Chapter 1: The End of New Music? Digital Media, History, and the Idea of Attention

Devon Powers

Michael Jackson’s death on June 25, 2009 caused a palpable jolt within the world of pop music, and not only because one of its most talented sons had passed. As the mourning extended over the subsequent days and weeks, Jackson would return to dominance of that world from the grave, driven by the overwhelming resurgence of his music into everyday pop cultural life— from dance parties in the street to theme nights at bars, on the radio and all over television. And thanks in large part to digitization, Jackson ruled popular music sales in 2009: his albums zoomed to the top of the iTunes charts for singles and downloads; videos and ringtones sales skyrocketed; and as of October, Jackson had sold more than 10 million albums worldwide since his death, with his 2003 album of number one hits the bestselling album of the year .

The Jackson example is a strong reminder of the multiple ways in which digital music technology has challenged the very notion of “new” music. Alongside episodes like these, the conjoining of new media and music has destabilized the popular music market in other crucial ways: from the leaking of tracks before official release dates to the mining of artists’ back catalogs, new media has rendered “newness” both easier and more difficult to achieve. While oldies stations and the first nostalgia-driven reissue craze of the late 1960s music industry are earlier signals of “new” interest in “old” music—and events like deaths, scandals, and comebacks have long been catalysts for the revisiting of a musician’s oeuvre—digital technology makes accessing music from past eras easier than it has ever been before, underscoring the capacity for the consumption music to reach an unprecedented level of bricolage.

Such a shift showcases the irony of popular culture historians’ dependence on the concept of newness. Genre developments and innovations, musical release dates, chart placements, and the like are typically used as indices of historical relevance, assumed by historians as evidence that certain music mattered in its moment. Yet the shift to digitization and new media reveals that these occurrences are better understood as opportunities for attention—moments that, in a new media landscape, become equivalent to numerous other kinds of moments ripe with attention potential.

Given this context, this article will theorize ways in which historians can approach the idea of “new” music in a new media environment. Focusing specifically on how new media transforms the distribution and consumption of music, I will suggest that, to contend with a new media environment, historians of popular music must become historians of attention, reframing their questions to consider why certain music garners or doesn’t garner attention at a particular moment. This suggests a renewed focus on the role of promotion and circulation in the lifespan of popular music, but also raises important questions about the ramifications of this “end” of new music. What will this shift mean for history which has been predicated on the notion that music emerges during and speaks to a particular time and place?