Tyler Cowen has tried to explain the recent trend in wage stagnation by claiming we have reached a “Great Stagnation” – we have exhausted the low-hanging fruits of cheap labor from immigration, trade liberalization, increased education, and previously unused land and natural resources. Basically, we have reached diminishing returns in many of the areas from which we expected to keep getting high growth. A worker’s productivity is easy and cheap to improve when they are illiterate, for example; but increasing productivity when they’re already college-educated is a little harder, more expensive, and at some points not even possible.
I’d like to posit that we have also reached a great stagnation in music. Remember that the Great Stagnation does not claim growth has stopped or we will regress; it merely states that our rate of growth has slowed down. Much like the American economy, popular music extracted what it could in low-hanging fruits during a golden age and getting those incredible returns again is harder to come by.
By some metrics technological innovation peaked in the 1870s and we only realized all the benefits of these innovations decades later. By the same token, popular music had technical and creative innovations in the first half of the twentieth century that we did not fully exploit until the golden age of popular music, which I’d like to theorize was between 1964 and 1973. These progressions include many things, but chiefly the introduction of the electric guitar, increased access of music to influence wider audiences, and better access to recording studios and production equipment.
The Beatles recorded Rubber Soul, Revolver, and Sgt. Pepper’s in an incredible 18-month span. Bob Dylan released Bringing it All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited, and Blonde on Blonde in about 14 months. Today, regardless of your musical taste and what you consider the most relevant music, artists will usually take years upon completing albums. Releasing two landmark albums within a year is essentially unheard of. Radiohead took 4 years between Hail to the Thief and In Rainbows, 4 years between In Rainbows and King of Limbs. When I think of any of my favorite rock/indie/pop bands in my lifetime, their careers span twice as long as my Theorized Golden Age and often produce half a many albums as the Beatles, Rolling Stones, Neil Young, Bob Dylan, the Beach Boys, Jimi Hendrix, or the Kinks did in the same time period.
I want to emphasize again that the presence of a great stagnation in music does not mean we are no longer creating really awesome music, it just means you have to push that much harder to squeeze out valuable creative juices that turn something incredible. In the beginning to mid 60s there were so many low hanging fruits that the aforementioned could churn out excellent albums, often while touring.
Thomas Edison filed thousands of patents centuries ago, all without much formal education. In a sense, he had so much to work with because there was so much potential that was yet to be realized. Now such a renaissance man is impossible to come by. Even the greatest innovators are only known for one or two great inventions, spending their whole lives devoted to coming up with and perfecting one great idea. Edison managed to make hundreds or thousands, depending on how you look at it.
The artists of 64-73 encountered a similar atmosphere. Many production techniques, the electric guitar, a recovered post-WWII global economy – these were all things that made it very easy to release lots of high quality music very quickly. There is simply no other reason why John Lennon, Bob Dylan, and Brian Wilson could poop out the music they did so quickly. Never before had the rate of fusion of so many genres of music – blues, jazz, barber shop, classical, folk, country – happened anywhere near what it did during the golden era.
And the music wasn’t just good, it was innovative. I think the reason why bands now have to take years to release an album is because they need to work so hard to be perfectionists and manage to create something unique. It’s still possible, just like making that college graduate more productive is possible; it just means you have to spend five years giving them a phd, whereas when they were illiterate all you needed to do was teach them to read to make them more productive. Fleet Foxes is awesome, but I’d hesitate to call them truly innovative. Whatever hip-hop is coming out may be good, but it’s not as innovative as Paul’s Boutique (yes, I know this wasn’t in the Golden Era, but I state it just as a point to emphasize the difference between quality and innovation).
Today recording equipment, access to audiences, and a richer global economy imply that the music industry has many tools and financial resources needed to create incredibly innovative music. Before, the industry was dominated by middlemen called record companies that basically decided who was going to even have a chance at succeeding. They owned the capital (the recording studios), the means of distribution, and an essential monopoly on the ability to promote, so there were huge barriers to entry for musicians. Today, musicians can record at home, go viral on the internet, play live shows, afford equipment because we’re all richer, have endless access to musical influences. No matter how one looks at it, the barriers to entry for musicians is a lot less than it was 70 years ago.
It is in spite of these facts, not because of them, that musicians in the golden era were able to produce the music they did at the quick rate they did. That they were able to achieve their quick rate of release makes it even more impressive that they were able to overcome the past barriers to entry for musicians.
Sure, musical culture has changed. Bands rely more on touring it seems to produce revenues. This means more time away from the studio and less time sitting around writing songs. But this didn’t stop the Beatles in the first half of their career, Dylan during his first three electric albums, or Frank Zappa from churning out quality music quickly.
Think of what the most famous classic rock musicians were able to achieve during this time period: those rich sounds and timeless songs on what we’d now think of as primitive technology. No ProTools to redo that one 10 second take to get that right sound from farting on keyboards, sometimes only 4 tracks at one time, and generally less sophisticated instruments. The Flaming Lips create new sounds because they have tons of new technology at the ready – new pedals/effects, lots of recording options, etc. The golden era musicians didn’t have this. Still Wayne Coyne needs to work tirelessly to create a new sound. Before, it seemed Phil Spector could open his fridge and find a new “Be My Baby” or another wall of sound gem.
Most of my favorite albums were not in the Golden Era, so I don’t state all of this as a dork who listens exclusively to classic rock. Instead, I merely see the rate of production during this time period to be phenomenal. Sure Radiohead has grown from Creep to Lotus Flower, but that happened over twenty years. The Beatles went from I Saw Her Standing There to Helter Skelter in FIVE.
Yeah, I am writing this from the perspective of my musical collection/taste. But maybe, though I may be wrong, you can extend it to genres I’m not as familiar with. I’d have to guess punk bands today can’t churn out stuff equal to Give Em Enough Rope and London Calling in the 13 month The Clash did. Overall, I think no matter what your musical preference, bands don’t release music nearly as quickly as they used to.
It could be that we are getting genre-defiers and massive innovators right now that will spur another golden age, and we just don’t know it yet. Much like we have arguably not extracted all productive efficiencies from computer or the internet yet, or it took decades for the mass innovations of the 1870s to be realized fully, we could be on the brink of another mass innovation fest.
What do I think this generally implies? We’ll have to have some sort of industrial revolution equivalent in music to reach the rate of innovation we had in the golden era. We’ll continue to have great music, but we’ll have to wait two or three times as long to get another OK Computer or Veckatimest than we did to get Pet Sounds or After the Goldrush.
This is an admittedly working theory, so I’m happy to hear criticisms or points that I have not mentioned.