Go read that, then come back after you get angry.
The point they make is interesting. Good music from the past sold less than bad music now… But there are a couple things that I think might explain this.
For starters, calling The Beatles good music is as much a matter of familiarity as anything. At the time, the Beatles were a bunch of shaggy-haired teen heartthrobs, their music was referred to as “electronic noise” (source: the preface to a Beatles anthology’s version of “Help”; John refers to their song that way), and they were among the first bands to use multitracking in the studio to do things you couldn’t do in a live performance, which was no doubt considered cheating. Emerson, Lake, and Palmer were considered pretentious and full of themselves. (And why can’t those kids just listen to the Glenn Miller band like everyone else?)
Nowadays, autotune and Max Martin prefabricated pop songs (look him up, basically, he’s EXTREMELY good at producing the inoffensive catchy pop the music industry likes) are considered cheating. And we remember the music from our childhood, or that trusted older people told us was good, and we bemoan the fact that Justin Bieber exists. On every single music video on Youtube, even, just in case anyone’s forgotten that Led Zeppelin is better than Justin Bieber. He is the antichrist of music, apparently, infecting all that came before him or after him. Even Michael Praetorius (1571-1621) must be defended! (Ok, I have no evidence of that happening, he’s just the oldest composer I know of by name.) There were of course prefabricated terrible bands “back in the day”, but nobody cares about Milli Vanilli any more…
The second argument is simply that the US population is a lot higher than it was back then- unless the recording industry has changed the sales limits for ‘gold’ and ‘platinum’ records to keep pace with the population, it’s gotta be easier for an album to go gold now.
As for #1 hits? I have the vague feeling that this is the music industry’s fault. They’ve given up on finding actual talent and started manufacturing it themselves. Lawrence Lessig seems to have been fairly well convinced that all these MPAA and RIAA actions and litigations, particularly involving remixing, are really about squashing any form of cultural expression they can’t control. Witness the rise of the industry-created “indie” movie, the Boy Bands of the late 90’s…
This brings me to my main point: I think I do actually have something in common with hipsters. At least, I think I understand one of their problems, although my take is more along the lines of personal authenticity (though not, as I’d originally thought, in line with David Mitchell’s rant here). It’s an identity crisis. I want to be ME, and choose what I want to do, and be what I want to be, rather than be someone’s carefully manipulated corporate stooge, consuming all of, and only, the bits of American culture they deem worthwhile (especially when those corporate interests seem to be borderline unethical at times, squashing all they can’t monetize). So, the fear becomes that someone will look at your music library and say “oh, I see, top 40 hits from 2005-2010”.
Hipsters seem to fight the threat of a homogenized world by finding the most obscure bands they can, so they can be sure the bands haven’t been tainted by corporate interest. Should they like a group that actually makes it, they “liked them before they were cool”, just in case anyone was wondering if they genuinely like the band or were lead to them like unimaginative sheep by the tastemakers. This becomes pathological, as they go to ridiculous lengths to find an identity completely untouched by “the mainstream” of Western Society… I wonder how much of this plays into peoples’ fascination with Japanese culture, anime et al. Japan is undeniably different.
As my tall drink of lemonade has pointed out from time to time, there is no problem with liking popular music… someone genuinely talented labored over these songs, even if some industry statistician decided THEIR blood, sweat and tears should get played at least once an hour on Clear Channel radio; and someone else doesn’t make the cut. Well, I sometimes doubt that whole blood and sweat thing, but you get the idea.
What saves me from the hipster’s absurd level of excess is that my own music library is such a hodgepodge someone looking at it would have no CLUE what it represents, even if they were top 40 radio at some point. I have everything from Rennaissance Madrigals to Metallica; the Beatles, computerized music from ’80s personal computers (Rob Hubbard, Jeroen Tel et al.), Lady Gaga, John Philips Sousa, Moby, Louis Armstrong, The Rolling Stones, Roxette, Johnny Cash, Johann Sebastian Bach, The Killers… I have nothing to worry about from that hypothetical music snob, except the hipster who’d complain that anything anyone’s heard of has sold out.
I’m a musical magpie. I guess I win?
For the record, in case Jeroen Tel becomes popular, I liked him before he was cool.