The Tyranny of the Sell-Outs

Modern mass culture needs new ideas. Why don’t we have any?

Colin Horgan


Photo by Igor Bumba on Unsplash

In late May, Justin Timberlake announced that he’d sold his share of rights to his entire song catalogue for $100 million to Hipgnosis Song Management, an intellectual property rights management company listed on the London Stock Exchange. It’s not the only one paying big for back catalogues. Two years ago, Universal Music paid a rumoured $300 million for the entirety of Bob Dylan’s songwriting catalogue. And Primary Wave has acquired the rights to thousands of songs by artists like John Lennon, Steven Tyler, Chicago, and Kurt Cobain.

The simple logic behind these acquisitions is based almost entirely on predicted future streaming success — that, no matter whether the rest of the economy is soaring or crashing, people will still need music, especially the music they know. At the same time, as music streaming audiences grow and increasingly incorporate older generations, the pool of listeners who’ll seek out back catalogues expands. But that simple logic leads to complications, and weird things have started to happen.

“Old music is killing new music”

For one thing, new songs end up getting heard less. The impact of more older listeners is that the impact of new songs — those released within the prior 18 months — is diluted, according to the 2021 year-end report from MRC Data, the company that tracks sales information for Billboard. In fact, 2021 was the first year since 2008 in which streaming of current songs declined versus the prior year. For investors in back catalogues, this is great news, but for everyone else, it means something different.

“Old music is killing new music,” veteran music writer Ted Gioia wrote in January, based on the MRC Data report. Because it’s not just older people who want to hear the classics over and over; young people listen to them a lot, too — no doubt after hearing them on algorithmically-curated playlists that are designed to feed even more similar-sounding music to listeners. “Never before in history have new tracks attained hit status while generating so little cultural impact,” Gioia wrote. Worse, a rise in copyright litigation makes industry executives nervous to take on new artists.