The Decade the Music Died

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We’re a few days away from February 3rd. It’s a day that forever lives in Rock and Roll infamy.

It was on a cold winter’s night precisely sixty years ago – February 3, 1959 – that Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson boarded a Beechcraft Bonanza and found Rock and Roll heaven in a barren cornfield outside of Clear Lake, Iowa.

Much has been written about this, including two film biopics (The Buddy Holly Story in 1978 starring Gary Busey and La Bamba in 1987 starring Lou Diamond Phillips). Perhaps the seminal tribute, though, remains Don McLean’s 1971 hit “American Pie.” It was his song that first used the phrase “the day the music died” to describe the plane crash that took the lives of those young rock stars.

I’m not going to add to the litany of previously published thoughts on “the day the music died.” Rather, I’m going to share with you a conversation I had with a reporter. We sat at a high table in The Menches Brothers Restaurant in Green, Ohio (between Akron and Canton, for those using a GPS). I sipped my Diet Pepsi as the reporter asked me questions about what inspired me to write Hamburger Dreams (my latest book that looks at the evidence refuting and supporting the various hamburger origin stories).

At one point, he asked if I had written any other “food” books. I mentioned A Pizza The Action (albeit it’s more about business than food). Then I added that I had penned a short article on my grandfather’s pizzeria, mapping its beginning to the emergence of Rock and Roll.

That’s when the fun started. Little did I know this reporter, though nearly my age, still played in a band. He talked and talked about the evolution of pop music, from Bing Crosby to Frank Sinatra to Elvis to The Beatles to Heavy Metal, Disco, New Wave, Madison Avenue Rock, Soft Rock, Hard Rock, Pop Rock, Hip Hop, Grunge, Boy Bands, to… nothing.

That’s right. His contention is that today we have nothing when it comes to memorable (new) music acts. At least he expects we’re in an era when no current music will endure. It is the decade the music died.

I listened, now more curious than ever. “What do you feel might be responsible for this?” I asked, turning the interview tables on the reporter. His answer is worth considering.

He retraced the evolution of pop music, this time from the point of view of the physical media. We started by collecting vinyl albums. Then we collected 8-Tracks and cassette tapes. Then we collected CDs (some of us even collected laser discs).

The point is: we were collecting “sets.” Think of it as the same behavioral mechanism that causes some to collect baseball cards, comic books, or stamps and coins. The idea that there is a “set” we can “complete” motivates us to complete it. Along the way, the act of making a decision to purchase the music and the physical action of actually purchasing the media (branded by the name of the artist or band we seek) triggers further psychological reactions that draw us ever closer to the brand we buy. (If you’re interested, this is a form of self-justification. We use it in almost every decision we make and every action we take.)

“What happened that finally killed the radio star?” asked the reporter rhetorically. Barely pausing to take a breath, he continued. “We don’t buy anything anymore when we consume music.”

The reporter believes the rise of on-line options like iTunes (“Apple Music”), Pandora, and Spotify have dramatically changed the dynamics of purchasing music. In fact, you don’t buy any particular artist or band anymore, you subscribe to a service that allows you to listen to anyone you want to. It’s like you’re a restaurant buying an ASCAP/BMI license to play music. You’re buying the entire catalog, not one act.

Whoosh! And there go all those psychological triggers that made you a fan of someone’s music without even knowing you were becoming a fan of someone’s music. It’s like the difference between renting and buying a house. You don’t care if you trash your apartment, but you fall madly in love with your house.

This idea fascinated me. So much going on. It’s not really about the decade the music died. It’s more about the decade generations of consumer behavior died. This has changed everything from music (and other content like books and films) to taxis to even hotel booking.

What does this all mean? What will this all mean?

I told the reporter this same story I am about to tell you. A couple of weeks ago I was asked to make a presentation about New York State history to a class of 7th graders. To get to know them better, before things began, I asked the early arrivers to tell me what shows they watched, what games they played, what sports teams they liked. Eventually, the topic turned to current music.

“Who’s your favorite music singer or band?” I asked.

Crickets. Not a peep from the kids. “Don’t you listen to music?” I said, more of a plea than a question.

“Sure we do,” they answered, “It’s just we can’t think of one person or band that really sticks out.”

I thought for a moment. Then I raised my right eyebrow. I looked at them and bluntly asked, without any intent to explain my question, “Who’s your favorite Beatle?”

Immediately I heard shouts of “Paul” with a few smatterings of “Ringo.”

The music hasn’t died. It never will.

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