In the Key of All Go Rhythm

New music includes sounds we’ve never heard before, regardless of how old the tunes might be. But are we running out of the possibility for new songs? In his January 23, 2022 piece for The Atlantic, “Is Old Music Killing New Music?” Ted Gioia, jazz musician and critic, cites marketing trends and sales stats to support his concern that “the new-music market is actually shrinking. All the growth in the market is coming from old songs.” His music world appears on the brink of a new-music mass extinction, where one can find only oldie stations on the radio. He explores a number of causes, including the lucrative business of copyright litigation that apparently follows the algorithms close enough to pair bonds and links coincidental and unintended, turning your new effort into a plagiarism accusation. But to new ears, isn’t all old music new music? Gioia also explores the new trend in buying up the rights to all the old song catalogs, an investment that presumably assumes new ears of generations of listeners to come.

Sales projections need to start somewhere, and “nothing is less interesting to music executives than a completely radical new kind of music,” Gioia says. It’s another road not taken, one with too much risk. Better to replay a setlist of Beatles than to try out a new one from the Belates.

What happens when we hear a new song, one that sounds somehow familiar yet distant, unheard before? From the opening of the novel Dance Night (1930) by Dawn Powell:

“What Morry heard above the Lamptown night noises was a woman’s high voice rocking on mandolin notes far far away. This was like no music Morry had ever known, it was a song someone else remembered, perhaps his mother, when he was only a sensation in her blood, a slight quickening when she met Charles Abbott, a mere wish for love racing through her veins.”

p 3. Dawn Powell: Novels 1930-1942. The Library of America, 2001.

When the musicologist Sam Charters introduced a new audience in 1959 to The Country Blues, the music was already as old as the hills and twice as dusty, and he found the music exec gatekeepers of the ’50s reluctant to remarket it. But had it truly disappeared, or had it been assimilated? Well, the original recordings, of which there were not too many to begin with, had for the most part disappeared. It was oldies, old-folks music, but to the young ears of the 1950s, it was new.

But there’s something else that marginalizes and renders some old music newly unmarketable. Can we imagine a Superbowl halftime where the entertainment is a solo voice self-accompanied on an acoustic guitar? A Crossroads surrounded by 100,000 yelling fans, a liminalty too loud to attract any local supernatural spirits, old or new.

What we call new music might be more accurately named recycled music. The needle often seems stuck. But there certainly are huge differences between composing a new song and covering an old one, even if the cover sounds radically new, the Ramones playing “Surf City,” for example.

Speaking of surf cities, Ted Gioia grew up in neighboring Hawthorne, almost a generation behind me though, so he probably wasn’t at the Playa del Rey beach that grad night in the mid 60s when a bunch of locals from St Bernard High were ceremoniously burning a few of their textbooks in the fire pits. That was the night I met Emitt Rhodes, a friend of my date from Bernards, both also of Hawthorne, Emitt then of The Merry-Go-Round fame. Even then he eschewed any special place in the group, but upon hearing that I played guitar, he told me you have to play your own songs, write your own stuff. He was referring to the many bands that then played high school dances featuring Top 40 covers.

“The song bewildered Morry reading Jules Verne by gaslight…It came from other worlds and then faded into a factory whistle, a fire engine bell, and a Salvation Army chorus down on Market Street.”

p. 3.