Rock of Ages
by Jeff Leeds New York Times, November 26, 2006
The AARP is going into the music business. As this news story says, the AARP is sponsoring Tony Bennett’s current tour. And not only that:
Elton John performed at the association’s “Life @50+” convention in Anaheim, Calif., last month; officials said they have booked Rod Stewart and Earth, Wind & Fire for next year. James Taylor played two years ago, and the group’s magazine has named him as one of the hottest people over 50…
[The group is also] bulking up its Web site with music offerings, licensing the Pandora online radio and recommendation service [see below], and negotiating for shelf space at a major retail chain, which would carry exclusive versions of certain CDs with discounts to AARP members. And of course it will advertise at Mr. Bennett’s concerts and perhaps sign up new members there too.
Why all this? Because people 45 and over have been the record industry’s biggest market ever since the late 1990s:
Last year fans 45 and older accounted for 25.5 percent of sales, while older teenagers (a group more prone to music piracy) represented less than 12 percent. So it’s little wonder that Rod Stewart’s raspy remakes of pop standards emerged as a franchise, or that Bob Dylan in September captured the No. 1 spot on the Billboard chart for the first time in 30 years.
The AARP wants to take advantage of all this, using music to attract new members. And the meaning of it all for classical music? There’s a wistful belief that people, as they age, will want something musically more serious, and so will turn away from pop, and embrace the classics.
But this news story suggests otherwise. Older people still like pop. Which isn’t to say that some of them won’t embrace classical music, but surely not as many of them will as happened in the past. So the classical audience — if we don’t do something — will very likely shrink.
Two footnotes: We shouldn’t forget that anybody looking for serious music can already find it outside the classical world. Someone who grew up with Aerosmith can start listening to world music, jazz, or blues.
And Pandora! I’m hardly the first to discover it, but if you haven’t tried it, go to the site and see what you think. It’s an Internet radio service, which offers to learn what you like, and give you more music like it. You enter the name of a song or an artist (so far this only works with pop; classical music, the Pandora people say, is something they’re working on). Then, based on what they plausibly claim are 200 or more musical characteristics, they start playing songs they think are like the music you entered. If you like a song that comes up, you can tell them so, and they’ll play more like it. If you don’t like something, you tell them that, too, and immediately the song vanishes. Things like it won’t be played in the future.
And this works! I started with a “radio station” (you can create up to 100 of them) based on Feist, a Canadian singer-songwriter I like. Later that day, someone I know said that her taste in pop was terrible: She liked things (like Abba, whom she’d loved in high school), and didn’t listen to anything she thought she ought to like. So I wondered what would happen if I created a Pandora station to address that. I told them to start playing Abba and Bob Dylan. Three or four songs down the line, they started playing Led Zeppelin, and I was amazed. Some Zep songs really might be some kind of crazed mix of Abba and Dylan — and I’d never have thought of that myself. I kept broadening the station. (My problem, I fear, is that I kept rejecting the Abba songs.) I added the the Ronettes, and started getting other girl group songs. I added the Pet Shop Boys, and started getting more dark dance-pop. But I also found I was getting some rock songs with a vivid dance-like rhythm, things I’d never have found on my own. Pandora works. Though now I think I’m getting too much dance, so I think I’ll add Neil Young and Public Enemy and P. J. Harvey…