Why is popular music so… popular?

Why is popular music so popular? Here’s a theory for you to disregard or take on board as you see fit. It has nothing to do with the chord structure of these songs, or their production, or their stylistic components, or even their relative quality. It’s just that not everybody has the time, inclination, means, whatever, to actively seek out the music that speaks to them.

There are people who love music. These people will hear a song that they like and learn more about the band that made that song and the scene in which they came up, the bands they played with, the bands that influenced them and so on and so forth… and before they know it, through hearing and liking one song, they’ve exposed themselves to dozens of bands and hundreds of singles, albums, and bootlegs… All because of one song.

For these people, it’s not simply a case of listening to the music that the radio and the TV has presented to them. It’s a journey of discovery. And once these people have taken a few steps along the path they’ve found themselves on, they quickly realise that ‘hey, it turns out that the music that truly speaks to me, that moves me, that makes me feel something, might not be the stuff that’s currently being marketed to me’. It might be the stuff that was made 20, 30, 40, 50 years ago, it might be the stuff that’s being made in some guy’s bedroom and being distributed for free on the internet, it might be the stuff that’s being played at your local music venue, it could be anything… The chances that the 0.00001% of the recorded history of all music that is represented by mainstream media at any one time is the music that a person is going to like the most – while possible (and to be clear, a lot of mainstream music is great) – is ultimately unlikely.

Then there are people who merely like music. These people listen to the radio and they enjoy the songs they hear. But that’s where their journey ends. For whatever reasons (and there are many, many valid reasons) these people are happy to consume the content that’s marketed to them and never feel the urge to find out for themselves what’s beyond that which is laid at their feet. So they just buy what the mainstream offers them.

There are more people who like music than those who love music, I guess.

Bob Russell

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