Sunday, January 19, 2014

The Music World According to Google

This is something that might either enrage, confuse or depress you: a music timeline from Google that purports to show the relative popularity of various genres of music over time from the 1950s until now:

As you mouse over the image, you can pick out different genres. At the very tippy-top, in bands of color so skinny they are barely visible, you can pick out obscure, peripheral genres like holiday music, blues, vocal/easy listening, comedy/spoken word/other and children's music. Below these are the big, wide bands indicating much more popular genres like rock, pop, metal and alternative/indie. Here is a static image:

Click to enlarge

You can dig into each genre and see how it's popularity fared over the years as they explain here. For example, here is the sad story of jazz over the years:

Click to enlarge
I imagine you can see where I am going with this. There is even a timeline for the most obscure thing I could think of: novelty recordings dominated by Alvin and the Chipmunks and Weird Al Yankovic:

But no classical. Not a whisper of a shadow of a ghost of classical. Classical music is treated the way  "nonpersons" were in the Soviet Union: it simply does not exist and will be air-brushed out of all existing photos and databases.

Does anyone at Google want to explain what is going on here? According to some figures I have seen, the recorded music sales market is about 12 billion dollars annually of which classical music is about 3% or 36 million. Yes, that's pretty tiny but while it might be a fairly thin line in the Google graph, it still ought to be a line! N'est-ce pas?


Nathan Shirley said...

Go to your first link and click on FAQ at the top right, they give a brief explanation there.

Bryan Townsend said...

Thanks, Nathan! OK, this is their explanation:

"Where is the classical music?
People usually think of classical music in terms of its composition date, not its recording date — should a particular concerto recording be dated when Mozart wrote it in 1791, or when the Boston Symphony Orchestra performed it in 2009? Because of this difference, placing classical music on the timeline the same way as contemporary music looks counterintuitive, so it is omitted from this visualization."

That's sort-of plausible. But doesn't quite convince. The data is based on "how many Google Play Music users have an artist or album in their music library, and other data (such as album release dates)" so the date of composition really shouldn't be relevant. Songs by Robert Johnson I'm sure are not excluded even though they were all written in the 1930s.

People may think of the piece of music in terms of its date of composition, but they think of the recordings they listen to in terms of when they were recorded. So, I'm not convinced. There is the hidden assumption that classical music has no "contemporary" manifestation or component, which again, I don't buy.