as they were called in the 40’s) merged onto the main chart in 1963. Meanwhile Billboard also started charting the sale of a new record medium, the vinyl 33 rpm album. Despite having a debut before the 45rpm record they didn’t catch on immediately as the idea of having 45 minutes of original material released all at once was a completely alien concept to the record companies of the fifties. In 1955 the chart listed 15 records, it wasn’t until the sixties that it expanded beyond 50. The other emerging technology of that time was multitrack recording. Stereo sound was invented in the forties, but it wasn’t widely used until a decade later. Les Paul was one of the early innovators, both with three track recording, and more famously, with the electric guitar.

All these little tidbits are fractals, and they can be further divided into three groups. Much like gunpowder some are fuel, some act as a catalyst, and a some as a source of ignition. In music the fuel is an untapped market, the catalyst is the emerging technology and the ignition is something truly unique that sparks the revolution. In 1964 there was a massive untapped market, teenagers from the post war baby boom who were just emerging as a cultural juggernaut. Four track technology was available by then and it opened up whole new world of possibilities for songwriters. 1964 was also the year that John Lennon and Paul McCartney arrived in North America.

In Outliers Malcolm Gladwell argues that it was their unusual, grueling apprenticeship in Germany that helped to make the Beatles that much more successful than any other group of musicians. While it is indeed a fractal, I wouldn’t outright assume that they just weren’t both born with extraordinary talent and by pure chance grew up in the same town and found themselves together in the same band. While this seems improbable on the surface consider the Birthday Problem. If there are over 23 people in a room, odds are better than not that two will share a common birthday. Consider this, since the war there have only been a small number of hall of fame caliber baseball players, fewer in fact than musicians who have been inducted into the songwriters hall of fame in that same time frame. Two of them have a birthday on November 21st. In addition they are both left-handed, played center-field and were born in Donora, Pennsylvania. Donora has a population of 5000 people, Liverpool has over a million.

The aftermath of the explosive changes that took place in the sixties was a fractured musical landscape with an audience segmented into a multitude of sub-genres. The success of the LP (Long Play album)finally freed artists from the tyranny of three-minute singles. This in turn lead to the seven minute anthems, endless guitar solos, live albums, and other excesses of the arena rock bands. As a counter point dance music also gained in popularity and became just as excessive. Then suddenly everything changed, and New Wave emerged, with a pattern that was entirely predictable.

Part 3: So It Goes, The Life Cycle of a Wave

We often hear about trends in politics being cyclical. The reason for this is the opportunity cost built into a closed system. There are a finite number of seats in Parliament/Congress, thus any increase in for one party is magnified by a decrease for another. Similarly every hit that makes the Hot 100 knocks another song off the chart. In politics there are shifts to the right (Conservative) and left (Liberal). The Hot 100 has similar shifts with the reactionary (right) end of the scale represented by Country music and the more radical music trends representing a shift to the left. Historically when pop music becomes too radical, there is a corresponding boom on the popularity of Country music, such was the case in the late 70’s.

Country,BlueGrass and Blues better known as CBGBs was the name of an influential 70’s New York music club. It is famous for being the birthplace of the American New Wave and Punk music scenes however the regular acts, most notably the Ramones, only had chart success oversees. What was a New Wave in North America was already an old wave in the UK.

In the UK it was called Pub Rock and it allegedly got its start in 1971 when Eggs over Easy, an American Country-Rock outfit was stuck for an extended time in London. That same year Dave Edmunds had a hit with a cover of a song from 1955. This back to basics movement continued to grow and in 1976 Nick Lowe, who had played in Edmunds’ band and been integral to the Pub Rock scene released on an independent label the single So It Goes. It wasn’t a hit at the time but it was way ahead of its time, in a few years power pop songs like that would be the norm.

The problem with London’s Pub Rock scene of the mid 70’s and later with the New Wave/Punk scene of CBGBs was that without support from radio, which had arena rock on AM and disco on FM, they couldn’t reach a wider audience. By the late 70’s though technological improvements to the audio cassette finally matched those of 8-track tapes, in addition they become recordable. A new entity, the mixed tape was born and it was a boon to underground music scenes.

On July 12th 1979, the Chicago White Sox decided to invite Steve Dahl, a local 24yr old DJ to host their annual Teen Night promotion. Dahl hated disco records and part of his act was ‘blowing them up’ on the radio. Fans were encouraged to bring disco records to game to have them destroyed. As a baseball promotion, Disco Demolition Night was an utter disaster, a riot broke out and the 2nd game had to be forfeited. However for New Wave Music, the Tipping Point at last was at hand.

The final death blow for disco ironically came from the brother of Jack Kevorkian’s (euthanasia activist) lawyer. Doug Fieger and his band, the Knack, were a power pop band out of LA. Their single, My Sharona was released a couple of weeks before Disco Demolition Night. It hit #1 on the Hot 100 in August, sold a million copies in record time, and kick started a new era.

The Knack unfortunately were a flash in the pan. Their follow-up song didn’t crack the top ten and there was a significant backlash to Capitol’s marketing campaign, which unwisely emulated the Beatles. However they did expose a large untapped market for back to basics pop songs. On the technology front, Sony introduced the Walkwan to North America in June of 1980 further cementing cassette tapes, and thus mixed tapes, as the dominate recorded media of the next decade. However it wasn’t until August of the following year that a unique event happened that would bring about the 80’s revolution, and it was televised.

When music executives went looking for the next My Sharona-like hit what they found was a plethora of similar bands from the UK where that style of music had been around for some time. This second British invasion brought with them a keen sense of visual style no doubt influenced by Top of the Pops, an immensely popular TV show in the UK. Each week they would do a countdown of the current hit songs and featured either a live performance from that artist or a dance number by their in-house troupe. In the late 70’s acts that were unable to perform live started supplying the show with prerecorded video performances instead. These videos provided the initial content for MTV when it launched in 1981. It also sent a clear signal to other acts that they needed to make singles that fit within MTVs format, and had to look good doing it.

This phase of the wave is called critical mass, the point at which the trend is sustained beyond the original tipping point. The wave will continue to rise until it reaches a saturation point, in the 80’s that happened by 1984. In the late 70’s Eddie Van Halen burst on to scene, a lightning fast guitar wizard, he was the epitome of arena rock. At the same time Michael Jackson, already a legend as a dancer and a pop singer, made his debut as an adult. At the time they were in completely different worlds – hard rock AM vs dance pop FM, and yet in a few years they would have a hit song together. The videos themselves became increasingly important, Michael Jackson’s Thiller cost half a million dollars and featured a big name Hollywood director. As the MTV video of the year proved, increasingly it was more about high concepts and cutting edge special effects than an actual performance.

The decline phase of a wave mirrors the ascension phases. It starts with seemingly minor changes to the status quo. In 1985 VH1 began as a grown up version of MTV, this allowed the original channel to maintain its youthful cutting edge. The next year MTV started offering genre specific shows, this was the first step away from the visual radio station format toward something resembling traditional television. Also in 1986, Country music, which had been dead in 1984, started to show signs of life again with the emergence of Randy Travis. The biggest change though was just around the corner as a new audio format was gaining in popularity.

I worked at a record store in the summer of 1987 and at that time compact discs were relegated to the classical music section since they only appealed to hard-core audiophiles. As the year progressed, the Beatles and other classic rock artists were released on CD for the first time. Compact Discs helped renew an interest in long form music and more specifically to MTV, albums provided an outlet for artists who wouldn’t conform to their broadcast standards.

Jane’s Addiction’s 1988 the video for Mountain Song was famously banned by MTV, and other songs never had videos made because of edgy lyrics and mature themes. This is particularly true of the emerging Grunge and Hip-Hop scenes of the late 80’s. As pop music slowly shifted left and began to diversify, country surged with Garth Brooks and all his friends in low places having a tremendous amount of success by 1990. The following year Nirvana, a grunge outfit out of Seattle, had an enormous hit with Smells Like Teen Spirit. It was another tipping point, the 80’s era of music was over and a new wave had begun.

Part 4: Dead Cats, Higher Taxes and Other Fearless Predictions

… in this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes – Ben Franklin

My own efforts at making predictions has been a mixed bag. I was aware when the 90’s came to a close that a new trend was inevitable, since pop music trends typically last 8-10 years. I kept waiting for a song to hit so big, that it would show what direction the next wave would take. However the biggest selling song of that year was Believe by Cher, who was already 53, and unlikely to have much of an impact going forward.

The emerging technology at the time was the Internet, and of primary concern to the music industry, the MP3 audio format. People were already ripping music CDs onto their computers. What the MP3 format did was compress those files to a size that, in the days when dial-up Internet access was the norm, made them transferable to a worldwide audience. ultimately became a historically significant url for indie artists, who in the site’s heyday provided most of the content there. … The nature of the situation was a chemical reaction; all these musicians and songwriters who had for years harbored dreams of stardom without any outlet for their music gathered in one place.

When the Tipping Point finally happened, it wasn’t a hit song after all. This time it was a computer application called Napster. It made its debut in June of 1999, and quickly spread from the computer geeks to over 25 million users by February of 2001. It was shutdown a few months later but the damage had already been done. The iPod was introduced in October of that year, and along with other devices that could play MP3s, including many cellphones, the widespread adoption of MP3s was complete. This marked the end of a 100 year business model that relied on selling physical copies of prerecorded music. These sales accounted for half of the data used to create the Billboard Hot 100 chart, and the other half of the formula, radio airplay, was also in trouble. With the accuracy of the chart data in question, what the future held was anybody’s guess.

Now, with the benefit of hindsight available, what actually happened was not all that different from trends past. For starter’s Cher’s Believe was the anti-thesis of the organic, cutting edge, anti-commercial grunge scene of early 90’s and a harbinger of what was to come. There were six song writers, three producers, all of which were disconnected from the performer, a plastic (both literally and figuratively), slickly marketed, corporate creation whose legendary voice was altered by a new computer process called Auto-Tune. It was in many ways, the revolution of the 80’s all over again.

My own prediction at the time was that the power pop band Green Day was going to take a big step forward and help define the emerging trend. At the time they were statistically in decline, with incrementally slipping album sales and decreased chart performance for their singles. However chart position is a bit of a misnomer, particularly #1 songs. A lot of songs hit #1, in fact its the most common kind of hit since songs are referred by their highest position and you can’t climb beyond #1. Final chart position is very context driven and in the end, true talent is shown by not the size of the hit, but by the consistency in producing them. Bill Joe Armstrong (pictured), the primary songwriter for the band, charted 14 original compositions between 1994 and 1998. He was also just entering his late 20’s, which is typically the peak creative years for a musician. The resulting album, Warning, was released in 2000 and was the least successful of their career. The one after that however was huge.

The mistake I made with Green Day, and can be easy to do with developing trends, is over estimating how quickly the change will happen. In 1991 when Nirvana hit it big with Smells Like Teen Spirit, part of that success was an iconic music video. Nirvana would produce four videos to support their album Nevermind. Pearl Jam, the other leading grunge act, released four videos as well to support their 1991 album Ten. Music videos were already well into their decline, MTV debuted The Real World in 1992, the first of many reality TV shows that would completely change the format of that TV channel. Thus it wasn’t until 1993 when Nirvana just made one video to support their follow-up album and Pearl Jam didn’t make any, that this change became evident. Now some acts never stopped making videos, but overall this stalwart of the 80’s music had reached its nadir.

Music videos came back in a big way in the new millennium, as did overly commercial pop songs, and back to basics pop punk bands like Green Day. The very same elements that conspired to create the sound associated with the 80’s joined forces again, twenty years later and it was in many ways quite predictable. In 1987 Rick Astley had a #1 hit with Never Gonna Give You Up, exactly twenty years later he’s back. The reason for this is another characteristic of waves, a shadow of the original trend that follows the nadir, often called a Dead Cat Bounce.

The term “dead cat bounce” is derived from the idea that “even a dead cat will bounce if it falls from a great height.”

It’s often said that advertisers most covet the 18-55 year-old demographic. Thus radio, which is solely funded by ad revenue, specifically tries to court individuals in that age range. They do this by playing music that appeals the most to 35 year-olds (the mid-point of that demo), which is assumed to be the same music that was popular when that person was a teenager. You can see this another way by observing how the Hot 100 chart has a roughly 20 year cycle of contacting down to a narrow format (1964, 1984, 2006) between periods of wild divergence in musical styles.

At the moment we are in another shift to the left as the Tipping Point for the present wave, Youtube, expands and inspires many imitators. Flash video is presently the medium of choice but that will fade as the reward for making promotional videos wanes again. There is also plenty of money to be made again as the Black Eyed Peas I Gotta Feeling scored over 7 million paid digital downloads in 2009. The focus now will be getting people to go beyond just hits and to explore increasingly fragmented genres. Technology is opening new doors, particularly wireless access and the widespread adoption of smartphones. In all likelihood this will allow new business models based on bandwidth usage and location-based advertising. One thing is certain, in about five years the current trend will be dead, the pattern will reverse itself and taxes will go up.

In particular income taxes will definitely go up. You can make the case that since income taxes are at historical lows that the pattern suggests they will go up. You can also look at the fractals, in particular the fuel for change, the baby boomer voters who will be exiting their primary earning years and entering retirement. When income taxes go up it won’t be an isolated event, some other tax will go down or services will improve. Over the long-term change by its very nature is progressive. In fact if I had to give an opinion I would say The Future’s So Bright, I Gotta Wear Shades.