Broken Records

2005-06-28

In pondering the deeper meaning of the music market, Tyler Cowen observes:

It is a mystery why fans spend almost all of their music money on product of very recent vintage. Until we untangle this puzzle, and we have not yet, we will not understand how Internet music is likely to affect consumer welfare.

Perhaps the deeper mystery is why people listen to the same music over and over. It's rare that someone reads the same novel or short story or poem more than five or ten times, yet people will happily listen to the same piece of music dozens (or, for their favorites, even hundreds) of times. Music also is full of repetition and indeed is quite repetitious: songs usually consist of multiple verses and choruses with the same melodies, and even so-called art music is rife with codas, repeated sections, theme and variations, etc. Boring! But it's not boring to the human ear.

Yet people do eventually tire of hearing the same old music, which is why (despite the presence of long-term favorites) they hunger for newness. Further, music co-evolves with society: it changes in time with human experience, the mixing of peoples, an ever faster pace of life, opportunities for travel, technological change, and so on. Fundamentally, I think music is a human expression like language or clothing or food, in which the desire for fashion and novelty riffs against certain stable basics (melody, rhythm, harmony) within a churning expressive marketplace whose order (such as it is) emerges organically through the multifarious choices and recommendations of countless individuals. To expect habits of music listening and buying to remain steady or predictable or controllable (as, perhaps, big music company executives would like) is pure folly.


Peter Saint-Andre > Journal