4 Reasons Why Old Albums Are Now Outselling New Ones

Hi there. I'm Michael Jackson's Thriller and I am 30 years old.
Hi there. I'm Michael Jackson's Thriller and I am 30 years old.

So here's an interesting fact: according to Nielsen Soundscan, older catalog albums have officially overtaken brand-spanking-new albums in sales for the first time since Soundscan has been keeping track. That's only since 1991, but it's probably safe to say that this is the first time such a thing has ever happened.

It would be easy to say, "Well yeah, because new music sucks and old music is the shit! Hand me my prunes, get off my lawn, etc." (Yes, you would actually say "etc.") But before we start jumping to conclusions, let's really think about this and try to examine it from a few different angles.

4. You know how to download things. Grandpa doesn't: First and foremost has to be the technological barrier between young and old that has existed since the first Neanderthal grandfather had to be shown how to use the latest newfangled forked stick to cook food, completely forgot everything five minutes later, burned himself horribly, and went back to eating cold woolly mammoth, grumbling bitterly to himself.

If you're under 40 years old, chances are you can download music, either illegally or in other ways that aren't tracked by Soundscan. You can also get by simply streaming your music if you had to, on sites like Spotify, YouTube, and Rdio. Your Dad, on the other hand, most likely still has a CD player in his room and his car, which means he has to buy physical CDs to play them.

Although in my personal household, the reverse is true: Yes, my Dad has an MP3 player in his '67 Camaro while I have a CD player in my '02. Hm. Let's skip the implications of that and just move on.


4 Reasons Why Old Albums Are Now Outselling New Ones

3. Modern tastes are too fractured: The cultural phenomenon of older mainstream music hasn't been replaced by anything yet. Sure, for a while grunge and rap were mainstream cultural phenomena, but we're still talking about music that's 20 years old. In the old days, everyone loved the Beatles, and then Pink Floyd, and then Tears For Fears, and then Nirvana. A relatively unified generation was buying those albums. Now, everything is split into factions.

Modern pop is mainly for children; very few people who learn to truly love music take it seriously past puberty. For those who do love music, there's indie-rock, hardcore punk, rap, hip-hop, EDM, dubstep, metal, folk, jam bands... kids have more choice now than they've ever had before.

Except in rare cases where a crossover juggernaut pops up -- your Lady Gagas, your Adeles, your Kanye Wests -- there is simply no longer any kind of unified youth voice out there demanding the same thing. Good? Bad? You decide.

4 Reasons Why Old Albums Are Now Outselling New Ones

2. Old music is still relevant: Just as an example, for college kids today listening to current indie rock, they can throw on a 25-year-old R.E.M. album and it'll sound just like something they could have heard yesterday on SiriusXM's XMU channel (the college radio station).

Then they can go back another 20 years and listen to The Beach Boys' Pet Sounds and they'll basically be hearing everything Animal Collective tries to do today, done better. Hell, even the electronic/dance crowd loves their '80s nights, and nobody in rap has ever stopped praising the likes of Run-DMC and Public Enemy.

There just hasn't been a radically different and sudden new sound that drastically alienated the old from the young the way there was when rock and roll eclipsed big-band jazz. Even the people who leave all the "Justin Bieber sucks, kids today don't know what good music is!" comments on YouTube have to admit that the New Kids on the Block were exactly the same thing. Except there were five of them, so in a way, they were even worse.


4 Reasons Why Old Albums Are Now Outselling New Ones

1. Older albums were made with care, pushed the envelope, and aimed for immortality: Well, okay, not all of them. The passage of time has allowed the Tom Pettys and the Black Sabbaths to rise to the top of the pile while the Debbie Boones and the Power Stations have crumbled quietly to dust.

The fact of the matter is that most of the older artists that have lasted put a lot of blood, sweat, and tears into their albums, constantly tinkering with different sounds, toiling for months on meticulous songwriting, busting up equipment until it sounded just right, and occasionally just outright inventing shit.

Modern pop, on the other hand, consists of hiring whatever producer is hot this month, finding a pretty face, having your studio-approved songhacks churn out 12 identical-sounding verse-chorus-verse configurations, smushing it all together into a glistening sonic mess, shoving it out the door, and starting the process all over again.

Nobody cares at all about making something different or challenging; those people all went into indie-rock or underground rap or anti-folk or happycore dubsquish or fuckdemon killmetal or what have you.

Face it, real artistry and talent is now, for the most part, niche. Good music never went away, it's just back on the fringe where all the best freaks have always been anyway. In 20 years, when kids stumble across El-P's Cancer 4 Cure or Frightened Rabbit's The Midnight Organ Fight or Arcade Fire's Funeral, those albums will still sound fresh and unique and vital.

Those albums aren't mainstream cultural phenomena, yet when those same kids find your old Li'l Wayne and Katy Perry albums -- on your old iPod -- they're going to shake their heads and mutter "I guess that's just what old people used to listen to."

Your kids will grow to love certain music from your heyday. The question then will be whether or not you were ever into it, yourself. Imagine that, out-cooled by your own kids on your own music. Oh, the delicious new embarrassments tomorrow's parents will face!

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