Maybe Our Tastes Don’t Calcify As We Age?

I had an interesting exchange recently while interviewing Tim Westergren, co-founder of the (just-public) internet radio company Pandora for our Freakonomics Radio hour called “The Folly of Prediction.” (We argue in the show that Pandora represents a narrow but worthy example of our ability to predict the future — unlike most realms, like politics, the economy, and so on.)

DUBNER: You know, there’s a neat body of research that shows that people’s tastes in the kind of stuff they consume — whether it’s food, or music, or art, and so on — tend to get fairly frozen in time by the time you hit your mid-thirties or so. Do you know anything about that — about the speed and variance at which people adopt new musical tastes, or are at least willing to experiment, versus their ages?

WESTERGREN: You know, it’s funny, someone said to me a long time ago when I embarked on this, “Why are you doing this? People don’t want new music. I look at my friends and they have the same CD’s they’ve had for 20 years — what problem are you trying to solve?” And I think the truth is the reason that people’s music tastes atrophy is not because they don’t long for discovery. It’s because they don’t have time anymore, and what are they going to do? I know there’s actually a biologist who literally studied this, a fellow at Stanford who studied this, because it seemed like such a strong correlation, but it’s basically when you get busy. When you have a job and you have a family you don’t have time to do anymore. But if you look up behavior on Pandora, the level of enthusiasm, and intensity, and discovery that’s happening is just as rich for folks in their seventies and eighties as it is for, you know, teenagers.

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As someone who is past his mid-thirties, I find this idea appealing. I’m not sure whether Westergren inspired me or whether his news merely confirmed reality, but I have been on a recent binge of trying new things (food, music, places, books, people), and am generally having a blast.

And it looks like the AARP (which no longer calls itself the American Association of Retired People, btw) believes what Westergren believes: it has launched its own internet radio service, with the goal of introducing its members to new music. Here’s Marc Morgenstern of Concord Music Group (which programs the AARP player) in a recent Times article:

“Older people get a bum rap, that they’re kind of frozen in time,” Mr. Morgenstern said in an interview at Concord’s office in Beverly Hills, where the walls are lined with posters of Creedence Clearwater Revival and Elvis Costello as well as some of the label’s younger stars, like Alison Krauss.

“Everyone has a certain affinity for the music of their youth,” he added. “But people really do want to find something new, something that may not stray far from what they’re familiar with but bring a huge gust of fresh air.”

That said, most of the AARP stations are some form of oldie or “lite” channel — and there’s an entire station devoted to Paul Simon.

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  1. Joe says:

    It should be noted that the AARP music service is powered by Slacker, a Pandora competitor, which will soon help relaunch AOL Radio.

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  2. Sunfell says:

    I’m a middle-aged woman, and by all rights should be firmly stuck in the music of the 70s and the 80s. But to be honest, while I get a bit of a nostalgia buzz from some of it, I have very little of it in my current collection. And I find the music being played in places like Kohl’s, Target and Pennys to be unbearably treacly. I reach for my Zune and put on some electro-swing to drown it out.

    I MAKE time to find new music online. Music is important to me- too important to leave to boring commercial radio which rarely plays stuff I like.

    I don’t use Pandora or other similar services. Instead, I poke around SoundCloud, BandCamp and ReverbNation, looking for interesting music and unique branchings and mashups of my favorite genres. I’m really into dance, trance, ambient, electronic and house music- among many others. I love Goa Trance and dubstep. In fact, I surprised the heck out of a store clerk when I not only identified the music playing in his shop, but also the artist who made it. (Yes, I know who Deadmau5 is!)

    I will enjoy going into my ‘golden years’ surprising my younger peers with my knowledge of ‘new’ music. Cognitive dissonance is fun.

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  3. AaronS says:

    I think the reason that tastes calcify is because of the lack of “continuity.” Let me give you an example….

    I love the music of Journey and much of the 80s hair bands (for that matter, I also love classic Southern Gospel music). But what happens, I think, is that if the leaps are too large between musical “taste categories.” That is, instead of something that transitions nicely from Journey to some other style, there is often perceived to be a wide gulf between here and there.

    Thus, instead of slowly stretching the rubber band until another style of music is encompassed, there is an almost radical twist that causes some of us to prefer to stick to our old music. If it was articulated, it might be saying, “Hey, that’s not even CLOSE to what I like–I’m going back to ‘Don’t Stop Believin’!”

    There needs to be a progression, a continuity, a comfortable transition from here to there. Of course, some people are highly adventurous and will easily try new stuff. But enough of us like to remain in our comfort zone that we have to be led out of it thoughtfully.

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  4. Michael says:

    Interesting notion. Seems worth pointing out that the group of people Westergren encounters as Pandora listeners are not going to be a representative sample of the population. Particularly in the case of older people, the group that knows about Pandora and makes the effort to sign up are likely to already be the one’s more interested in finding variety in their music.

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  5. James says:

    Hidden due to low comment rating. Click here to see.

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  6. Shane says:

    A GREAT example of this is the “metal monk”, Brother Cesare Bonizzi (born 1946), an Italian friar who was inspired by a Metallica gig to get into heavy metal. He considers metal “the most energetic, vital, deep and true musical language” he knows, has multiple albums and performs in full monkish robes and a massive beard. Here he is, rocking out gloriously!
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gij3E0VZrUA

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