David R. Henderson  

Did Napster Reduce Music Quality?

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One purely consequentialist argument that defenders of tough copyright laws have made is that without strong enforcement of copyright, the incentive to produce new high-quality music will be lower than otherwise. The argument makes sense on its face and the key question then becomes: how strong an argument is it? Specifically, how big is the effect of reduced incentives?

Economist Joel Waldfogel has come up with a clever methodology for looking at that issue. If the incentive for good new music has fallen since Napster and its like, he argues, then older music should become more prominent than otherwise on radio. His findings? Waldfogel writes:

The airplay data allow me to infer vintage quality back to 1960 and exhibit the following pattern (in Figure 2) - quality rises from 1960 to 1970, then falls and remains flat from 1980 to about 1999, with a small bump up in the mid-1990s. After 2000, vintage quality rises sharply, reaching levels not seen since the 1970s.

He has two other measures--record sales and critics' retrospective lists of the best music--from which he infers the same result: quality has not fallen.

For his graphs, go here.


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COMMENTS (18 to date)
John Hall writes:

I've noticed a SIGNIFICANT improvement in the quality of music since the late 90s. For instance, in this list of the top songs from the 90s
http://top20090s.blogspot.com/
the top 17 are from before 1996. Only 14 of the top 50 are from 1996 or later.

Joseph K writes:

Cracked.com just had a column "5 Common Anti-Internet Arguments (That Are Statistically BS) just today. For one, John Cheese writes that in the 80s and 90s "if you heard a song you liked, you bought the whole damn album, and it usually cost you between $15 and $20 ... With the exception of a rare few classic albums (Thriller included), that one song you liked would turn out to be the only good one on the entire LP ... Through digital downloading, we're no longer being held hostage by that type of [bs] "buy in bulk" sales tactic. And since we now buy most of our music one song at a time, the artists are once again held to a higher standard. If they want to make their $20 for an album, and we're already paying $1 per song, then all 20 of their songs had better be good"

He also talks about how word of mouth advertising is killing bad movies much more quickly. Movie studios used to be able to pour money into promoting a bad movie, in the hope that enough people would show up for opening weekend to make it profitable. But now, since even by the second day of release, people are already aware if a movie has been getting a lot of negative reactions from viewers, bad movies tank quickly even with tons of advertising.

The basic lesson: the internet is really good at disseminating information, which tends to punish people who try to trick you into buying shoddy products. Hence, there will probably be improvements in quality.

Brandon Berg writes:

Seems to me that the quality of popular music was at an all-time nadir in the late 90s, just before Napster got big. And I was in high school then, so that's not just generational bias.

Ken B writes:

In classical music there is more old re-issued stuff than ever before. I guess that argues for a decline in quality of performance. Recordings, both as to performance and sound, are IMO better than ever before.

Incidentally the best Beethoven symphony cycles are all the cheap ones now.

Robert writes:

"If the incentive for good new music has fallen since Napster and its like, he argues, then older music should become more prominent than otherwise on radio."

This is such a silly thesis it makes me mad. Taste in music is subjective. How can the author possibly think radio plays (which by the way aren't exactly determined in a meritocratic fashion) indicate music quality? Or that it's an acceptable proxy? I could come up with 50 more objections and caveats but I'm afraid my workplace would fire me.

Julien Couvreur writes:

I don't think this method works to address the claim that "the incentive to produce new high-quality music will be lower than otherwise"

The study considers whether music quality has fallen compared to what it used to be.
But what about quality of new music compared to what would have been absent Napster? That cannot be studied.

Here is a simple story: technology (improved mixing, fixing the pitch of singers, faster iteration on composition, lower cost of experimentation) is improving and quality is rising as a result. Napster may or may not have impacted the quality of new music, but it may remain a secondary effect that is hidden by the trend up.

David R. Henderson writes:

@Robert,
You’re right that taste in music is subjective. But that doesn’t mean that measures of people’s tastes are subjective.
@Julien Couvreur,
Good point. Possibly somewhat overstated. You write that the quality of new music compared to what would have been absent Napster "cannot be studied.” What I agree on is that Waldfogel didn’t study it. That doesn’t mean there couldn’t be a clear methodology that allows one to study it.

John Jenkins writes:

Doesn't this methodology assume that taste in music stays static across time? Most people like the music they grew up with because they grew up with it. Since new listeners replace older listeners (or at least grow the pool of listeners nominally at the relative expense of older listeners), wouldn't you expect older music to become less popular, and, if it doesn't, wouldn't that prove the opposite point, that newer music is not as good, since even newer generations like it?

I can remember classic rock stations when I was a kid that played the Kinks a lot (Celluloid Heroes was on rotation back then), but I rarely if ever hear anything from them now on the same stations. Did the quality change or did the tastes/format change (mostly they probably aged into the oldies category, but I think that's sort of my point)?

Joe Cushing writes:

I don't think airplay of music after 2000 tells us about quality. New music gets an advantage over old music. Also, I can see others have pointed out different flaws in the research.

That said, the cost of making music has come down along with the cost of distributing it. Anybody with a job can afford to buy recording equipment that is better than they had in the 60s and 70s in the state of the art studio. This equipment cost more that you or I would spend to make home movies but it is within reach of people making less than average income if they are motivated to make music.

With a lower cost of production, it is possible for many more people to make music. Since the cost of distribution is nearly zero, all of this music is put out to the public to be sorted. The cream rises to the top and when you have a 55 gallon drum of coffee, there is a lot more cream than if you have a single cup of it. Music quality is a function of the number of people making music.

Payment for music. People have been making music for a lot longer than people were paying people to make music. People just love music. For this reason, I don't believe you need a big payoff for many people to make music. The payoff does help make masters of musicians though. Some* say it takes 5,000 of practice to master anything. Getting paid to make music allows people to put in the 5,000 hours. People can do this on stage though. Bands still get paid to perform live. I suspect they always will.

* Malcolm Gladwell: Outliers

Aaron writes:

I don't think you can talk about this topic without discussing the variety or music made accessible through these new distribution channels. When Napster first came out it was a huge deal in my social circle because we could actually get the music we wanted. In Canada, at the time, it was really difficult to find albums that weren't released on major labels. Now, a band like Metric can put out an album entirely on their own in the US and sell tens of thousands of records. "Quality" may be higher or lower depending on your tastes, but the variety of what's easily available is astounding compared to 15 years ago.

joshua writes:

I think there are too many factors involved to conclude anything meaningful from such an analysis. Someone already mentioned technology, which is a huge one. Another is Baby Boomer demographics - might not the shifting percentages of people in different age groups affect how much old music gets played on the radio?

Ken B writes:
@Robert, You’re right that taste in music is subjective. But that doesn’t mean that measures of people’s tastes are subjective.

I think this needs a little explication. Here is my guess. David can correct me if I err. What is being measured (putatively) is a preference for newer music. [In this context 'good' new music means music people want to hear. That is the operational definition of the measurable proxy for 'quality'.] This preference can be measured just as a preference for say flavored coffee over unflavored can be measured.

I don't buy the methodology here but I do buy the idea he is trying to measure, which is, has napster destroyed the incentive to create new music people want.

David R. Henderson writes:

@Ken B,
Correct.
@joshua,
Another is Baby Boomer demographics - might not the shifting percentages of people in different age groups affect how much old music gets played on the radio?
Yes. That strengthens Waldfogel’s case. Baby Boomers, by definition are a large demographic and we tend to prefer older music.

Ken B writes:
Baby Boomers, by definition are a large demographic and we tend to prefer older music.

I don't see this, especially as you are also a shrinking demographic. How does the boomers being a large demographic strengthen the case?

Keith W writes:

I've been reading your blog and econlib for years, so the rest of this is good natured...

this is one of the silliest pieces you've posted.

The parameters fail on every level.

Start out with radio industry consolidation between Napster and today, and the entire premise falls apart. There has also been consolidation in the mainstream media's music critic field, leaving a sample that isn't representative of anything except cost/benefit analysis by newspaper/magazine industry bean counters. Provocative critics don't sell newspapers, they are employed for the exact opposite ends as the mythical 'gatekeepers of music culture' of this study's presumptions.

Music radio is just another form of advertising for detergent, why would it ever be the basis for such a study, outside of study of the Federal RICO case against the major labels/radio conglomerates which is regularly called the "Payola scandal",

regards,
Keith

David R. Henderson writes:

@Ken B,
I’m assuming we listen to the radio a lot. Many of us prefer the oldies. So if the stations are playing a lot of new music, that suggests that the incentives for new music are enough to outweigh the effect of the unusually high demand from boomers.

David R. Henderson writes:

@Ken B,
Oops. I could be wrong here. We Baby Boomers also listened to radio a lot in the 1990s. So I’m no longer sure my point follows.

Ken B writes:

@David: I was about to reply but I see you caught it. This is why I remarked on the declining size of the cohort too.

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