Why “music isn’t as good as it used to be” is a fallacy

October 10, 2010

Every once in a while, I hear someone argue that music isn’t as good as it used to be — that at some point in the past, usually the 1960s or 70s, music was better. If you’re one of these people, I submit three reasons why that’s unlikely to be the case.

Time is the mother of all selection biases.

Go look at charts for different years – we only remember the gold, and we forget the dross. Time is a fantastic filter for the good stuff.

You are not the same person you were (10, 20, whatever) years ago.

Your relationship to music has changed. I don’t know if this is apocryphal or not, but it’s said that the magic age is 21: that you imprint on what you listen to then (hence the existence of oldies stations).

People have been saying that the older music was better for as long as popular music has existed.

Elvis? What are kids listening to these days?

Beatles? What are kids listening to these days?

Punk? What are kids listening to these days?

Rap? What are kids listening to these days?

Lady Gaga? What are kids listening to these days?

Get the picture? Do you really think that you’re different and special, and somehow the music from when you were a teenager actually was better?

It’s not that a case can’t be made for the superiority of music from one decade or another. It’s just that it’s really hard to convincingly make the case based on your personal experience of music, because you are not a disinterested, dispassionate observer.

I propose a new rule: that you’re only allowed to make sweeping generalizations comparing music from different time periods if they are at least a generation older than you. “The 1880s! That was a terrible decade for music. No soul, man – not like the ’70s!”

I look around, and I think that we may very well be living through the Cambrian Explosion of music. Music has never been easier to create or to distribute. There’s no reason to believe that the amount of good music hasn’t increased too.

Image: Mayan Calendar by Flickr user NCReedplayer, used here under its Creative Commons license.


  1. Another reason, I think related both to your first reason and to your final observation, is that music accessibility has (for the most part) increased over time, especially recently. This increases the availability of good music, but it seems like it would disproportionately increase the availability of music you wouldn’t have sought out otherwise. Sometimes this is great, new stuff. More often, it’s stuff you were deliberately not seeking.

  2. […] explains why the tired trope that “music isn’t as good as it used to be” is a fall…. Essentially? “Time is the mother of all selection […]

  3. I’d have to say that music actually isn’t as good as it used to be. It will be again though, just not now. The potential for great music is the same throughout all time… but forces that allow this potential to be reached is not equal at all times. Over the past decade the music industry has been downsized substantially, hugely even (like almost all other industries). They don’t spend nearly as much producing albums or risking cash on new talent. Maybe pop music has stayed just as bad as it was before… but a large section of good creative cool albums from good progressive bands with great producers just are not there anymore. Lots of the major label non-pop music of the 80’s and 90’s sounds really great. It’s like this genre just doesn’t exist anymore and I think it’s mainly because the majors aren’t supporting it anymore. So the good bands may still have the potential to make great music but without the great producer, great recording studio and contract pay for living, their music just isn’t reaching it’s potential. The “free music” revolution of the past decade has it’s costs.

  4. Good write up – I’m always making the same argument. People always think the world revolves around them ^_^.

    True about the Cambrian Explosion !! Only thing I’d say is that the signal to noise ratio might have increased since it’s so easy – now we need all sorts of weird tools to help us find stuff we like.

  5. There are plenty of good bands right now if you look hard enough, but there is no question that pop music has turned increasingly into watered-down, four chord, formulaic garbage that takes little talent or creativity to make. When people say that the music today isn’t as good, they are often referring to music that is mainstream and well-known. If you look at the charts from the 60’s or 70’s, for example, you can of course see pop music that no one remembers anymore. However, you can also see music by bands like the Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Doors, James Brown, Stevie Wonder, etc. reaching top positions on music charts. Look for original, creative artists on a modern pop/popular music station and I guarantee you will be pretty disappointed. Great music still exists but it is not heard much on mainstream radio or television stations, so it is not as out in the open. Luckily, with the internet, you don’t have to look that hard to find something good.

  6. The issue for me is the artistry of alternative music of any genre vs. the banal formulas for more generally accepted “easy to listen to” popular rock, jazz or even classical music. Do recording artists aspire to evolve or is it safer to color between the lines all of the time?

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