Selling songs with nostalgia

Today’s fans have unfettered access to musicians and their recording catalogs, but not every musician gets to have a say in their legacy. Photo courtesy of Unsplash


The promise of music’s digital age is simple: more. Who would not want to have an infinite playlist of music from their favorite artist? Songs have a unique power to bring people together while speaking to a wide variety of deeply emotional personal experiences. The catch is that the algorithms which run Spotify and other streaming platforms specialize in serving up not variety, but more of the same. 

Studios are aware of listeners’ tendency to gravitate towards their favorite songs. So, they have recently been buying up the rights to famous musicians’ recordings. For example, according to Marc Hogan’s New York Times article “When Private Equity Came for the Music Industry”, in 2022 the rights to Whitney Houston’s hit “I Wanna Dance With Somebody (Who Loves Me)” were bought “as part of a $50 to $100 million deal by Primary Wave, a music publishing company backed by two private equity firms.” A Fortune article by Shaw and Bloomberg stated that costumed rockers KISS recently sold their name, image, likeness and song catalog to Swedish company Pophouse for over $300 million. 

In addition to business deals, recent song releases such as the Beatles’ “Now and Then”, which features the surviving Beatles playing along to a 1977 vocal and piano track by John Lennon, show that there is a thriving appetite for nostalgia in the industry. As of April 8, 2024 the song had over 60 million streams on Spotify alone. 

Combining these massive recording vaults with recent advances in music software and AI creates the potential to re-engage with old music in new, transformative ways. However, there is also the risk that listeners will become bogged down in an endless landscape of slight variations on yesterday’s hits while missing out on the moments of joy and discovery that can only be found outside of one’s sonic comfort zone. 

Junior computer science major Miles Mann is a musician who enjoys staying up-to-date on current events in the industry. He appreciates how music can access memories and give listeners the chance to relive fleeting moments from their past. However, relying too much on the nostalgic quality of music can stifle its other artistic qualities. 

“What made the music industry so great is that throughout every decade it was always flowing,” Mann said. “It was always moving. If we stop now and focus on nostalgia and try to bring back albums and songs that [already had their moment], then we’re not setting the stage for [new] creativity.” 

Nostalgia in and of itself is not a bad thing, but music is an ongoing conversation. Year after year musicians have covered, sampled, deconstructed and reconstructed each other’s work. New bands with fresh ideas must enter this ecosystem or else the flow could become an echo chamber. When music studios flood the market with re-releases and unreleased recordings from already wildly famous musicians, listeners’ attention and money is sucked away from the up-and-coming bands who truly need it. 

There is also the danger of music studios becoming more risk-averse when superstars consistently steal the spotlight. The profits that studios used in the past to take chances on bands new to the scene could instead be reinvested back into already wealthy, tried-and-true talent. 

Covers are a popular way to revitalize songs so that they speak to a modern audience. They can revitalize old hits, bring to light underappreciated musicians and reveal new perspectives.

Junior English major Joy Brown was immersed in music from a young age through musical theatre, vocal lessons and piano lessons. She believes that Luke Combs’ cover of Tracy Chapman’s “Fast Car” is a good example of how to cover a song while paying homage to the original artist. 

“I think that the way [Luke Combs] was very communicative with the original artist and really wanted to preserve her story and her contribution [was] inspirational,” Brown said. “It is very important to showcase [Tracy Chapman’s experience] rather than erase it with a modern country vibe.” 

Combs and Chapman played together at the 2024 Grammys, and their mutual respect shines through the performance. “Fast Car” was performed in a way that allowed a new generation to engage with the song without losing touch with the specific circumstances that inspired Chapman to write it in the first place. 

However, not every musician gets to join the conversation around their cover. 

Senior music industry studies major Gabriel Tomas Gomez has been an independent producer since their sophomore year. They work with students and local talent at Butler to guide them through what is often their first experience in a professional studio and help them gain recognition in their communities. Gomez believes that the relationship between studios and deceased musicians is especially fraught. 

“It’s positive from a consumer perspective [because] I can listen to unreleased recordings as a way to further my relationship with the artist despite the circumstances,” Gomez said. “From an ethical standpoint, however, it’s a double-edged sword. These posthumous releases are part of an artist’s legacy that they cannot consent to.” 

There is no telling what a deceased artist would have truly wanted at any given moment. The best musicians adapt and innovate with the times. It is unlikely that a demo a deceased artist was proud of decades ago would reflect their modern sound, had they lived. The idea that an artist can be captured in time and that if listeners dig deep enough into the past they can understand everything about that person is comforting but false. 

The varying interests of fans, studios, musicians’ families and musicians’ estates mean that the line between a respectful release honoring a musician and a money grab is difficult to draw. With modern music software and generative AI, it is also now possible to resurrect and recreate musicians’ voices. 

The discourse around how much an original recording can be changed before it becomes inauthentic reached a new height with the release of “Now and Then” by the Beatles. 

Rolling Stone detailed the saga of “Now and Then”, which originated in 1977 when Lennon recorded an aching and intimate vocal and piano track on a home demo cassette. In 1995, 15 years after Lennon’s death, the three remaining Beatles returned to “Now and Then” and tried to realize its full potential for their “Anthology” documentary. 

However, Lennon’s vocals were muddied and unclear due to the piano. The technology did not exist at the time to clean up Lennon’s vocals from home demo quality to something the Beatles could work with. With modern advancements, though, Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr were able to bring the track to life. They view the released single as an act of love that completes Lennon’s vision. 

Articles about the song focused as much on the history behind it as on the use of AI to enhance Lennon’s vocals. 

Gomez realized that to call the song AI-generated is a misnomer, though. 

“[‘Now and Then’] got some buzz behind it because they said they were using AI, and I think [the Beatles] were intentionally trying to cause a stir with that,” Gomez said. “It’s a little disingenuous to do because the AI in this case isn’t replacing the artist.” 

AI was used as a tool for a specific and limited purpose. It did not recreate Lennon’s vocals wholesale, or write lyrics Lennon never wrote. AI was treated like any other technical advancement the Beatles embraced in their career. 

Mann felt that “Now and Then” was a quality song created with good intentions. 

“That song means something to me,” Mann said. “I think it represents something that’s Beatles-esque; it fits like an addition.” 

The question for the music industry is if the usage of AI and other technology to enhance musicians’ creativity, rather than replace it, will remain the norm. Holograms of musicians are already being utilized, and a quick search on YouTube will reveal countless songs featuring AI imitating a musician’s voice. It is now possible to create a relatively competent digital replica of a musician’s talent. Whether that becomes the norm or a novelty is up to the decisions of the many individual producers, executives and musicians who make up the music industry. 

Brown listens to music every day and recognizes how lucky she is to have that ability. 

“Something we often take for granted is how accessible music is,” Brown said. “You used to have to purchase the CD. Now we have Spotify [and] TikTok; we have access to music snippets all the time. It’s wonderful to have access to older music and explore something that was created before, but it is hard to give new artists and creators room to make an impact and not be overshadowed.” 

The moments of discovery that brought listeners to their favorite artists in the first place are at risk. Hundreds of years of music sitting only a few clicks away means that current bands have more material than ever before to take inspiration from. 

The legends of the past and the listeners of the present come together when those bands are given the space to contribute their own voices to the flowing stream of music.


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