By request: those crazy kids with their hip hoppety music and their baggy chinos

Reader bcg asks me to discuss "Why pop music got so terrible after illegally downloading became easy and accessible."

Did it? I mean, I have been known to express this opinon myself, of a sunny Sunday afternoon. On the other hand, the belief that music today just isn't what it used to be has a long, not to say tiresome, pedigree. Frederick Lewis Allen, on the contemporary reaction to that noise the jitterbuggers like to jive to:

Among many of the jitterbugs--particularly among many of the boys and girls--the appreciation of the new music was largely vertebral. A good swing band smashing away at full speed, with the trumpeters and clarinetists rising in turn under the spotlight to embroider the theme with their several furious improvisations and the drummers going into long-drawnout rhythmical frenzies, could reduce its less inhibited auditors to sheer emotional vibration, punctuated by howls of rapture. Yet to dismiss the swing craze as a pure orgy of sensation would be to miss more than half of its significance. For what the good bands produced--though it might sound to the unpracticed ear like a mere blare of discordant noise--was an extremely complex and subtle pattern, a full appreciation of which demanded far more musical sophistication than the simpler popular airs of a preceding period. The true swing enthusiasts, who collected records to teh limit of their means and not only like Artie Shaw's rendering of "Begin the Beguine" but knew precisely why they liked it, were receiving no mean musical education; and if Benny Goodman could turn readily from the playing of "Don't Be That Way" to the playing of Mozart, so could many of his hearers turn to the hearing of Mozart.

There is a model by which music gets awful as soon as copyright becomes unenforceable--the French experience with abolishing copyright around the time of the Revolution does offer some evidence for the notion of a race to the bottom in an IP-less world. Certainly, it's fair to say that pop acts are focusing less on catchy songs and more on catchy performers, the better to sell concert tickets.

On the other hand, I'm not sure that musical talent is eroding so much as being dispersed. The rise of cheap distribution means there are more genres and sub-genres than there used to be--and also that acts don't need to broaden their appeal so much as they once did. If you don't need to get on a top forty station to make it big, you will lose the elements you once might have added to attract that audience. Conversely, the pop acts will stop trying to appeal to the genre fan base, so their music will sound worse to those of us who didn't much like top forty in the first place.

A few months ago, I was hanging out with a friend who's about six years younger than I am. We were idly looking at Billboard's Top 100 songs for various years. I was unsurprised to find that I stopped recognizing many of the names on the list after the early-to-mid nineties. What was surprising is that his recognition stopped around the same time mine did--the era when our demographic embraced indie music and stopped paying any attention to what was playing at the top of the charts.

Overall, I think that fragementation is a good thing. Though I do worry what happens if the downloading generation fails to transition to paying for their music. Concert revenue does not actually seem like a very good substitute for CD sales--people only have so many nights a week to stand around in bars.