Slower turnover for songs and movies

From my email:

Hi, Mr. Cowen. I recently read The Complacent Class recently and enjoyed it. I’m writing because there’s an another example of American complacency that’s only come to light in recent weeks…

Specifically: the Billboard music charts..

Shape of You by Ed Sheeran last week broke the record for most weeks in top 10, with 33 weeks. The song it beat, Closer by The Chainsmokers and Halsey, set the previous record less than a year ago.

(And yet another song in last week’s top 10, That’s What I Like by Bruno Mars, currently holds the 8th-longest record on that metric — and potentially still rising.)

Meanwhile, Despacito by Luis Fonsi, Daddy Yankee, and Justin Bieber tied the all-time record with its 16th week at #1:

Meanwhile, the biggest country song in the nation right now, Body Like a Back Road by Sam Hunt, is currently in its record-extending 30th week at #1 on the Hot Country Songs chart:

This did not happen in decades past. Look at the Billboard charts from the ’80s — it was a new #1 song almost every week!

Just like how you describe in your book how people are moving less and want to stay in the same town where they were before, or how they’re switching jobs less and want to stay in the same job where they were before, people apparently just want to listen to the same songs they’ve been listening to already.

That is from Jesse Rifkin, who is a journalist in Washington, D.C. who writes about Congress for GovTrack Insider and about the film industry for Boxoffice Magazine.  Jesse sends along more:

And if you want links for statistical evidence, here are two — one about which movies have spent the most weekends in the box office top 10, the other about which songs have spent the most weeks in the Billboard top 10:


I wonder how much of this represents consumer demand, how much represents radio host preferences and how much is due to longer promotion campaigns by music marketers.

This isn't confusing. The billboard chart is meaningless. Volatility is on streaming now, not buying albums.

Again, Billboard measures how listens mattered in the 80s so they were volatile. Now they aren't because people who Billboard measures are stuck in their tastes. Others have moved on.

Always ask whether the data measures what you think it measures. One can't understand anything without knowing the sampling and data-generating process!

+1. this.

There have been drastic changes in music consumption methods over the time period, so it is in no way a valid comparison for measuring changes in actual consumer tastes.

Tyler is really smart (way smarter than me). And he's obviously aware of all this. So I don't understand why he so often reverts to "This is interesting, so let's ignore the fatal flaws in the supporting data/analysis". It's extremely frustrating, especially in that it perpetuates one of the biggest, most problematic errors out there.

I wonder if radio programmers are aware because I keep hearing the exact same songs repeated over and over again on my local station. Billboard may not be an accurate measure of current music sales, but that alone doesn't invalidate the point made by the OP. Would like to hear more evidence because anecdotally my experience matches what Jesse is saying.

I don't doubt that the same songs get played more and more on the radio. The problem is the complacency conclusion: "people apparently just want to listen to the same songs they’ve been listening to already".

This conclusion depends on the Billboard data being a good way of measuring people's overall music consumption over time. I don't think that is remotely true given the technological changes in the field.

If I hear that "her lips taste just like sangria" song one more time, I swear to God I will choke every bastard married to a woman who has ever drunk sangria.

I have no doubt your explanation is right. Still, I have a feeling that even if you measured streaming plays, you might see similar patterns - a slower turnover of leaders. Here's some speculation about why that might be:

1. New music resembles old music enough so that for people who like songs that sound like Bruno Mars, there piles are of decade-old songs that will also appeal to the their tastes. (Imagine saying that in the 80's!) This reduces the incentive to carefully follow what's new, because it won't really be so different from what's in your collection already. So a much smaller and more homogeneous group is carefully keeping track of what's new and trending and consistently incorporating it in their playlist. This atypical group drives the charts for both Billboard and streaming.

2. A song used to become a hit through radio saturation. Now its journey to becoming a hit inevitably involves some sort of critical mass on social media. It's a process with much more latency. It used to be that a few programming directors of stations would wash away the hits from two weeks ago and cram something new down our throats. On social media, some people might already be sick of a song when a larger but slower population is just starting to get into it.

What evidence is there that this is due to complacency?

We have more ways of finding and consuming music than we used to. There are more people listening to genres that don't make it to the Billboard charts. You can develop a new sound and make money off it without ever creating a top hit. It no longer matters as much who's on top. It used to be that if you wanted something new, there was a limited amount of choice, so audiences were more likely to converge on the same thing and make it a hit. Now, with so much choice, their choices are more likely to be spread over many songs, making it less likely for them to converge on one.

Looking at it from a slightly different angle, Billboard hits are lasting longer, but they're selling less. And yet people are consuming more music, which means that Billboard charts aren't really telling as much about people's listening habits. You can't use the charts as evidence that people want to hear the same thing more than they used to.

As a musician, my perception is that people used to a small number of things that changed constantly. Now they listen to many things that don't change as much.

In order to know people's actual listening habits, we would need more data than the Billboard charts or my personal observations. But until there's better data, the combination of charts and personal observations doesn't support the complacency hypothesis.

I can recall listening to "Rapper's Delight" on Top 40 radio in December 1979 and thinking to myself that this new novelty style of talking records would be big for 12 or even 18 months. During the 1970s, styles had changed so fast that it was hard to imagine we'd get stuck with A Boy Named Sue-type records for the next four decades.

The link to the top movies actually disproves the thesis. The movies that spent the most time in the top ten are ET, Beverly Hills Cop, Tootsie, Top Gun and Titanic. NONE of the top 100 movies are from the past ten years.

Check that -- there are three (Zootopia, Avatar and La La Land) -- though all are way down on the list.

The "opening weekend" didn't really exist until recent decades. Jaws made $7 million in 409 theaters during its opening weekend in 1975 and it was considered a landmark step forward in national advertising.

The cost of making film prints (~$1,000) and shipping film prints (~$75) was considerable, which encouraged slow rollouts driven by word of mouth.

My vague sense is that "Spider-Man" in 2002 showed how huge an opening weekend could be, ushering in the modern era where the opening weekend is just about everything.

Probably earlier, I remember a distinct buzz regarding the opening weekend for the first X-Men movie in 1998.

Apples and oranges. I don't think you can compare the way Billboard charts were computed in the 80s with how it was done after the mid 90s. It is almost pointless to do so.

How much can we trust old Billboard charts? My impression from 1970 is that they seemed pretty, uh, "stylized" with singles following a pretty standardized curve up and down the charts.

When Billboard switched to actual checkout scanner data around 1991, suddenly previously de classe acts like Garth Brooks and NWA were shown to be hugely more popular than Billboard had wanted to admit. I forget which band was hurt most from switching from stylized data to raw data: perhaps REM wasn't quite as huge as Billboard had been making them appear.

My general impression is that music industry insiders, despite all the bad things you can say about them, tend to have better taste than music fans.

I would be interested in seeing BMI and ASCAP royalty data for old songs. That's real money, so I imagine it's more accurate than old Billboard rankings.

Where I see the greatest complacency in entertainment is the growing dominance of sequels and reboots among movies. As an example, here are the top grossing films of 2016

Of the top 20, I count 13 that are equals and reboots.

There are more sequels and reboots made, but I'm pretty sure there are are more non-sequel movies being made than ever before, as well. If artsy, cutting-edge movies are the least complacent type of movie, well, there are more of those being made then ever. It's not clear how to interpret all of this.

Also, similar to traditional music sources being supplanted by music streaming, people are consuming video in new forms. In particular, highly original, cinematic-quality TV series (both on the air and streaming) have increased greatly in recent years, and they are probably taking a space once occupied by movies.

Good point. I suppose that could be measured by the portion of total gross box office revenue that the top 10 movies (or whatever) captured. If you are right, then perhaps that has decreased.

I think what's really gone from the cinema is the mid-budget, intelligent, well-made films intended for a mass domestic adult audience. Not coincidentally, it is precisely this space that is best served by the golden age of television we now inhabit.

+1 good point

And maybe that's inevitable. When you have a colosseum, you inevitably end up using it for gladiators, Christians v. lions, and other pure spectacles. Character driven dramas are simply a better fit in other venues.

Before: the Billboard Hot 100 was calculated based on record sales and radio playing.

Today: the Billboard Hot 100 is calculated based on sales, radio and streaming.

Record sales and streaming can be interpreted as music demand. Radio play is marketing, an ad. It's not OK to measure consumer consumption based on ads. Thus, it can be argued that radio play had a greater weight in Hot 100 calculation in the past. Today consumer demand has a greater weight in results after streaming, therefore actual demand is included in calculation.

Radio is passe. What drives demand for music is social media and digital advertising, and social media and digital advertising prosper by promoting sameness, including sameness in music. Advertisers know that what appealed to consumers of social media and digital advertising yesterday will appeal to them today. The Donald Trump phenomenon is analogous: Trump is sameness day after day, the same bombast and insults spread indiscriminately across partisan and ideological lines. Americans don't want change, they want sameness: in the era of globalization, change (in the economy, in culture, etc.) is like an infectious disease, creating fear as it works its way through the land, everyone a potential casualty. The latest Republican plan for health care reform is change on steroids, with the possibility of change in the health care system in every state.

Make an appointment with your mental health professional today.

In addition to the complaints above, note that music does not occupy the same cultural place that it used to. Food is the new music. How quickly do food tastes change, compared to the 1950s or the 1980s?

Is post-modernism therefore stuck, or is it only dead and putrefying?

What then explains the reluctance or refusal of culture warriors and avant-gardes across genres and domains (music, film, visual arts, literary arts, drama, et cetera) to step past the limits imposed by academic celebration of post-modernism in order to reach the next "-ism" or "movement" ready by now to begin its own encounter with history?

very good analysis, people's interest in music is different. specifically for despacito, this song is phenomenal and heard all over the world :)

A better measure of complacency is to form some rank of original content within the top charting songs at any given moment. You'll notice that people are not only uninterested in true originality, they are actually hostile to it.

I wrote my dissertation in 2004 on this very topic and found a very interesting tidbit in those days: Whenever there was too much stagnation in turnover rate, Billboard and Radio & Records (now defunct) changed the method of charting turnover.

Broadcast Radio Programming: A Content Analysis to Measure Diversity in Radio Airplay

It's available wherever dissertations are published. :)

I stopped listening to the radio at that time and never looked back.

In a much more fractured market (the opposite of complacency) it can actually be easier for something to stay in the top 10. A more interesting metric might be the % of sales by the top X songs, the number of gold/platinum certifications (perhaps compared to total sales).

In the 1980s, the Billboard Hot 100 was based on a combination of sales of singles that were commercially available in stores, and radio airplay at a panel of "Top 40" stations around the country. The record retailers and radio stations self-reported the results, and they could be both misleading and prone to manipulation. With respect to sales, Billboard had no ability to track actual units sold. A retailer would report that its top seller was "Song A" and its second-best seller was "Song B." Song A would receive 30 points and Song B would receive 29 points, and so on down to the 30th-best seller, which would receive one point. It didn't matter if Song A sold one more copy than Song B or if it sold three times as many copies; Song A still received just one extra point for Hot 100 purposes. With the advent of SoundScan technology in 1991 that enabled the tracking of the precise number of singles sold via bar-code scanning, sales data became exponentially more accurate. With respect to album sales, it wasn't that Billboard was keeping acts like Garth Brooks and N.W.A down-- it was record retailers who consistently underreported the sales of "genre music." It was also the case that country and rap artists sold disproportionately well in certain regions and not at all in other regions. This had the effect of damping their chart performance under the self-reporting regime, where huge sales in specific locations were flattened out by the "30-points for number 1, 29-points for number 2" system.

It was also typical in the 1980s for record companies to aggressively market songs to get them to number one, and then immediately delete the single (i.e., stop pressing and shipping it) once that goal was achieved. In one extreme example of this, "Two Hearts" by Phil Collins reached number one and then fell to number 10 the next week after Collins' label deleted it. This was one of the reasons why there was so much turnover at the top of the Hot 100 in the 1980s. Today, nearly all sales are digital, which means that songs are never deleted. A person who wanted to buy "Two Hearts" just after its peak would have been out of luck unless their local record store happened to have copies still in stock. A person who wants to buy "Despacito" today, three weeks after it ended its run at number one, need just go on iTunes and order it. This extends the life of songs on the Hot 100.

Despite what you may have read or what you might intuitively believe about radio versus streaming based on your own habits or the habits of the people you socialize with, it remains the case today that the radio audience dwarfs the streaming audience. Take this week as an example. The number one song at radio, "Attention" by Charlie Puth, had a total audience of 124 million during the tracking week. The number one song on streaming platforms, "Bodak Yellow (Money Moves)" by Cardi B, had a total of 40.8 million streams during the tracking week. You might think that streaming reflects a conscious choice by the listener and thus should be weighted more heavily than radio*, but a significant portion of streaming is passive (i.e., songs are included in playlists created by streaming services that are essentially analogous to radio station playlists).

[* Streaming actually is weighted more heavily than radio, and disproportionately so. This is actually one of the biggest flaws in the Hot 100's methodology. For one thing, streaming totals can easily be goosed by a record label or artist's management setting up dozens or hundreds of streaming accounts and endlessly streaming a particular track. Overweighting streaming also results in songs that have passionate but smaller audiences overperforming on the charts. There have been several number ones of recent vintage that have ridden overweighted streaming to the top of the Hot 100. Most notably, "Bad And Boujee" by Migos featuring Lil Uzi Vert, reached number one several months ago despite not ranking among the top 50 at radio. When Billboard tells you that a song with the repeated lyric "Fuckin' on your bitch she a thot-thot-thot" is the most popular song in the U.S., you should be very skeptical. However you may feel about it personally, it is a fact that such language will necessarily limit the audience and appeal of a song. By way of comparison, think back to the 1990s. "Smells Like Teen Spirit" by Nirvana was a genuine cultural phenomenon. It started a trend that radically changed the face of top 40 radio for several years, opening the door for edgier rock bands to get played on the radio. But that song still only reached number 6 on the Hot 100. The abrasive sound and inscrutable-to-many lyrics put a cap on the song's potential appeal.]

Finally, radio station playlists have become much more stagnant than they were in the 1980s. For one thing, they are much less diverse. In the 1980s, a top 40 radio station might play Michael Jackson followed by Def Leppard followed by Kenny Rogers followed by Atlantic Starr followed by Kenny G followed by Journey and so on. The top songs might get repeated once every two-and-a-half hours. Today, top 40 radio plays almost exclusively electronic dance music, electronic-oriented pop, and hip-hop, and the top songs can be repeated as frequently as every hour. There are three "rock" songs in the current top 40 of the Billboard Hot 100; two are by Imagine Dragons, and one is by Portugal. The Man. None is a traditional guitar-bass-and-drums-based rock track. Non-hip-hop-based R&B has also virtually disappeared from top 40 radio. And country crossover is exceedingly rare these days. Sam Hunt's "Body Like A Back Road" is the only example from 2017, and even its crossover is largely at adult-contemporary formats, not top 40 stations. This tightening of playlists also results in less turnover on the Hot 100.

Outstanding comment. Very informative, thanks.

This is especially apparent in the world of EDM. DJs recycle the same hits from 3 years ago throughout their sets at music festivals. I heard the same song 5 times at an all-day EDM music festival.

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