Why the soundtrack of our lives ends at 30

NOW UNLOCKED – Comment from Peter Saxon

It’s kind of a fake truism: Life Begins at 40. Unless you’re closing in on 50, in which case you convince yourself that 50’s the new 40 and life begins when you decide it does.

Musically, though, life ends at 30, according to research from music streamer Deezer.  

The survey polled around 5,000 Deezer users from the UK, the US, Germany, France, and Brazil. They found people reached a “musical peak” – meaning a time when they were most receptive to new music – roughly in the 18-24 demographic. Then, before their 30th birthday, they reached a terminal condition referred to as “musical paralysis.” From that point on, whatever their favourite songs were in their youth were likely to stay their favourites till the day they died.

Tell us something we didn’t know.

To be fair this research adds a lot of statistical detail and offers up all sorts of reasons why people change their musical habits. Yet, it barely seems to touch on the obvious. 

To answer the central question, “Why do people stop discovering new music?” the most consistent user response was “lack of time.” 

The study found that 60% of all respondents over 30 would be keen to listen to new music if only their lives weren’t so busy with work and kids and stuff.  Over half (53%) said they’d like to set aside time “sometime in the future” to seek out new artists.

Sounds plausible but it it really doesn’t hold water because people over 30 still listen to radio for long periods in traffic, at work, in the bathroom or jogging. They also listen to owned music, as they always have. So, it’s not that they don’t have time for listening. It’s just that they choose to spend that time listening to music they already know rather than use it to discover something new.

Do we know what we like or like what we know?

Although the findings are flawed, they’re interesting in that this survey was commissioned by a streaming service which offers users a clever algorithm that can suggest new songs. Despite that, the “new” songs don’t necessarily count as new music. If you like reggae, for example, the algorithm is likely to throw up more reggae. You’re unlikely to be exposed to much techno. So, rather than broaden your musical tastes, your established genres are being reinforced and amplified in your well-worn, comfortable echo chamber.

It doesn’t take a Rhodes Scholar (which is lucky, ‘cause I’m not one) to figure out why people enter “musical paralysis “ by 30.

For most of us by the time we’re 30, our lifestyles have changed dramatically.

In that “sweet spot” for music discovery between, say 16 – 24, most of us are (or were) consumed with finding our place among our peers. We crave acceptance and we’re looking for a romantic relationship. We’ll have fun if it kills us! At the same time we’re keen to demonstrate our independence from our parents. 

To achieve all of that one must be up with the latest in music, fashion and youth culture along with all its sub-cultures. The Deezer survey suggests that during this period we’re receptive to adding up to 10 new songs a week and four new artists a month to our permanent, personal playlist or as they say on radio, “ The Soundtrack of Our Lives.”

Having vowed never to end up like our boring old parents, by 30 we suddenly find ourselves in almost exactly the same situation they were in at that age. How the hell did that happen? 

For the vast majority of us, somewhere between 24 and 30 we found a life partner, “settled down,” had kids bought a house, a mortgage and took on the inherent worries that came with all that. Suddenly, keeping up with the latest fads and discovering new music is no longer a priority. What is, are while all those things that hitherto held no interest for us like health care, education and interest rates.

Still, we haven’t really answered the question of why, when at 30+ we still manage to find plenty of time to listen to audio, we choose to listen to our favourites of years gone by rather than new stuff.

Discovering new music is hard work. You need to hear a song several times before it starts to grow on you. When we were young and needed to know the latest hits, this was essential work that we gladly took on. At 30+, having done all the hard work of building a soundtrack we can relax while we listen to recall memories of better times.

Not that our 30+ lives are crap. In many ways they’re a lot better than it was at various times of our youth. But the best things about our young selves was the music and what we were doing while it played. Recorded music lasts forever and like a drug provides an instant hit of nostalgia as our brains release dopamine, serotonin, oxytocin, and other legal highs that doctors highly recommend. 

You can read more about how this works in this article: Intensely pleasurable responses to music correlate with activity in brain regions implicated in reward and emotion 

The challenge for radio stations is how to maintain audience numbers as listeners migrate from 24-29 to 30+. As a station, do you mature along with your audience or do you re-invent yourself every 15 years or so to appeal to a completely different group? Or do you just tweek the music gradually towards younger listeners?

Each of these options have inherent weaknesses. Until recently the problem, mainly for the last two has been that the frequency and call-sign carry the positioning baggage of the previous incarnation. 18-24s tend to shun stations their parents listen to. That’s been partly alleviated with FM and totally so on DAB+ and IP delivered content where no frequency number exists and a station can simply be renamed without trace of the previous format.

Peter Saxon