steve, been working on this for a long time. not the email itself of course, but the ideas inside. the release of the new call of duty video game encouraged me to send it to you. anything that you read here and like, feel free to use it as your own. no need to credit me. so, let's begin:
THE TRANSITION IS COMPLETE
the transition from music to video games as the primary form of entertainment for young men is complete, as call of duty sets the all-time sales record of 4.7 MILLION copies sold, in ONE SINGLE DAY. generating a whopping $310 million in revenue already, and likely to pass 1 billion in sales within a year, it is so far beyond even the best selling albums in history as to render them nearly trivial. and this is just sales in the US, canada, and UK. not even counting sales worldwide.
as i observed about 8 years ago, men now get excited about major new games, and no longer about major new albums (there aren't any to get excited about anyway). they wait outside the best buy at midnight, not outside the music store. indeed, the music store itself is largely extinct, and television commercials are run which literally portray men in their 20s and 30s returning from the best buy at 1am, unwrapping the game and immediately playing it like drug addicts. which is completely and totally accurate.
it is without hesitation that i say the best mainstream american music is long behind us, and we'll be listening to the 80s and 90s on repeat. teenagers are less interested in making music than they have been since the 50s rock and roll explosion. playing video games and watching movies have appropriated their free time. why learn to play an instrument? that's hard. pick up a controller instead.
i have done lots of amateur research into not only this topic, but the topic of human performance capabilities in general, including how athletes and scientists work. i have come to conclude that there is a powerful effect in operation here that i call the rule of 27. that is to say, almost all musicians, athletes, and math-based academics perform their best work at or around age 27, and then begin to decline until at about age 40, at which point they no longer produce any important work. there are exceptions, but the rule is highly predictive, like any decent, reliable hypothesis in science. for instance, you can wikipedia the birthdates of every major figure in heavy metal, and what you will find is that almost to a man, they produced their best albums between ages 26 and 29, many hitting the rule of 27 almost exactly. for instance, james hetfield, born in 1963:
1983 age 20 kill 'em all
1984 age 21 ride the lightning
1986 age 23 master of puppets
1988 age 25 and justice for all
1991 age 28 metallica
-30 year old transition point, beginning of natural decline for all professionals in fields with intense demands on mental and physical faculties, and the limit at which most musicians can still write major works-
1996 age 33 load
1997 age 34 reload
-40 year old barrier, the point at which almost no musicians can produce anything worth listening to anymore-
2003 age 40 saint anger
2008 age 45 death magnetic
Okay, but how about Verdi coming out of retirement to debut Otello at 76 and Falstaff at 79? Granted, they aren't Master of Puppets, but some people like them.
Beethoven's Great Leap Forward, the 3rd Symphony, came when he was 33, and he stayed great through his death at 56 (?), although he had a dry spell in his 40s. Presumably, classical composing just takes longer to get really, really good at.
it is likewise in NBA basketball, of which i am a fairly big fan. dirk nowitzki had the best season of his career when he was 27, as do most basketball players. by the time he won the NBA MVP at age 29 he was already out of his peak and scoring less points per game. kobe bryant had the best game of career on january 22 2006, when he scored 81 points by himself on the toronto raptors. he was...exactly 27 years old. he's actually been in decline since the 2007 season. he's still in his prime, but he's already out of his peak. the general peak performance years of many athletes in many sports can be predicted reliably in a similar manner. simply add 27 to the year of birth and you will see that lebron james, for instance, at age 24, will continue to improve for the next 3 years. this does not work in every sport, for instance in boxing, where boxers are at their peak in their 30s, and track, where distance runners are also at their peak in their 30s. but it is predictive for many sports. there are more sports that it predicts for than sports it doesn't predict for. it works for swimming, where michael phelps will continue to get even faster for the next 3 years, as he is the same age as lebron james.
now you may be asking, how does the rule of 27 apply, in general, to the decline of american music, if we have already established that the rise of a mature video game industry is the primary culprit, as video games, and not making music, are what is sucking up all the free time of young men. millions of man-hours per year, in fact, have been diverted from learning and playing instruments into learning and playing video games.
the answer is, the rule of 27 dovetails with the development of reliable birth control medicine. reliable and effective birth control, which became widespread around 1965, greatly reduced the birthrate in the US. after 1965, people started having less and less kids. in addition to many other major effects on society, this naturally reduces the future talent pool for any activity or endeavor, and it is no different with mainstream music. we now use the rule of 27, and the year 1965, to describe trends in american music:
1973: right at the beginning of a major era of rock music, due naturally to the 1973 - 27 = 1946, or first year of the baby boom. many major musicians are in their prime here. indeed, all of the 70s can be viewed as the decade that the baby boomers were in their 20s, beginning an era of the production of a MASSIVE amount of pop music that would continue into the 90s. led zeppelin, pink floyd, eagles, rolling stones, elton john, boston, neil diamond, the who, the bee gees, queen, barbara streisand, aerosmith, eric clapton, fleetwood mac, barry manilow, black sabbath.
1981: the rise of punk and new wave, such as the clash, duran duran, and the cars. this is the 50s generation, 1981 - 27 = 1954. the 50s, long considered by some as the greatest era of american life, produces what is, in my opinion, the peak decade of american music. michael jackson, bruce springsteen, van halen, billy joel, madonna, prince, journey, stevie wonder, john mellencamp, tom petty, and whitney houston are in their prime. the world contributes AC/DC, the police, genesis, judas priest, iron maiden, and ozzy osbourne finds randy rhoads (born 1956 so 1956 + 27 = 1983, so he died 2 years before his peak but still delivered music in his prime, 1980 and 1981). phil collins and peter gabriel emerge from genesis. rush releases their best record, as geddy lee is...exactly 27 years old when moving pictures is written.
1988: the emergence of hair metal and thrash, the development of rap, the first musical output of people born in the 60s or 1988 - 27 = 1961. guns n roses, run DMC, bon jovi, bryan adams, metallica, public enemy, michael bolton, the beastie boys, U2, motley crue, NWA, def leppard. larry mullen, the primary force behind U2 and the band's founder, is born in exactly 1961. 26 years later he releases the joshua tree, U2's most important album. NWA releases the first recognizable gangster rap album, straight outta compton, in 1988.
1992: the lollapalooza era, and D-day for american music. the last time there was a recognizable musical climate or a dominant american music. the effects of widespread adoption of birth control begin here. 1965 + 27 = 1992. after 1992, the talent pool of american musicians in their prime begins to decline as every year after 1965, people were having less and less baby making sex. pearl jam, snoop dogg, nirvana, luther vandross, soundgarden, ice cube, smashing pumpkins, pantera, boys ii men, stone temple pilots, janet jackson, red hot chili peppers. dimebag darrell's parents conceive him in 1965, he goes on to become perhaps the last great american guitar player. at his funeral in 2005, eddie van halen shows up and puts his yellow frankenstein stratocaster in the coffin, to be forever buried with dime. kurt cobain, born in 1967, does not reach his peak, as he kills himself at age 27 instead of writing an album.
1997: the decline begins as the birth control of the late 60s exerts it's first effects. the first musicians born in 1970 hit their peak, 1970 + 27, but it is a lower peak than musicians born in decades before, as there are simply less people in the talent pool now. this is EXACTLY the year that american music began a recognizable decline. MTV flipped deliberately to showing reality television and rap, and the FCC deregulated FM radio, which was quickly turned into a medium for pumping out a corporate playlist. garth brooks, mariah carey, dave matthews band, celine dion, korn, shania twain, kenny g, tupac, matchbox 20, backstreet boys, tool, r kelly, britney spears, jay-z, dixie chicks, n sync, eminem, creed.
fast forward to today. it is 2009. that means that the musicians in their prime today were born in 2009 - 27 = 1982. so, if we want to know who they are, all we have to do is think about who was having baby making sex in 1982. and we find that it is generally rural whites and urban blacks. urban and suburban whites stopped having baby making sex in the 70s, reducing their family size to 2, and leaving the big families to southern whites and black americans in cities. in fact, urban and suburban whites have reduced their family size even further in this decade, down to 1. so there will never, EVER be anything like lollapalooza again, which, reduced to it's most basic description, was simply a meeting of suburban white guys and their guitars. this demographic group, the main creative force in the world, long ago put down their guitars and drum sticks in favor of keyboards, game controllers, and movie cameras.
the predictive value of the rule of 27 is in full effect. most american musicians today are:
1) rural white americans, who have developed the american country music industry into one of the dominant forces in american music. indeed, according to my research with soundscan, something like 60%, maybe even 70% of white american musicians who deliver top 20 debuts on the billboard top 200 are southern whites. even modern rock music today is written primarily by southerners. there hasn't been a major new white american rock band in a LONG time. nickelback, the most recent band to elevate itself to an international act, is canadian. rock music appears to be very, VERY over. it is actually white american WOMEN who seem to be more interested in making music, and primarily pop music at that. lady gaga, taylor swift, and miley cyrus are the most prominent white american musicians releasing new, career defining material right now. this seems natural, as women are less interested in video games, and would maintain interest in music.
2) urban and suburban black americans, who used to participate in all forms of music, but who have now limited themselves almost completely to rap and r&b. unfortunately, their output has become less musical and less listenable due to this shift. there used to be a vibrance and an easy listening, catchy joy to the best material from black american musicians. at their best, black jazz, motown, disco, and 80s pop music were fun. but that time is long gone. most black american musicians today deliver sounds that are abrasive and hard to listen to. darius rucker is the only prominent black american musician who plays rock or country music anymore. in fact, aside from alicia keys (who is genetically almost completely white) and john legend, there are few major black american musicians who even play any instrument.
In baseball, 27 has long been recognized as the peak age, although it may have gone up a year or two due to better conditioning and surgery. Generally, famous baseball players are in decline. In fact, overall, the vast majority of celebrities are in the decline phase of their careers. They don't become celebrities until they are close to their peaks, but their are lots of ways to stay a celebrity without being close to your peak.
Age 27 seems to be roughly the peak year for a number of different careers that emphasize youthful manhood and individual skill.
One of the big advantages the British Invasion rock bands had was that they became stars very young, well before peaks, and thus kept getting better while they were in the spotlight.
Other fields have much different age profiles: for example, there are extremely few 27 year old NFL head coaches who win the Super Bowl. It would be interesting to know, however, how a first rate coach would do as a 27-year-old. Being a football coach is like being an architect: they don't entrust you with anything big until you've been around awhile.
Being a coach is a more intellectually demanding job than being a player -- you have to know more stuff -- so, it would seem natural that the peak age for being a coach is later than for a player, but we don't really know that that's true. One problem is that we have better means for selecting good players than good coaches, because the coach's influence is misted over by questions about the quality of players. It takes a number of seasons to get a sense how good a coach is.
You could look at public high school coaches who are not supposed to recruit to get some objective measure of peak age for football coaching. Still, I recall reading about some amazing coach at a small town in Kansas who has been winning for 40 years, and I got the impression that people were moving to that little town just so their sons could be coached by this guy.
Even with high school coaches, differences in player quality make a huge deal. For example, at my old high school, two years after I graduated, they hired a very young coach in 1978, Kevin Rooney, who was around age 27. Over the years, he became more and more successful, winning his first SoCal championship in 1994, with Chris Sailer kicking seven 50+ field goals. After that, he started getting players like Justin Fargas (now with the Oakland Raiders) and all these other great kickers, and it's been easier for him to stay on top. For example, the 14-year-old quarterback on his school's freshman team is already 6'5" and his parents drive him 40 miles from Claremont everyday to go to the high school where the last two quarterbacks have earned scholarships to USC and Notre Dame. So, it's hard to tell if Rooney's really a better coach now than when he first got the job, or if the rest of the world has just woken up to how good he is.