I recently came across this piece from musician/writer/historian Ted Gioia. The last time I read something by Gioia was his 2017 essay Music Criticism has Degenerated into Lifestyle Reporting, which I found to be both entertaining and painfully accurate (and which set off an entertaining firestorm of backlash from all the poptimist critics whom the piece targeted).
But this new post is a lot less inflammatory, and is arguably much more useful. The title says it all – “Old Music is Killing New Music.” The author makes several key points about the music industry, and what I find interesting is how every single one of them can also be applied to gaming.
Here’s the TL:DR for those who don’t want to read the original piece:
- Metrics suggest that people are listening to old music more than new music (at least among the metrics that “matter”).
- This includes younger generations who were never alive in the 60’s, 70’s, and 80’s (or maybe even the 90’s).
- Record labels are more interested in spending truckloads of money to buy the back catalogs of legacy acts than on scouting, new technologies, or new artists.
- There is lots of interesting new stuff being done outside of the major labels (or at least Gioia believes there is), but discovery is a huge problem. There’s simply too much of it, and no one is doing a great job of curation.
- The major labels are so obsessed with playing it safe that (in Gioia’s opinion) it will ultimately be their undoing. He relates a time when he worked as a business consultant, using hard metrics to prove that innovation is key to long term success. Company boardrooms largely ignored the findings.
- Would you be surprised if I told you that part of their justification was that “playing it safe leads to better short term gains”?
I cannot think of a single one of these bullet points that doesn’t apply to gaming:
- A ton of Xbox360/PS3 games were remastered and re-released on Xbox One and PS4. This wouldn’t have happened unless there was a demand to play them. This is to say nothing of the contemporaneous deluge of retro re-releases, compilations, plug and play mini consoles, etc.
- Fortnite is a game played largely by tweens, but it features character skins based on Sarah Connor, Terminator, Ellen Ripley, Predator, Snake Eyes, Ryu, and the Xenomorph from Alien. And if my ten year old nephew is any indication, kids his age think these characters are cool.
- Large publishers have gone on acquisition sprees, and while some were done to acquire talent, others are very clearly attempts to capture back catalogs and existing IP’s.
- There is a ton of cool stuff going on in the indie scene, but finding it is difficult unless you spend all of your gaming-related energy focusing on them.
- Major publishers are obsessed with playing it safe, with most AAA games adopting the “games as a service” approach. Or consider Activision, which has, at various times in its history, dedicated almost all of its internal resources to extreme sports games, music games, or Call of Duty, without stopping to think about what they’d do once these games fell out of favor (though we know from experience what happens – they shut down a bunch of studios and buy up some new ones).
I guess it’s not surprising to see all these similarities. Both industries are run by the kinds of corporate overlords that are mainly interested in squeezing every last drop of revenue out of their Intellectual Property and (*shudder*) human capital.
Some of the comments to Gioia’s post bring up some interesting counter-thoughts. One individual argues that the concept/trend of constantly listening to new music, rather than just enjoying the standards of old, is an aberration of the 20th and 21st centuries, and that the current trend towards familiar old works is a return to the norm. I don’t fully buy this line of thought, but there might be some merit to it. We arguably are seeing some of it in gaming, what with the constant influx of retro re-releases, and the continued reliance on sequels and existing IP’s.
Someone else pointed out that this is just part of a general trend toward a society that doesn’t value individual creativity and artistic endeavor. They clarify that it’s a bad time to be a musician, writer, photographer, etc. I agree with this in general, but it leads to a “chicken and egg” situation – good artistic works are harder to find because there’s no market for them, but is there no market for them because they can’t be found? This is a question no one ever seems to bring up.
Lastly, someone ponders whether the blame should be placed on the lack of good critics, who can point readers to the best new music and save them some time. This one resonates with me, because the same is true in gaming. Old videolamer spent a lot of time taking professional games journalists and reviewers to task, and the situation on that front has arguably only gotten worse.
Anyway, what do you think? Is the situation in gaming as bad as it is in music? Is there anything that can be done to get us out of this hole? To get your brain juices flowing, here are a few more observations from the comments to Gioia’s piece:
- Is it a problem that we now have access to more stuff than ever before? To paraphrase one comment, “if a kid in the 60’s listened to big band music from the 30’s, even if they liked it, they may not find it easy to obtain more of it. That’s no longer true. Everything is available, and it’s all competing for our attention.”
- Is part of the problem that nowadays entertainment is treated more as a product to consume than a moment to experience? When everyone is trying to churn through “content” just for the sake of churning through content, they’re going to start treating it as disposable. How could you possibly remember the names of individual artists and creators in this milieu?
- Have we given up the idea of cultural consensus to algorithms? In other words, people don’t choose what becomes popular, but instead follow along with whatever social media algorithms determine should be popular.