Laura Marling, Not (Just) Bob Dylan: Critic Jim Fusilli on the ‘Neglected’ Adult Music Market
In his new book "Catching Up,' Music journalist Jim Fusilli posits that the music biz has "little regard for grown-ups."
In the introductory chapters to his book Catching Up: Connecting with Great 21st Century Music, longtime Wall Street Journal music critic Jim Fusilli argues that the music business neglects older music fans by peddling youth market flash that often leaves adults alienated from so much glorious contemporary music.
This disaffected middle-aged market, Fusilli says, can acquire a “generational bias” or “Gee Bee,” that is adults who arrogantly believe the music of their generation is far superior to any and all subsequent sounds. We all know the type: proficient air guitarists, raved before EDM, matriculated at rap’s old school and/or moshed before punk found pop. Gee Bees find little or no value in music released in the decades past youthful prime.
Catching Up‘s primary function is to inspire the curmudgeonly middle-aged music fan with what Fusilli believes are 50 classic albums released since the millennium, including Radiohead‘s Kid A, Kanye West‘s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy and J. Dilla’s Donuts which he reviews individually (though choosing only 50 albums over the last fifteen years is necessarily an exercise in omission). We caught up with the author to get his take on where he believes the music industry is failing, the reasons behind older consumers’ music myopia, the reunion pandemic and why perhaps Laura Marling should be on the cover of AARP Magazine instead of Bob Dylan.
Billboard: One of the main theses you posit in Catching Up is that older demographics don’t engage in music in part because music industry has “little regard for grown-ups” and “chose to ignore us when marketing new music”– why do you think that is?
Jim Fusilli: The industry doesn’t know how to market music as music. They market it well as a source of identity and a form of fashion, and they encourage people to view music as a key to acceptance in popular culture. Not much of that kind of marketing has to do with the quality of music, about what’s good versus what’s popular. People with a certain level of experience understand that it’s an approach that reduces music to a commodity. Are grownups looking for acceptance in a youth-oriented pop culture? Do they want to identify with personalities young enough to be their children? I think most grownups know who they are and what they’ve achieved. When they say they want great music, what they want is great music. Not cultural commentary, not a soundtrack to identity. Just great music. The industry just isn’t structured to promote rock and pop music as art.
Couldn’t one also argue the music industry does market to older consumers (the term “mom marketing” comes to mind) with ads, sponsorship and editorial coverage in places like the Journal, Starbucks, NPR, the New York Times, PBS, Target and Walmart sponsorships, American Express and Citibank concert pre-sales, car commercials and the like which cater to an older demographic? (Also, let’s not forget Dylan on the cover of AARP’s magazine last year.)
The industry is comfortable marketing to grownups new music or recycled music by veteran artists. NPR is superb at introducing new music to grownups, but they are one of the exceptions. The Journal and the Times covers new music as art, and PBS has Austin City Limits in major markets. There is a level of outreach in some national media. But for the most part, media that has an older demographic as its target tends to emphasize veteran artists and very familiar music. Yes, Dylan was on the cover of AARP magazine. Laura Marling wasn’t. Gary Clark Jr. wasn’t. A post-punk band? A trip-hop artist? Someone from the smart side of electronica? No, no, no. As I write in Catching Up, media has its musical biases too.
When ads are targeting consumers in an older demographic, they most often use music that’s decades old, driving grownups deeper into the old-music silo. But new music is in ads aimed at young consumers. One of my favorite emails or Facebook pokes is when someone asks me to identity a new song they’ve heard in an ad. That tells me grownups feel the hook, recognize quality and want to know. Do they take action once I tell them what they’ve heard? Does the industry make it possible for them to do so?
How much of a role in older consumers’ alienation from contemporary music do you think stems from the dramatically shifting industry sands — from hi-fi to wifi — and radical changes in music formats, retail, technology, delivery modes, etc. over the last 25 years?
I think grownups adapt. Once a person realizes that the majority of recordings from the past 70 years or so are available on streaming services, they understand the value of the technology. My experience tells me grownups prefer to own than to stream, but that’s just another opportunity for the recording industry to serve a willing customer base.
Couldn’t one argue that the main reason many adults don’t engage with contemporary music, or film, fashion, theater, art etc., isn’t about marketing or desire, but has more to do with a lack of time, energy, finances… especially once adults procreate and have demanding full-time jobs?
I agree. For the most part, Catching Up aims to address people who have moved to a certain place in life where career is established, the mortgage is under control, the kids are off to college and some free time has returned. With that free time comes the desire to use it well. One way to do so is to reconnect with the passion for music But what complicates matters is when grownups are in the position to return to music and the industry isn’t there to welcome them. How to reconnect is an issue; is it really worth it. Catching Up makes the case for “yes,” but the grownups thinking might be: “my old record store is gone and my old radio station is gone. I picked up a copy of Billboard and I have no idea who these musicians are.” They feel the chasm between then, when the music industry spoke to them all the time, and the now, when it’s not there to provide guidance, is too vast. It’s easy to surrender. So they go listen to Rod Stewart thinking they might hear some of the old spark from the Faces days. They won’t, of course. And to compound the problem, the industry isn’t telling them that they can hear a dozen new bands who will hit the same spot the Faces did and start up the fire all over again.
How did you choose the 50 albums released in the new millennium, as one could argue that there’s maybe even 50 a year in what many say is an over-saturated market?
You’re right. We’ve seen months in the past few years where 50 worthy new albums were released. My goal wasn’t to create a “best of” list in Catching Up — I think it’s better to let grownup listeners make that kind of judgment based on their priorities. I wanted to give grownups a look at a cross-section of rock and pop since the dawn of the new century that they might not have heard and to welcome them to the music as music and art.
Explain the term “Gee Bees”?
A Gee Bee is someone who likes only old music and rejects new music without listening to it – and will go so far as to criticize new music and new musicians they know nothing about. Gee Bees are really vile. A virus. When you meet one, walk away. But people of good intent and healthy self-regard — meaning the opposite of Gee Bees — get caught up in the acceleration of life: career begins, marriage, children, mortgage, caring for elderly parents. Free time is limited; so is discretionary income. Instead of spending a Saturday night at a club, they are decompressing from a hectic week. In those circumstances, it’s hard to keep up with new trends and new bands. So it’s understandable that they tend to stay with music they already know and enjoy.
For the first time in 2015, catalog sales surpassed new music, does that perhaps validate the Gee Bees’ argument that “classic” music is superior to much of what is available in the contemporary market place?
I’d really question that interpretation of the data. But it’s at best incomplete. Why isolate sales in a market in which the annual number of annual streams just about doubled to 317 million. As I understand it, the term “catalog” includes albums that were released as recently as 18 months ago. Is an album released mid-to-late 2014 “classic” music already? Beyoncé or Beck’s Morning Phase are old music because they came out in late 2013 or early 2014? Also, let’s acknowledge that sales are rarely an indication of artistic merit in rock and pop. Anyone who claims one album is superior to another because it sold more copies is on shaky ground.
But there’s also a constant demand for older artists to tour or reunite — say The Zombies, The Stooges, Kraftwerk, Mavis Staples, Stevie Wonder, Billy Joel, Neil Diamond, etc. Why is there a need for an older demo to discover new music when they can easily get their fill from their favorite artists of yesteryear?
I don’t see it as either/or. Grownups can savor new music without turning away from their favorite musicians of their youth. There can be a balance that’s very satisfying: something familiar along with something new and challenging. But I contend that if you are only interested in the music of your youth, it may not be music that you’re really interested in. It may be memory or sentiment, which are powerful forces within all of us. This is really a phenomenon that’s unique to popular music, I think… the preference for the old at the expense of the new. Grownups watch new TV shows all the time. New movies too. But some of these same people will reject new music. It would never occur to them that while Band X from the ‘60s is playing at the arena, a much better band is at a club downtown.
So what do you think the music biz needs to do better and how?
Welcome grownups. See them as part of now, not only the ever-distance past. Introduce them to new music — not only new music that bears a resemblance to old music — but to new genres that have emerged in the 21st century. Present today as part of the continuum. Make grownups feel like they belong. How? Please stop ignoring them. Build the bridge. Listening parties. Free downloads targeting grownups. Concert tickets. A dedicated series in clubs; maybe subscribers only. Meet-and-greets with musicians. Cater to the grownup music lovers’ demands. Let’s fill up a couple of buses and bring a few hundred grownups to a major festival. They’ll be knocked out by how great the music is. As I say in Catching Up, new music needs grownups and grownups need new music too. It can bring them the joy and satisfaction the joy they’ve earned and deserve.