Why we stop listening to new music at 27 – and how to shake off “musical paralysis”

Take a moment to look deep inside and ask yourself: Who are your favourite musical artists? Not that hot new release making a buzz, or the names you like to drop socially – but your true musical soulmates and desert island discs? The audio comfort blanket you turn to in your darkest days, or the act you’d fly halfway across the world to hear?

I’d happily wager you first encountered this music in your teens, or your early twenties, at a push. The chances you discovered it after the age of 30 are precisely zilch.

Or so says a new study, anyhow, which worrying claims to have identified the exact moment listeners stop embracing new music: 27 years and 11 months. After that, our ears apparently shrivel up and we turn inwards, condemned to an endless repetitive homage to our younger self. The so-called onset of “musical paralysis” certainly goes a long way to explain the music industry’s lucrative goldrush of reformed nostalgia tours, anniversary reissues and tribute acts.

After interviewing 5,000 people on three continents, Deezer’s self-interested study concluded that two thirds (65%) of respondents only listen to tracks they already know – sparking a storm from snobbish commentators chest-pumpingly insisting “true” music fans will devote their dying days to uncovering obscure Latvian indie, while the rest of the world is patronisingly dismissed as “music consumers”.

While the deniers’ furtive, outraged knee-jerk reactions are probably just a symptom of the worrying musical fatigue they’ve avoided getting diagnosed, the study highlights an undeniable but uncomfortable truth: The music we grew up with shaped us and will stay with us further, while seeking new sounds wields increasingly demising return. With age, our palettes become ever-more finally tuned and harder to shock, while social circles contract and free time diminishes.

An uncanny ability to evoke a forgotten time or place is just one of music’s mysterious powers – but this conjuring tenet is an increasing preoccupation of a backwards-facing entertainment industry eager to exploit affluent, aging listeners. It is no great surprise to learn that the highest grossing tour of last year was U2’s 30th anniversary Joshua Tree Tour, followed closely by Guns n’ Roses, sporting a reformed line-up who have not recorded together for two decades.

Bill Bragin has spent his professional career battling against such comfort zones; before joining The Arts Centre ay NYU Abu Dhabi as executive artistic director, he worked as director of public programming for New York’s leading Lincoln Centre and co-founded GlobalFest, a not-for-profit, low-entry festival presenting 12 largely unfamiliar global acts across three stages.

One key pillar of his approach is to remove the barriers to entry – such as ticket prices, showtime, and programming multiple artists – to encourage discovery. Bragin hails the advent of streaming as inspiring a significant listener evolution – removing the financial barriers which might have stood between audiences and new product. Meanwhile readily available curated playlists introduce new sounds on a daily basis which before could only be made through adverts, press coverage or personal recommendations.

But streaming may also be partly to blame for the onset of listener fatigue – after the initial excitement at finding of much of recorded music history a click away, the unfathomable 35 million songs available through streaming services such as Spotify and Deezer can appear intimidating. The latter’s own research found the most-cited (18%) reason for giving up on new music was that listeners felt “too overwhelmed” with the breadth of music choices available. And far too often, clicking on a pre-curated playlist is the epitome of musical disengagement.

The question is why, with such a wealth of music so accessible for the first time, many often opt for the familiar over the foreign. It’s affliction I cannot shake: Despite listening to dozens of new releases or unfamiliar albums every week, I know at times of heightened emotion – from personal trauma to needing a boost on the treadmill – there will always be a handful of familiar comfort blankets I turn to.

“I continually have musical epiphanies, but they tend not to be in the musical genres that I listened to the most when I was younger,” echoes Bragin. “It’s rare for a rock, soul, or hip-hop track to move me the same way that the records I connected with in my youth moved me. I still go back to the artists and records that comforted me, or excited me, or made me dance in my room, or helped me vent my anger, that played that role for me in high school and college.”

What sends us back to those records, then, is not just mere nostalgia, but an existing and proven emotional connection – a reliable existing framework of cause and effect. Like ordering from a familiar chain restaurant or re-watching a beloved movie, we enjoy the certainty certain know exactly what we’re going to get.

Which, curiously, is the only benefit new first-time listeners can never enjoy. But that privilege doesn’t mean we should forfeit our willingness to be shocked, or give up seeking new flavours and thrills. And maybe, like Bragin, we will find them in unexpected places – because it is not just our tastes that evolve, but our musical needs. Mature musical responses hold hidden nuances: Later in life you might have greater means or patience to soak up a symphony, and less curiosity or exhilaration at being crammed in a sweaty punk or hip-hop gig.

And you can still go back to those rose-tinted records at any time – as well as discovering a few million more in genres your younger self would never have considered. That’s not paralysis – it’s progress.


Original version published in The National.

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