Post-Pop: Aging and Fragmentation in Pop Culture Audiences

Last week I read a New York Times piece from 1993 by Stephen Holden which talked about pop music audience fragmentation. There are some interesting tidbits such as the opening paragraph:

If you scan the top 10 singles on Billboard Magazine’s Hot 100 Singles chart this week, three of the songs you will find are “A Whole New World,” the theme song from “Aladdin,” “Nuthin’ but a ‘G’ Thang,” the rap song by Dr. Dre, and Bon Jovi’s rock hit “Bed of Roses.” The chances of hearing all three songs on the same radio station, however, are growing slimmer every day.

The reason given is the decline of Top 40 radio (into Top 40s Radio):

The reason is the rapid decline of Top 40, the hit-radio format that for more than three decades was the music industry’s most important medium for promoting pop records. Almost overnight, Top 40 has become a dinosaur, a victim of upheavals in radio and pop music that have deeply shaken the symbiotic relationship between the music industry and the medium that it has traditionally counted on to sell its wares.

And the chief culprit for the decline of Top 40 radio is:

Among the chief causes for this upheaval are fragmentation of the public’s musical tastes, a wider variety of pop styles and the rise of music video and other new technologies — including the Walkman — as well as significant changes in the business and programming practices of radio.

I’ve looked at the Nielsen ratings for television in the past when I’ve blogged about the decline of television. Nielsen ratings are based on relatively large samples and there has been a consistent drop in ratings for the top television series since the system started rating them in 1950.  Note that the rating reflects the percentage of the total population of televisions tuned to a particular program. The top rated show in 1950-51, the Texaco Star Theater on NBC had a rating of 61.6 and by 2012-13 the top rated show, NCIS on CBS had a rating of 12.3.  With more television, cable, satellite, and now digital transmission which can cater to niche markets, there are far more options for differing tastes.

I said in my Savior Demographic post that:

Also, since we’re seeing that the aging population has grown significantly and wields far more buying power than the younger 18-49 Demographic, it’s making less and less sense for traditional Broadcast Media to continue favoring the youth demographic.

The magic demographic in the Nielsen ratings is the 18-49 year one–this is the demographic which will determine that a Television Station can demand the highest prices for ad space.  It wouldn’t matter if a show is the highest rated sindicated show currently on the air if the 18-49 year demographic doesn’t comprise a significant proportion of its viewership.  Shows with high ratings have been cancelled simply because of this fact (such as the second highest rated show, “Harry’s Law,” and the popular “Jesse Stone” made for TV movies).  In other words, the older demographic is demonized by Television because it doesn’t fit into the demographic that businesses [arguably] consider to be the best one to target (e.g. the 18-49). The irony is, with an aging population, this is making less and less sense since the buying power of the older demographic is so much higher.

This isn’t just a US phenomenon.  John Chittum recently posted an article by Richard Osborne which discusses the demographic change in music consumption in the UK. The relevant paragraph states:

In an earlier post I mentioned the changing demographics of popular music consumption: in the UK in 1976 over 75% of all records were bought by 12-20 year olds; this can be contrasted with last year when 13-19 year olds accounted for just 13.8% of the music purchased on the internet. In 2012 the largest market share belonged to 35-44 year olds, but each age bracket between 13 and 64 was fairly similar, ranging between 11% and 20% of the market. One effect of this is that to have a truly big hit you have to appeal to each of these age groups, hence the success of an album such Adele’s 21 or the pan-generational dancing that ‘Gangnam Style’ occasioned. The reverse is that each age group is segmented, targeted and marketed.

Given that sales of older albums recently outpaced sales of new releases for the first time since Neilsen Soundscan started tracking albums sales in the US, and that older folks (45+) are now the largest music buying demographic, it’s making much less sense to focus on the youth to save the arts.

We’re also seeing different consumption habits for various ethnic American groups which generally have their own preferences in entertainment and the arts.  Given that these populations are growing at a rapid rate, then it shouldn’t be surprising that there’s increasing fragmentation of audiences and a rising number of non Euro-American Pop Bands and non Euro-American Classical Music Ensembles. This growing population is also creating a Demographic Racial Gap–the White American population is aging at a much faster rate than the younger “ethnic” or immigrant American populations.

In my post, Death of Pop Music and the Decline of Popular Culture I quoted the record label marketing exec, John Locken, as he decried the Death of Pop Music? “defined as the commercialization of short form songwriting, a historic aberration that lasted for the better part of the 20th century” and I think we’re now at the end of the commercialization of all these Popular Entertainment forms.

There’s little reason not to include Pop Entertainment in analyses of decline. As Harvard Economist, Tyler Cowen, states:

“[C]ost disease studies usually select opera, theater, and the symphony orchestra. Cost disease proponents display an unjustified bias towards ‘high culture.’ We also should consider today’s cultural winners, such as rock and roll, country music, and heavy metal.” (Cowen, 1996)

As all the above affect audiences, which are no longer monolithic and hegemonic populations (if they ever were) it’s also refreshing to see some kick-back in talk about the relevancy of the arts to audiences. In her recent blog post, How to Be Culturally Relevant, Alex Temple states:

Whenever I hear words like “relevant” or “important,” I always want to ask, “relevant or important to whom?” When that detail is left out, these words become codes or shorthands: “important” means “important to Serious Art People,” and “relevant” means “relevant to Real-World Audiences.” But “Real-World Audiences” is a code too, because the people who use the phrase seem to have a pretty narrow idea of who counts as real. Other musicians? Not real. Artists in other media? Not real. College students and faculty? Not real. People over 40? Not real. You can sell out a huge concert hall, but if everyone there falls into one or more of the above categories, you’ll still have people citing your show as evidence of classical music’s imminent demise. Because when people say “culturally relevant,” what they really mean is “relevant to young people with mainstream tastes.” And “mainstream tastes,” unfortunately, doesn’t include classical music.

An older post by Elissa Milne discusses A Simple Reason Why Audiences Are So Small For New Music Concerts which can, increasingly, be applied to any genre. And really–it’s always been this way for most artists anyway.  Focusing on Pop Superstars tends to take attention away from the myriad local pop and rock bands that regularly play to an audience smaller than the band itself.

Elektra’s David Bither said:

“In the same way that TV has gone from 3 channels to 50 to 500, radio is fragmenting into subdivisions that reach smaller and smaller audiences that are going to have to be more and more specifically targeted. There are no longer any monolithic structures.”

Ross Dawson states in his Seven Driving Forces Shaping Media:

fragmentation_500wAt the same time as we are consuming more media, every existing media channel is being fragmented, and new ones are being added apace. In the example of television in this chart, we watch ever more television, but the proliferation of new channels means continually less viewer time per channel. Now that the Internet and mobile are creating an explosion of new channels and content, audiences are being divided into smaller and smaller segments.

Let’s put the Pop Music models for the Arts to rest and start seeing how people are creating (and have been creating) music in this Post-Pop (meaning “Post Pop Entertainment Industry”) world. A world with increasingly fragmented and aging audiences and where full-time Musicians are an historical aberration while part-time Musicians have always been the norm and cobbling together a life making music has never had to do with Popular Relevancy.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s