What is “Popular Music”?

By Stephanie Campbell, MLIS

Recorded music and popular music generally go hand-in-hand. According to Britannica, popular music is “any commercially oriented music principally intended to be received and appreciated by a wide audience.”

There is no shortage of important milestone moments in the history of recorded music. As you can see from this PBS timeline, digital audio has now been a part of our lives for 30 years. All of this brings to mind the evolution of formats and how we define—and rank—“popular” music. Here’s a great overview.

Industry stalwart Billboard magazine began tracking popular music as early as the 1940s, with charts for record sales, songs most played in jukeboxes, and radio airplay. In 1955, they began compiling a list of the overall top 100 songs. This is the singles chart, called the Hot 100.

Billboard’s tracking has become increasingly complex, now with dozens of charts. Besides the weekly charts for songs, albums, and global albums, there are artist and genre, year-end, and decade-end charts. And there’s even a legend to interpret it all.

As vinyl and CDs have given way to digital downloads, popularity statistics have evolved to encompass those sales figures, plus airplay—and, increasingly—streaming activity. Today, the emphasis is on music “consumption” rather than sales. YouTube has been included in the Hot 100 calculation since 2013. In late 2019, it earned a place in determining the Billboard 200 , which captures the top albums. When it was first introduced, the phonograph was a game-changer in music technology, raising a myriad of issues for everyone connected to the music industry, from artists down to consumers. But what is the relevance of that antiquated technology to today's world? As this Smithsonian article illustrates, the similarities between the phonograph era and the digital age are striking.

Before recordings, your only option was live music. Critics worried that music and musicianship would have less meaning with the advent of record ownership. Similarly, social media and digital technology have enabled amateur musicians to produce and broadcast their talents with a minimum of time and effort. Throughout the evolutions of popular music, artists have struggled with the issue of compensation—whether flat fees or mere pennies per transaction in royalties. Therefore, questions from the turn of the century persist to this day. Is music being liberated or undervalued when everything seems so free and easy to access?

Music promotion now goes far beyond the record labels and deejays. But even in these times of instant access, the charts are still important in offering a barometer of artists’ success. Blockbuster tours and music festivals are where the real money is. Here’s an interesting NPR interview on the subject, describing singles and albums more as marketing tools.

As the Smithsonian article tells us, “hit” records emerged in the 1920s, along with the concept of music genres. In order to sell more recorded music, record companies had to classify it into different styles. For their part, consumers needed to know what type they liked. This was a culture all in itself. You were into the blues or a dedicated jazz fan and on the lookout to expand your record collection. As we know, the melding of musical types is what created rock and roll.

While Billboard still maintains separate charts for genres, music is less genre-driven today and listeners not as deeply invested in genres as they were in the past. While joint efforts among different types of artists have always existed, crossover hits and collaborations are even more prevalent now. As this article from The Guardian shows, we, as a society, are less likely to subscribe to only one or two musical genres, and this is most likely a product of the digital age.

Thankfully, the library’s role is pretty clear for its music collections. We need to reflect popular culture, bolster it with a well-rounded backfile, and provide access in whatever format is most current, whether it be physical, streaming, or a combination of the two.

There are endless opportunities for print collection development surrounding popular music, its history, and appreciation. Besides highlighting and illustrating musical artists and forms, there are the philosophical aspects and age-old questions to explore. For example, what happens when indie and alternative music become mainstream? In addition to charts, Billboard offers analysis. Cultural appropriation is also a long-standing problem in popular music. Here’s a Billboard article to get you started on how that topic applies to today’s music.

Whether you want to dive deep or skim the surface, check out our list of titles.