After sixty years of research, it’s conventional wisdom: as people get older, they stop keeping up with popular music. Whether the demands of parenthood and careers mean devoting less time to pop culture, or just because they’ve succumbed to good old-fashioned taste freeze, music fans beyond a certain age seem to reach a point where their tastes have “matured”.
That’s why the organizers of the Super Bowl — with a median viewer age of 44 — were smart to balance their Katy Perry-headlined halftime show with a showing by Missy Elliott.
Spotify listener data offers a sliced & diced view of each user’s streams. This lets us measure when this effect begins, how quickly the effect develops, and how it’s impacted by demographic factors.
For this study, I started with individual listening data from U.S. Spotify users and combined that with Echo Nest artist popularity data, to generate a metric for the average popularity of the artists a listener streamed in 2014. With that score per user, we can compute a median across all users of a specific age and demographic profile.
What I found was that, on average…
- … while teens’ music taste is dominated by incredibly popular music, this proportion drops steadily through peoples’ 20s, before their tastes “mature” in their early 30s.
- … men and women listen similarly in their their teens, but after that, men’s mainstream music listening decreases much faster than it does for women.
- … at any age, people with children (inferred from listening habits) listen to a smaller amounts of currently-popular music than the average listener of that age.
Personified, “music was better in my day” is a battle being fought between 35-year old fathers and teen girls — with single men and moms in their 20s being pulled in both directions.
COLLECTING THE DATA
Spotify creates a “Taste Profile” for every active user, an internal tool for personalization that includes us how many times a listener has streamed an artist. Separately, we can marry that up to each artist’s popularity rank from The Echo Nest (via artist “hotttnesss”).
To give you an idea of how popularity rank scales, as of January 2015:
- Taylor Swift had a popularity rank of #1
- Eminem had a popularity rank of about #50
- Muse had a popularity rank of about #250
- Alan Jackson had a popularity rank of about #500
- Norah Jones had a popularity rank of about #1000
- Natasha Bedingfield had a current-popularity rank of about #3000
To cut down on cross-cultural differences, I only looked at users in the U.S. Thus, to find 2014 listening history for 27-year-old males on Spotify (based on self-reported registration data), we can find the median popularity rank of the artists that each individual 27-year-old male U.S. listener streamed, and calculate the subsequent median across all such listeners.
DOES AGE REALLY IMPACT THE AMOUNT OF POPULAR MUSIC PEOPLE STREAM?
Mainstream artists are at the center of a circle, with each larger concentric ring representing artists of decreasing popularity. The average U.S. teen is very close to the center of the chart — that is, they’re almost exclusively streaming very popular music. Even in the age of media fragmentation, most young listeners start their musical journey among the Billboard 200 before branching out.
And that is exactly what happens next. As users age out of their teens and into their 20s, their path takes them out of the center of the popularity circle. Until their early 30s, mainstream music represents a smaller and smaller proportion of their streaming. And for the average listener, by their mid-30s, their tastes have matured, and they are who they’re going to be.
Two factors drive this transition away from popular music.
First, listeners discover less-familiar music genres that they didn’t hear on FM radio as early teens, from artists with a lower popularity rank. Second, listeners are returning to the music that was popular when they were coming of age — but which has since phased out of popularity.
Interestingly, this effect is much more pronounced for men than for women:
For every age bracket, women are more likely to be streaming popular artists than men are. (These days, the top of the charts skew towards female-skewing artists including female solo vocalists, which may contribute to the delta.)
However, the decline in popular music streaming is much steeper for men than for women as well. Women show a slow and steady decline in pop music listening from 13-49, while men drop precipitously starting from their teens until their early 30s, at which point they encounter the “lock-in” effect referenced in the overall user chart earlier.
The concept of taste freeze isn’t unique to men. But is certainly much stronger.
DOES HAVING CHILDREN REALLY IMPACT THE AMOUNT OF POPULAR MUSIC PEOPLE STREAM?
Many factors potentially explain why someone would stop following the latest popular music, and most of them are beyond our ability to measure.
However, one in particular is something we can identify — when a user starts listening to large amounts of children’s music. Or in other words, when someone has become a parent.
Spotify has an extensive library of children’s music, nursery music, etc. By identifying listeners with significant pockets of this music, we can infer which listeners are “likely parents,” then strip out those tracks and analyze the remaining music.
Does having kids accelerate the trend of aging out of music? Or do we see the opposite — i.e. that having kids in the house exposes a person to more popular music than they would otherwise listen to?
In fact, it’s the latter: Even when we account for potential account sharing, users at every age with kids listen to smaller amounts of popular music than the average listener. Put another way, becoming a parent has an equivalent impact on your “music relevancy” as aging about 4 years.
Interestingly, when it comes to parents, we don’t see the same steadily-increasing gap we saw when comparing men and women by age. Instead, this “musical tax” is roughly the same at every age. This makes sense; having a child is a “binary” event. Once it happens, a lot of other things go out the window.
All this is to say that yes, conventional wisdom is “wisdom” for a reason. So if you’re getting older and can’t find yourself staying as relevant as you used to, have no fear — just wait for your kids to become teenagers, and you’ll get exposed to all the popular music of the day once again!
(Though I guess if we’ve learned anything today, it’s that you’ll end up trying to get them to listen to your Built To Spill albums anyway.)
- For this analysis, I wanted to isolate music taste down to pure music-oriented discovery, not music streamed because of an interest in some other media or some other activity. To that end, I eliminated any Taste Profile activity for artists whose genre indicated another media originally (“cabaret”,”soundtrack”, “movie tunes” “show tunes”, “hollywood”, “broadway”), as well as music clearly tied to another activity ( “sleep”, “environmental”, “relaxative”, “meditation”).
- To identify likely parents, I first identified listeners with notable 2014 listening for genres including “children’s music”, “nursery” , “children’s christmas”, “musica para ninos”, “musique pour enfants”, “viral pop” or ” antiviral pop”, then subsequently removed that music when calculating the user’s median artist popularity rank.
- To control for characteristics across cultures, this analysis looked only at U.S. listeners.
- As has been pointed out in previous analyses, registration data by birth year has a particular problem in overrepresentation at years that end with 0 (1990, 1980, etc). For those years, I took the average value of people who self report as one year younger and one year older. Matching birth year to age can also be problematic depending on month of birth, so for the graph’s sake I’ve displayed three-period moving averages per year.
141 thoughts on ““Music was better back then”: When do we stop keeping up with popular music?”
Reblogged this on La madre que lo parió and commented:
Aquí algunas razones empíricas de porqué dejamos de escuchar música pop con el paso del tiempo.
Very cool. It would be interesting to distinguish between taste freeze and expand to less popular genres. (i.e. listening to what was popular at some point but no longer, vs. listening to something by new bands that are less in the main-stream.)
Fair question. I’d like to the same study, but with new music instead of popular.
New meaning either recently released music or new to the listener.
Reblogged this on Karmalight.
you are taking todays people’s listening behaviours and compare a 14 yr old with a 60 yr old, hence this is not following any ones taste through the years, which makes some of your interpretations pretty vague..
oh god, circular graphs?!? why! why!!! you spent all that time analyzing data and then ensured it was impossible to visually interpret.
I think the only thing you’ve discovered here is that “hotttness” (sic) is roughly logarithmic, and pop music appeals more to some demographics than to others. Congratulations on that, I guess.
Reblogged this on dgil.uz.
I found this very interesting, and then was startled by this explanation at the end: “For this analysis, I wanted to isolate music taste down to pure music-oriented discovery, not music streamed because of an interest in some other media or some other activity. To that end, I eliminated any Taste Profile activity for artists whose genre indicated another media originally (“cabaret”,”soundtrack”, “movie tunes” “show tunes”, “hollywood”, “broadway”)”
I think you should be aware that a lot of people listen to film and Broadway music purely out of love for music by particular composers, often without having seen the film or show for which it was written, or even having the slightest interest in the original source. Cutting those genres out seriously undermines your research.
I will be 60 in June. I STILL seek out and listen to new music. ALL types of music. But, new types, forms and sounds of all forms of Rock, especially. As does my 65 year old sister, and my 43 year old husband. Thank you very much. And, I am NOT on the “fringe”. Your research is seriously flawed. Also, MANY, MANY people DO still listen to what they did in their “youth”, but not ALL of us, so PLEASE do NOT lump us all together; THAT would be a highly short-sighted and unintelligent thing to do.
If I understand this analysis, if someone listened to a new, equally unpopular musician every day, they would be identified as someone who’s taste had “frozen.” More interesting would be to compare the number of different artists sought out by age group, or number of different genres, or the range of years of publication of the music sought out… actually just about anything other than the popularity of the music.
This study is worthless… do you even have a representative population of people older than 33? Did you choose a random sample of all age groups? According to the graphic you don’t have anyone younger than 14 or older than 49… Do you even have a notion of basic statistics? It is impossible to generalize this results based on the user profile of a website which gives a bias already. Older people use less the internet and don’t engage as much in social networks or acquire as much online services as the younger generation. Did you take that into account when analyzing the data?
I came of age in the eclectic free-for-all of the mid-60s to mid-70s, when you might hear “Snoopy & the Red Baron” and “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida” on the same station, people like Bob Dylan & Joni Mitchell were cranking out AMAZING lyrics, and classically-trained musicians were pushing the limits with album-oriented rock. It wasn’t so much that my musical taste “froze” around the time I graduated from college as that pop & rock station formats became so splintered into subgenres and drum machines, synth, & disco took over the mainstream & pushed everything toward sounding the same. Now you have to look long & hard to find anything that isn’t just BOOOOORRRRRIIIIINNNNNGGGGGGG tuneless stuff. (They don’t call it “cookie-cutter pop” for nothing!) I do tune in to the indie stations or the classic rock stations occasionally, but for the most part I’ve made the transition to 1000 years’ worth of classical. #oldfartproblems
Question: How can an analysis of data that is measuring popularity makes claims about recency? Those concepts are not synonymous.
You can’t say “for the average listener, by their mid-30s, their tastes have matured, and they are who they’re going to be” based on this study. You offer no proof (or even suggestion) of that. The vast majority of new music is NOT popular, only a very small percentage of music is popular in fact.. Older listeners could simply be listening to brand new and non “popular” music and your graph would be exactly the same…
I am 65 and spend a few hours every week seeking out new music. Music will keep you young.
If only you’d asked me first; you could have saved yourself all that research. 🙂 I’m glad to find myself stuck in the fifties and sixties.
Loved this post! Reblogging.
Reblogged this on Gil Shalev and commented:
Reblogging this wonderful post.
Of course, OBJECTIVELY, music WAS better back then 🙂
David Lee Roth on popularity: “Here today, gone later today.” Believe it, he would know. My opinion, which stacks up at least as well as the slanted and misleading “statistics”, is that some people like to listen to catchy little tunes and, when they are pushed out of the way by the next catchy little tune, they basically forget about it. Other people are actually interested in music itself. For these people all music can be relevant, even commercial pop. What is not relevant is the correlation between how in touch a group of people is with different periods of music and how much pimple cream they buy.
It might be interesting to see how broad the experience with music of all kinds is with people who actually make music compared with those who don’t.
I find this data really interesting, I am a teen and I find it really weird thinking about how music is something that can be impacted by such a small thing!
Finally, something interesting and different on the Freshly Pressed page, thank you.
Personally, I worry if my predilections ever line up with the current majority. It means I’m not sampling enough of the world’s unique delights. I’d hate to have my Weird Card revoked.
I, too, have noticed the over abundance of young female vocalists on the radio these days. They’re beginning to mash together acoustically in my brain, all sounding the same after awhile. Whenever I hear a RTF (Random Twentysomething Female) start warbling, I switch to the local alternative rock station and pray for something with a Y chromosome and some bass.
Great topic, and great info, I agree that music was DEFINETLY better back in the day, music now isn’t music
I wish people would broaden their music knowledge, pop music isn’t the only music out there. I listen to 90s rock almost exclusively and I have no knowledge of the current pop music because it’s mostly based on drugs, sex, alcohol and money. Then there’s also the misconception that metal is for satanic cults that needs to be cleared. It is unfortunate that people want to remain mainstream.