What Do U.S. Oil Production and Mick Jagger Have in Common?


They both peaked in the late 1960’s.

You can infer that, anyway, from this handy chart at the blog OverthinkingIt.

They found a correlation between the decline in U.S. oil production and the decline in the quality of pop music, as measured by Rolling Stone‘s list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.

It should go without saying that correlation does not prove causation, and there are many caveats to OverthinkingIt’s analysis. But this slightly whimsical correlation raises at least two interesting questions.

First: Is the declining quality of pop music primarily a problem of limited reserves, or of inefficient extraction? In other words, is pop music — particularly rock — simply exhausted as a form, leaving today’s musicians with little room for innovation; or have the systems used by popular culture to discover and extract good songs from good musicians just broken down?

Second: What other spurious claims of causation through correlation come to mind?

We don’t mean to pick on Mick Jagger, whose contributions to American music will resonate for some time to come.

And after all, as Dubner pointed out, Mick is a would-be fellow economist.

(Hat tip: Mark Lee)

Kevin Sheppard

Someone doesn't understand spurious regression.

David Chowes, New York City

One can credibly argue the case that rock music reached its zenith in the late sixties. Post counterculture -- especially after the Rolling Stones' free concert at Altamount.

As far as American oil production, I'll have to trust your data. But, as you say, of course correlation does not prove causation -- in fact, in this case, it seems totally implausable.

Having taught statistics in the university for many years -- it is just another example of the random corrlation between any two varibles which can obtain statistical significnace -- by random factors.

In class, I may offer the correlation between the number of babies born during the past ten years in say, Paris and how many games the New York Yankess have won during the same years.

[The probality of this happening is based on the given the level of significance is: if .10, many times -- actually 10% of the time;

if, .01, about 1% of the time with no cause and effect, given no relationship what so ever.

Or, a third variable may have an effect on the two variables -- but, the two being investigated have no influence on each other what so ever.]

Sorry, for this complicated response -- but, folks be aware when reading newspapers and especially hearing about correlations on television/radio reports and advertisements.



The first commenter (Mr. Vaughn) makes the point I was going to make.

If Blender or SPIN or Vibe were used to choose the top 500 songs, the chart would really look different.

Also, it's difficult for songs that are new to have stood the test of time, which seems to be some criteria for the list.


Ask a group other than a bunch of baby boomer Rolling Stones writers to make their list and the chart would look nothing like oil production.

This isn't even remotely related -- it's a coincidence.


Global warming is caused the ruthless global purge of pirates over the past 200 years:


The original context is here:


Thomas B.

Inefficient extraction.

Two reasons:

Steve Albini provides the best dissection of the music industry you've ever read, arguing that they hate the people who make their product, and completely mistreat them.

Hank Bordowitz argues it's because the awful business model, which uses a few blockbusters to finance an ocean of failures, in Dirty Little Secrets of the Record Industry. I'd say this is the best long form dissection of the industry, and from a wider, less artist-A&R perspective. This dissects whatever part of the industry Albini left on the table.


The analysis ignores the the concept of development -- it takes time for great music to be recognized. Correlating this with actual oil production, which by definition does not develop, is simply a flawed analysis.

Give some of the more innovative artists of our time a bit more time, and I think they will begin to be appreciated like their predecessors.

In addition Rolling Stone skews towards the classic era of rock. SPIN, MTV, and others would have a completely different perspective.


It's like saying that the right time to make the most money peaked in the 1960's.


Pop/rock songs -- like the the stuff of fossile fuels -- needs time to come to full maturity.

For oil, it takes a lot longer. Luckily, oil got a head start.

Give more recent songs time to age, and things will even out.


I will also argue that perceived decline in music is primarily due to 'extraction' and a surprising lack of compatible infrastructure.

As already stated, there are huge reserves of potential music, hidden around the country. Extraction has become a form of art, but only for reserves that meat very specific standards. In other words, manufactured artists that meet metrics indicating they can sell millions of albums to teens will sign contracts with little difficulty. Why risk tapping an innovative source when proven reserves are already so popular?

True, there are many new avenues for independents to gain a fan base. Unfortunately, the market is still very small. Not everyone has bought into some of the more innovative distriution means (hence my infrastructure comment), so it will be a while before we see a rise in popular music again.

But deep under the surface, today's music is every bit as good as it was at any other era.


Robert in Denver

Whether or not one views the music of the 1960s as rock's golden era (I happen to believe that- but of course it's somewhat a matter of your age and general tastes) it seems obvious that the audience for rock has seriously declined. Part of that is probably due to the overall fragmentation of the media, i.e. it's no longer possible that 50 million people will tune in the see the Beatles or the Doors on Ed Sullivan, and part is probably due to the art form's limitations. I think Little Steven pegged the rock era as generally running from about 1965 to 1995. Back in the 60s and 70s the rock audience market was simply so massive that a third-tier band like Iron Butterfly could sell 2000 seats in Omaha. Today's bands get downloaded for free and play the club circuit. The only bands that can sell concert tickets in any quantity are the old ones still grinding it out. It's a shame.


Cosmic Ray intensity and ozone holes may or may not be spurious, but sure flys in the face of conventional wisdom.



Music is a scalable profession and anyone who ends up at the high end of the popularity scale got there due to a "tournament style" winnowing. It's all pretty random since it has to do with fashion mostly, with the critical gatekeepers of music dropping anchors that force us to reference bands from their starting points if we have never heard them.

Economics, especially the economics of entertainment, is not physics no matter how much fancy math you put into it since it is intrinsically much harder to predict outcomes than in physics. Don't believe it? The only way you can model people's behavior and expect to come out with an algorithm or model that works precisely is if people did not have free will.

Marc B

It's because Rolling Stone sucks.


The number of pirates worlwide has a negative correlation with global temperature. Sail the high seas and plunder to end global warming!


My feeling is that you have to think about what music means the most to you. It's nearly always the music you listened to during your formative years. The top Bands from each era keep getting played, so each new generation has them as part of the soundtrack of their life during their formative years, along with contemporary music. This means that more people will have fond memories of, using myself as an example, David Bowie even though I grew up well after his musical peak in the 70s and hence will vote for him in polls.

Lastly, the quantity of music released has increased decade by decade, which means that people can and will find a greater selection of music to match themselves. This means that the music of now will never have the same audience domination that the like of The Beatles enjoyed and hence they will share the exposure with other music of their era, so they will not pick up as many new fans in future as those that were more dominant of their time.

On the talent side of things, this could hold true too. It is widely seen in the antiques world that as new techniques and ideas come through, they peak within 25 years and rarely ever do the levels of expertise ever get close to those of the early days again, e.g. Dresden/Miessen ceramics.

My take on this is that the talented and creative are always looking to be involved in the freshest and most original things technology brings, whatever they may be.

I mean let's face it, unless you are dull enough to want to be one of the bands that ape those old enough to be your grandparents, you are not going to pick up a guitar or sit there eulogising about how good Pink Floyd, Stones, Led Zep etc were. You will be out there creating the 'now' not the past, doing whatever grabs your attention as being cool now.

This of course may not be music, or at least not the music mainstream. Hard to believe now, but The Rolling Stones were once well outside the mainstream and seen as the downfall of civilization (see also Sex Pistols, Public Enemy etc) but as it turns out they were just the downfall of US oil production!!



My Intro to Psych prof used a good example of correlation vs. causation.

He said that a study indeed found a strong positive correlation between a person's alcohol consumption and their donations to their local church/place of worship.

"How do you explain this?", he asked. "Does it mean that religious people drink more? Does it mean that alcoholics try to alleviate their guilt through giving?" No. This would be assuming that one thing causes the other.

In fact, he said, both actions could be caused by a third thing. Perhaps people with higher household incomes have more money to buy alcohol and to donate as well.


This blog entry asks, "Is the declining quality of pop music primarily a problem of limited reserves, or of inefficient extraction?"

I submit that it's the latter. While the pool of musical and creative talent is finite at any given moment, that pool is considerably bigger than most people suspect and holds large, untapped reserves. (Back in July, for instance, this very blog showed that the ability to sing decently is actually common.)

As a matter of fact, it's because of the commonality of talent that extraction has become inefficient. Finding competent musicians and singers is now a trivial task; finding musicians and singers who can be successfully marketed, however, is much tougher. Success depends on factors other than creativity or musical talent, such as "the right look," gimmicks such as costuming (anyone remember Elton John in the 70s?), mannerisms, and more.

Because success now depends on things OTHER than one's musical ability or songwriting talent, it stands to reason that these are less of a factor than they had been in the past ... meaning that overall quality is declining. This downward trend in musical quality cannot help but continue, so long as musical quality remains irrelevant to success.


Raj Pandravada

Any list of 'greatest' songs that doesn't include at least two Pink Floyd songs in the top 100 isn't worth reading any more. Other notable omission - Blue Oyster Cult. Besides, with 'Stairway to Heaven' at #31, I seriously doubt this list's authenticity as well as sanity.

Insanity alert: Just found 'Comfortably Numb' sitting uncomfortably at #314.

Mike B

I heard there's lots of progress being made on the production of so called Synthetic Music, but it might have serious global warming implications by increasing the amount of hot air.

The Dude

I would argue that, rather than declining, the quality of rock (or, perhaps more accurately, the quantity of rock that the average rock fan has the opportunity to consume) has risen pretty steadily in the Napster era. Obscure bands don't remain obscure for long anymore, and great (but non-mass-marketable) bands can reach the appropriate ears more easily, all making for something of a nascent rock revival...

A better explanation is that Rolling Stone (with good reason) chose songs that have proven to have exceptional staying power; it's easier to argue that a song from the 60's is great (by virtue of having maintained its place of reverence and influence for some 40 years) than it is to argue that some song that came out yesterday cand stand beside Gimme Shelter.