A few years back I wrote about the nature of classic albums, past and present. But on this occasion I'm thinking about them a bit differently.
One of the most interesting phenomenons in modern popular music is that virtually every act who sold millions of records in the 70s had a huge creative lull in the 80s. Surely it isn't as simple as artists suddenly becoming dinosaurs who couldn't adjust to new technology or business models. Is there any decade to decade transition in the last century that compares to the marked decline in quality of commercial music like the 70s to the 80s? There is no simple answer. Of course there was still much great music in the 80s, but most of it wasn't seen on MTV. Of course it can be argued that artists of any era tend to have a creative peak that only lasts a few years, but something else is at work here.
The business had changed in many ways. FM radio went from album oriented radio to playlists in the late 70s, as it was becoming clear that a bigger audience meant higher advertising revenues. With hits now being on both AM and FM radio, albums became progressively less marketable. When there's no need to make an album like you used to, the product becomes less cohesive, not to mention the pressure to create a hit song takes its toll. Almost all successful artists of the 70s did not make the transition into the 80s well. People like Peter Gabriel were the exception to the rule (incidentally, he was flat broke by 1982).
There were other factors. With the advent of things like video games and creating your own mix tapes, people were spending less money on LPs by the late 70s. For the previous decade, LPs were what most teenagers and adults spent most of their disposable income on. People had prided themselves on their record collections. It was an extension of who they were. Artists knew this. The focus was on creating the great album, not the hit single. The lead single was selected after the album was finished. But with FM radio's change in business plan and record companies following suit, this would no longer be the case.
They say things move quickly now - just look at how much the nature of popular music changed between 1975 and 1980. You can bet your life that Queen wouldn't have gotten a record deal with A Night At The Opera in 1980. Zeppelin would've been thrown out of the record exec's office with Physical Graffiti. Pink Floyd's Wish You Were Here starting with a 13 minute song? Forget about it.
"What do you mean it's not marketable? Of course you can make a music video with Dionysus and the marble white. Place them right beside the hearts of men despaired."
There was no comparable seismic shift in any art form until YouTube came along. Today we expect things to change quickly, but in the 70s people really thought the LP would last forever, and along with that, music on the radio that would continue to be new and exciting and more interesting than the previous year. It was the format that drove artists to be great, with the added bonus of new territory to be found as the technology grew.
A ton of good music has been produced since then and will continue to be produced, but so much has changed in the way the business interferes with the process of its creation when its target is mainstream audiences. Articles like this are more revealing than most people would ever want to realize, and I feel like the Grinch for even mentioning it. But this is not a new phenomenon. Motown had already become a musical assembly line by the mid-60s, but most other branches of popular music were about to enjoy a period of unparalleled creativity untampered with by the powers that be. Additionally, any number of artists or record label employees in the late 60s and early 70s would tell you that more revenues were pumped into artist development during that period than ever.
Music is not consumed the way it was consumed 40 years ago, either. The world is a much different place, not least because there is so much music available and it has become so disposable in the form of downloaded files, as opposed to a physical piece with liner notes and artwork that you stared into while listening to the music and doing literally nothing else for 45 minutes after proudly carrying it home without a plastic bag as if it were a badge of honour, your statement to the world of what's important to you. But nothing lasts forever.
Artists like Bob Dylan, The Beatles, The Doors, Supertramp, Joni Mitchell, and Stevie Wonder truly were a product of their time. 1966-1976 was a magical period to create popular music, and such an environment and canvas will probably never be seen again.