Most of this essay was directly plagiarised from the video above. If you like it, consider becoming a donor to Thoughty2 on Patreon.

Old people are right: popular music IS getting worse

Harmonic Complexity

A 2012 study by the Spanish National Research Council, looking 500,000 songs between 1955 and 2010, found that ‘harmonic complexity’ and ‘timbral diversity’ of popular songs (i.e. the texture, colour and quality of the sounds) has been decreasing since its peak in the 1960s.

An extreme example of how simple music has gotten is Robin Thicke’s “kind of rapey” song, Blurred Lines, which uses just one instrument (a drum machine). The majority of modern pop music uses the exact same combination of a keyboard, drum machine, samplers and computer software.

You can hear the repetitiveness of modern music in sequences like “the millennial whoop“, which appears in thousands of songs. Because of how our brains work, the more we hear a sound, the more familiar it is, the more we like it. That’s why this sound is put everywhere nowadays:

Lyrical Unintelligence

The “lyric intelligence” of songs over the last 10 years has dropped by a full grade – lyrics now tend to be shorter and more repetitive. Not only that, but a ton of chart-topping songs over the last decade have been written by two people.

One, Max Martin, has made songs for the Backstreet Boys, Westlife, Britney Spears, Celine Dion, Pink, Usher, Avril Lavigne, Jessie J, Katy Perry, Christina Aguilera, Taylor Swift, Ariana Grande, Shakira, Ellie Goulding, J-Lo, Selena Gomez, Justin Timberlake and Adele. He’s responsible for 24 number one singles, and thousands of songs in the charts. Kiss me Baby One more Time, California Girls, Shake it off… all him.

If a song wasn’t written by Max, it was probably written by alleged sexual abuser Lukasz Gottwald, who has had 18 number ones in just five years. Together, these two (by the way white, wealthy, hetrosexual) guys account for the vast majority of pop music hits today.

Image result for lyrical complexity

Why? Because technology and money.

There are a lot of other examples showing how generic music has become; there’s the loudness war, for example, where producers are using compression techniques to make songs sound louder. There’s also the “hook” of a song, which is happening sooner and more frequently, to get us hooked on songs we just can’t ignore.

Producers do all the above partly because we have every song ever produced at our fingertips (with an easy way of skipping tracks), but also because promoting a new band is more expensive than ever, at roughly $500k-$3m to sign an act and break them into the music scene. So, instead of finding genuinely talented people, industry decision-makers take a pretty young face, and then brainwash the public into liking them.

Seriously, “brainwashing”?

Yes. More science. That money goes towards making a song appear everywhere, all at once – in stores, radio stations, Hollywood movies, and popular TV shows, all at the same time. We can’t escape the songs, which induces the mere exposure effect in us. This determines that we develop a preference for things we see and hear often. When we’ve heard a song before, our brains release dopamine, even if we’re just hearing a refrain that we recognise (like the millennial whoop). So, even songs that repulse you initially can become catchy as you hear them more and more. It’s literally brainwashing.

And this means producers no longer have to release good music, they can simply release music – as long as they release it everywhere, all at the same time.

The Long Tail of the Music Industry

There ARE many fantastically talented bands and musicians out there today. But, if they don’t fit the usual pop formula, they won’t get signed.

This has led to the “long tail of the music industry” (explained in detail here, here and here) – where a stunning 77% of profits go to the top 1% of the celebrities at the ‘head’ of the music industry. The remaining spoils are distributed to the vast number of artists dwelling in the ‘long tail’ – those poorly funded musicians who aren’t famous not because they aren’t talented, but because they’re not generic enough.


And so, the most popular music from the last 10 years (even that song you love) is most likely generic bullshit. If you’re looking for something unique, you’ve gotta look outside of the music industry. And musicians? They’ve got to find a different way of earning.

So what does this all have to do with busking?

Well, busking IS THAT DIFFERENT WAY. It’s one of the most viable ways (the only viable way?) that indie musicians can earn a living doing what they love, in a world where arts funding is dwindling, live music venues are closing at a terrifying rate, and CDs are becoming obsolete. So, as a bedrock of our cultural landscape, busking has never been so important as it is now.

Busking is also the only truly democratic artistic medium. No cult of celebrity, no mere exposure effect, no millions of dollars spent on advertising – just street performers, their music and the space in which they’re performing. The streets are still a place where YOU get to vote, without being manipulated by an “industry”, which artists should be considered “successful”. You get to stay and watch, you get to make a difference in the life of the artist performing!

Perhaps most importantly – the streets are one of the last places where talented musicians who don’t fit the narrow requisites imposed by record labels can build an audience and make a living. Woohoo!

So what are we doing to encourage buskers?

Knowing the above, of course city authorities f*cking LOVE their local buskers! They understand that buskers are more important than ever before, so, if you’re a busker, go out there and busk!

I mean, obviously as long as you perform without an amp (Telford, Dunfermline, Edmonton, Myrtle Beach, Edinburgh, Melbourne, Dublin, Austin, Camden). And, you know, compete to get a license first in government-run audition schemes (London, Melbourne, Singapore, Dublin), judged by a government-appointed panel who want things to be “nice” and “orderly” on their streets.

Once you’ve passed, and paid for your license ($6,000 a year in Key West!), and you’re wearing the ID badge, and you’ve been logged into the system, and had your performances scheduled in pre-defined spaces, and agreed not to say anything that could cause offence, you get to do your sets (as long as it’s not raining).

You then get to enjoy the annual ritual of arguing your case at council meetings (if they even invite you) to vote-focused politicians in bed with local business associations, who are complaining you’re so popular people aren’t going indoors to shop.

Next you’ll have fun, spending your free time drumming up public support not for your band, but for a petition begging the local authorities not to implement their regressive new bylaws, and if you’re successful, the council can applaud themselves for “promoting” local culture, while addressing the concerns of the business community.

Soon, Simon Cowell Cops (and newly empowered rent-a-cops) will monitor you to ensure you’re not breaking the terms of your license, writing you up instead for “blocking pedestrian traffic” or even the whimsical infraction of “causing annoyance” – even if no member of the public has complained.

And if that fails to shut you up or move you on, the police will alternate between using 19th-century legislation to arrest you, or complaining to the government they don’t have sufficient powers to deal with problem buskers – and remember, busking is a driver of crime!

It’s time to change how you view your local street performers

Making you angry? Hopefully. Because it makes US angry too. But we’re not the only organisation out there drumming up support. FANTASTIC busker activists and promoters are popping up. all. over. the. place. Cashless payment providers are falling over themselves to work with street performers.  The ACLU in the USA, Leigh Day in the UK and many other legal firms are rallying around street performers to help them win in courts. And you – YOU – get to make a difference on your next commute.

First – don’t tell buskers you like, “you’re amazing, why aren’t you a professional?!” or “you should be on the stage!”. Because chances are if you’ve liked a performer enough to tell them that, they’re probably already “successful” – making a living performing for a large, appreciative audience.

Second – if you liked them, give them a tip. It’s not a donation (it’s not charity), it’s not transaction, it’s a tip – it’s you giving someone a voluntary bit of money in return for a service they’ve provided well.

And thirdsign up to our mailing list (or register on this site as a busker or as a fan). I mean it. We’ve got big plans to help busker activists, all over the world, and they could use your help too, from signing a petition to donating to a legal fund to just giving your $0.02 when needed.


Buskers should be able to play whatever they like, as long as they’re not being too loud. They should be able to perform wherever they like, within reason. And we should ALL appreciate the very last part of the arts industry not dependent on celebrity, managers, PR or manipulation. We vote with our money, with no previous influence. And THAT is how art should work.

Because, at least your local busker isn’t a pop star.