Don't call it a comeback! Why old is gold in the global music scene today

Musicians of yesteryear are currently riding the crest of a wave owing to a confluence of factors

LOS ANGELES, CA - DECEMBER 20:  (L-R) Izzy Stradlin, Duff McKagan, Axl Rose, Slash and Steven Adler of the rock band 'Guns n' Roses' perform at The Music Machine on December 20, 1985 in Los Angeles, California. The song 'Nightrain' was performed live for the first time that night. (Photo by Marc S Canter/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)
Powered by automated translation

Early last month, a handful of British pop music acts performed at a Dubai beach club for a multi-act mini-festival of 1980s music. The event, titled Rewind, stretched from mid-afternoon to late evening and served up an intoxicating mix of nostalgia and fun for concertgoers. It was a hoot, in fact.

The formula for these retro events is both simple and effective. Each of the rolling cast of acts gets about half an hour on stage and plays the greatest hits of their back catalogue. By sticking to the familiar, pretty much every tune was a singalong for the crowd.

Tony Hadley, formerly of Spandau Ballet, topped the bill, belting out hit after hit as if it was, well, 1984 all over again, but the depth of what could loosely be called the undercard of seven support acts was impressive to anyone familiar with that era, including Altered Images, Go West and Heather Small.

The “heritage” circuit, as our music critic Saeed Saeed calls it, is in good health in the UAE, with many more established acts either visiting soon or having been through here already.

This weekend, Texas, who’ve released best-selling records in every decade since the 1980s, play in Dubai. Next week, the emirate hosts the Back to the 90s revival festival, similar in format to Rewind. The UK Pink Floyd Experience will appear at Dubai Opera later in May. Earlier this year, Sting brought his My Songs tour to Abu Dhabi. In June, Simply Red play in Dubai, while Guns N Roses will appear in Abu Dhabi.

Given the choice of millions of songs, many music-streaming service subscribers are going back to what they know already

The caravan rarely stops in a post-pandemic world hungry once more to hear live music. It might even be moving more quickly.

There was a time when the kind of roster of concerts detailed above may have suggested promoters were playing it safe by bringing in older or established acts to guarantee well-attended shows. But are the same impulses at play today?

It may not be quite as straightforward as that, particularly as the streaming era has fundamentally changed how we consume music and, more profoundly, who we listen to.

Given the choice of millions of songs, many music-streaming service subscribers are going back to what they know already. Younger listeners, meanwhile, are also tapping into decades-old songs at the expense of contemporary releases. Out with the new, in with the old, you might say.

Spotify data shows more so-called “catalogue” songs – those songs that are more than 18 months old – are appearing on its charts than ever before. One third of the tracks appearing in its top 200 global weekly chart in 2022 fits that category, up from 13 per cent in 2020. The same data found that almost 75 per cent of what the company terms “active streams” arise from catalogue listens. Active streams are defined as songs played from playlists, liked songs and artist profile pages.

Younger listeners, those under 25, are also listening to more older music than ever before, sometimes spurred by heritage acts appearing on the soundtracks for new films or TV series.

Kate Bush’s Running Up That Hill is the standout example of that phenomenon, with the 1985 song experiencing a huge surge in popularity 37 years after its original release, propelling the artist to the top of the UK charts following its appearance in the Netflix series Stranger Things. Then 63 years old, Bush also became the oldest female artist to get to number one in the UK. The song has had about 1 billion listens on Spotify and several hundred million more views on YouTube.

Some argue that this is bad for the music business marketplace in general. A provocatively titled essay in The Atlantic asked whether old music was killing new music when it was published last year, noting that those catalogue songs now account for more than two thirds of the US music consumption. That essay also charted the rise in the old releases of storied artists being bought by investment funds to make hay with. The two factors could serve to squeeze the space for new music to gain traction, particularly as cash and resources may end up flowing towards catalogue artists rather than emerging talent.

Certainly, the nexus between the golden age of soundtrack-hungry TV that we now live in serving to raise the profiles of once-forgotten songs, the availability of pretty much every track ever released on demand combined with the algorithmic approach to music curation and, perhaps, a pandemic-induced wave of nostalgia, have served to turbocharge interest in older acts.

Will these mean we will see more heritage acts performing more of the time? I am not so sure.

Returning to the Rewind event last month, the vast majority of concertgoers were there, I’d imagine, because those artists provided some of the soundtrack to their 1980s youth. Younger listeners, particularly Gen Zers and millennials, may be seeking out older artists on streaming platforms, but for now, at least, they don’t necessarily want to see them play those songs live.

Published: April 27, 2023, 2:00 PM