Don’t Panic: Young People Still Love Music, Just Differently

There is a growing, panicked chorus of voices in the music blogosphere asking the question, “Are young people tuning out of music?

Let’s all take a deep breath and relax, folks. Young people still love music, they just have a different relationship to it than us. We need to stop framing generational relationships to music as “worse” or “better” than ours. In fact, we need need to stop this whole “young people” talk — it’s making us look old and out of date.

The all-too-familiar argument behind this imaginary desertion of music by today’s youth could not sound less crotchety. “These kids walking around in a bubble with their over-compressed MP3s on their crappy earbud headphones! Back in my day we listened to records or the radio all night! Now they just play video games! They don’t pay for music, they don’t respect artist, they don’t even care who wrote the damn song, they just want to listen and forget it!” Even Flea has whined: “MP3s suck. It’s just a shadow of the music.” I thought Flea was cool!

The problem is that the older generations can’t help but view youth culture with a comparative lens. Once you make that mistake, your analysis is done for. Want to know how MTV dominated youth culture in the 90s? They literally turned teens’ bedrooms inside and out to assume their identity and then programmed accordingly. They got inside the teenage mind. You’ll never get into the teenage mind by holding on to anachronisms like big production budgets and adulation of musical “genius”. Skrillex songs and Eagles songs are apples and oranges.

Instead of gettin’ cantankerous with it in our old age, why don’t we see youth culture for what it really is? In fact, “youth culture” is inadequate because youth is culture in the sense that the younger generation drives cultural change.

The truth has been obscured by bitter anecdotes of musicians and fans who preferred the culture built by a music industry based on corruption and exploitation (just sayin‘!) When one sees youth culture for what it really is, there is actually more to be optimistic for in music than ever before:

  • The Semiotic JukeboxSemiotic democracy in action. Today’s listeners create their own meaning from art. They’re not lining up at the trough to be fed a product. Unlike previous generations of passive consumers, today’s listeners need to participate in the creation, production and performance of the music themselves. See mashups, dubstep, remixes, crowd funding, social networks. It’s a boon for personal expression. They want to participate in culture, not just consume it. They are living proof that the fulfillment gained in expressing oneself through music is a greater incentive than any copyright-granted market monopoly. This is why they reject copyright — it now serves cross-purpose to democratized creativity.
  • Lo-Fi Listening – A lot of people consider the home studio revolution the biggest driver of democratization in the music business. But “in the box” production wasn’t a playing field-leveling powerhouse until listener’s ears adjusted to the over-compressed earbuds. Add in computer speakers and used car stereos to their college debt-riddled existence and you’ve got enough questionable audio fidelity to make Neil Young admit that rock and roll actually is dead because it sounds so crappy. Or does it? In reality, young people have adapted to listen to and enjoy music at varying levels of audio quality and still enjoy it. “Legitimate” digital downloads are improving in fidelity as compression technology advances… and would you look at that, digital download sales have been on the up and up for a while. Today’s listeners haven’t lost their appreciation for hi-fi… they’ve just adapted to a world of constantly varying fidelity. It’s admirable.
  • Quantity over Quality – The youth of today prefer access to all music — good and bad — over access to a sliver of “really good” music (as judged by market consensus and manufactured popularity). Older generations were born and raised to adulate musicians as creative geniuses. This is a cultural construct from the American Romantic period. Ever wonder why the Chinese have “free-spirited” IP attitudes? They never had a Romantic period! They still appreciate that Everything is a Remix and it’s not just the author but also the shoulders of the giants the author stands on that is the wellspring of creativity. Thus, the old way of having a really small selection of the “best” music is inadequate. They are willing to sacrifice the upper percentile of quality for the benefit of all other percentiles, and their sacrifice should be commended. They will be their own judges of quality, thank you very much.
  • The Decline of Professionalism or the Rise of the Amateur? – This is the big one. You can look at it either way — but either way, it’s hard to argue against the trend toward fewer professional musicians and more amateurs. When equal temperament and music notation met the printing press and the industrial production of the piano, amateur music exploded — so there is a good past precedent for such “amateurization” in the wake of transformative technology. The big difference is that back then, the pros benefitted from the overall interest in music — these were generally amateur performers who still needed compositions. Today, the “amateurization” trend not only includes composition and performance but recording as well. The career musician — rare to begin with — is now a dying breed. Again, that can be a good thing or a bad thing to you, but ultimately, it just is. I for one think it’s a good thing because the purpose of music is social bonding, not generating wealth.

Instead of acting out of fear, let’s endeavor to understand youth culture, keep calm, and carry on.