Do musicians age badly?

This article originally appeared  as a part of my regular column at Kjarninn.is. The original article is still available here (in Icelandic). I plan on publishing all my articles here on my blog in English (with some delay). Please forgive any typos as I can only afford so much time on translating the articles. 


In September 2013 my colleague informed me that Jarvis Cocker of Pulp was turning 50 years old. Instead of being surprised how quickly time passes  I reacted with my gut and told her she could stop buying his music since it would only be bad from now on.

In my experience musicians age poorly. Take Michael Jackson as an example. Off the Wall which he realised at the age of 21 is pure gold. Thriller which he released three years later is not much worse. His later albums, such as Bad and Dangerous, are fine while his two last albums History and Invincible are rather unexciting.

Just to be clear, this is of course only my opinion, but I have a feeling that many people agree. For example, have you ever run into a Metallica fan that thinks that St. Anger is a masterpiece but Masters of Puppet is just so-and-so.

Albums by old people are no best sellers.

To check if reality fitted somewhat with my feeling and observations I downloaded some data. RIAA reports the best selling albums of all times. I cleaned the data to include only solo musicians and best selling albums in the growing market for albums from 1980 to 2000. And what did I find? Well: the average age of the musicians on the list is only 28.3 years; only a handful of artists above 35 are on the list; and only one person above 40 makes the list (Santana).

Chart 1

Figure 1: age of the best selling artists of the 80’s and 90’s. (Source: RIAA.)

Musicians sell fewer albums as they get older.

The fact that young people are more likely to sell more albums than old people does however not mean that old people cannot release popular albums. And also, since the data discussed earlier only includes the very best selling albums of the period it could be that as these same artists aged they sold loads of albums. Just not shitloads. In other words, there might not be any relationship between age of individual artists and their record sales.

In order to investigate further, I gathered sales data on all albums released by four of the artists on the RIAA list. (my time is scarce so I will need to update this post when I have collected more data.). The figure below is an interesting one as it shows that there is a clear relationship between age and sales (at least for those four artists).  And on average, for every year that passed in the musicians life, the number of albums they sold dropped by about half a million.

Chart 2

Figure 2: albums sold by four legendary musical artists. (Source: RIAA and Eikonomics research)

But what causes the decline?

What causes this trend is impossible to figure out without more complete information. But that should not stop us from hypothesizing. Few theories are fairly obvious. For example, it might be the case that consumer preferences change over time and artists might have a hard time adapting to those new preferences. Or, perhaps new audience are not that interested in old artists and original audiences might not be interested in the new music made by the old artists. Other theories might be less obvious and I would like to propose one such theory.

In economics the concept of diminishing marginal returns states that for each additional input into a production process output increases, but by less every time. An example of this is ones own labour. Imagine you have worked a full day and your boss asks you to finish just one more task. In all likelihood you will be able to finish this task, but not quite as well (or fast) as you would have this morning.

In the case of musicians the key input into their product is creativity. And if creativity, or the ability to generate new ideas, is somewhat limited, then it could be that musicians start their careers by churning out their best ideas. Then as they exhaust all their good ideas for songs they will have to start recording the slightly worse ideas. And over time their albums would then become worse and worse. If that is the case, then it could be that diminishing returns explain some of this trend.

When I first published this idea it was quite unpopular amongst a number of Icelandic ageing musicians. These experts in the field did not agree at all that creativity was a limited resource. They were however not as constructive as I would have liked. For example, instead of calling me an idiot they could have offered an alternative reason for why: (a) so few old artists top the charts; and (b) why artists sales decline with age. And until they do, I will stick to my guns and claim that diminishing marginal creativity is responsible for at least some of the trend of declining sales with age.

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