At what point can we declare the Official UK Top 40 singles chart to be dead? Has it in fact been dead for some time, and if so, when did the decay begin? How does today’s chart compare to that of decades past? Is our once-beloved, regular Sunday round-up – that is still found upon it’s traditional home of Radio One – still relevant, and if so, to whom? What does the chart mean for new emerging bands and small labels? Do you care? Do you still pay attention to them? All these are interesting, big questions regarding our lifelong obsession with music’s weekly sales list. The only list that ever mattered. But does it matter any more?
In truth the best starting point for today’s discussion piece comes from looking back in time, to search out when, how and why things might have shifted. Years ago the Official Top 40 was a romantic and exciting end to each week for everyone into music. Not only was Top Of The Pops keenly watched by millions of people, but every Sunday, country-wide, music fans would collect around their radios to try and catch the BBC’s Official Top 40 run down – with many of us even choosing to record it onto tape for posterity – making sure we stayed up to date with the hottest artists and songs of the day. It was a barometer of success, a marker for who was cool, a sign of genuine achievement, as if the artist at number one was immediately a millionaire and bound to be absolutely huge. It was an announcement of a winner, the crowning of a king. Sure there were mis-guided entrants, with the occasional Mr Blobby tune, or a Black Lace dance routine, or a rubbery Spitting Image hit, but for the most part it allowed us to witness talent really making it to the top. It got especially hot when the Beatles competed with The Rolling Stones, or when Oasis battled at the pinnacle with Blur. It was the magnificent home of rivalries and the battleground for record labels. It really meant something.
However, these days we personally couldn’t care less about the Top 40. We no longer look at the official charts, let alone find them culturally significant. So what’s happened? Why the drop off in attention? It would be foolish to suggest that it’s just down to us all getting older, as our passion for music remains and our tastes haven’t shifted particularly. We still like a song, so long as it’s good, irrespective of genre. So why have we not paid attention to the chart in recent years? Let’s take a look at a comparative set of singles charts.
Take a single week in July 1966 and we can see hits within just the top 10 which have all truly stood the test of time, including songs such as, The Mamas & Papas’ Monday Monday, Percy Sledge’s When A Man Loves A Woman, Ike & Tina Turner’s River Deep, Mountain High, The Kinks’ Sunny Afternoon and the number one spot was occupied by none other than the The Beatles with their hit, Paperback Writer. This example was genuinely randomly picked out, only with the knowledge that 1966 was a good year for music, but other historical searches have the potential to be even more impressive. Compare it with today’s top 10 positions. It is of course massively subjective, but it’s hard to imagine David Guetta’s She Wolf, Flo Rida’s I Cry, Conor Maynard’s Turn Around, The Script’s Hall Of Fame, or One Direction’s Live While We’re Young still being highly-regarded in years to come. Even the number one artist, Rhianna, who has undoubtedly had magnificent hits in the recent past, probably hasn’t actually written the chart-topping tune, Diamonds, herself. Oh, and surely most sane people would agree that the artist she knocked from number one, Psy, with his global hit, Gangnam Style, will never be taken seriously.
So is our decline in interest simply down to music seeming more credible in years gone by? We don’t believe so, as regular visitors to The Recommender will hopefully appreciate, we are smothered in awesome new, contemporary music still. Since the invention of the Internet we’ve seen wave after wave of incredible new artists emerge. Too much to even keep up in fact. Perhaps our tastes have simply gone too underground, or perhaps there is now a divide between credible music and the charts? Well, it’s hard to write off last year’s biggest hit, Adele’s Someone Like You. Nobody is suggesting that she isn’t credible or immensely talented. Maybe it’s down to the power of the major labels and their marketing budgets, allowing their artists the magazine front covers, television appearances and overall exposure that new, unsigned artists simply don’t have yet, causing our focus – which is naturally on emerging music – to seem separated from the chart. Then again, plenty of artists that have appeared on this blog in years gone by have ended up signing to big labels and hitting the charts eventually, so if they’re good enough, or interesting enough, then they too will be picked up. This still doesn’t explain the enormous domination of truly awful music that appears all over the charts each week, of a kind that would never have appeared on this blog, even before the artist was signed.
Perhaps it’s the Internet itself that’s to blame? Has the rapid highway affected our attention spans, so nothing can last any more, irrespective of it’s quality? One point worth considering is that it may have inadvertently allowed the separation of high and low quality music, as we all exist and spend time in different online spaces, with teens spending their time in spaces that adults do not, like oil and water. Fans of one quality can source their music from separate arenas to those of another set of fans, most obviously drawing distinct lines between the underground and the main stream. Without doubt the Internet has allowed people to source and illegally share free music, so if you know where to look you can obtain what you like at zero cost, separating the computer savvy from everyone else, in particular from the very young or the very old. Major labels are known to have reacted slowly to the Internet’s technological and social revolution, resulting in their biggest income coming from artists that can count mostly 14 year olds as their fan base. Not only does this group download less illegal music, but they’re also more easily marketed to. Consider some of the world’s most lucrative artists and among the list will be the likes of Justin Bieber, The Black Eyed Peas and One Direction, all of which are almost guaranteed to top the charts with every release – does it get more appetizing than this if you’re in the business of selling music? It certainly perpetuates the cycle of low-grade content.
Perhaps it is partly due to an overall slide in actual sales? Are we not alone and is the truth in fact that lots of other people no longer care too? Let’s look at some numbers… What we do know is that the overall official singles chart peaked in sales in the mid-80s, although the formats in which music has been sold has changed over the years, from records in shops, to CDs, now to online retailers such as iTunes selling digital sales, so figures are skewed by these changes. CD sales peaked in the late-90s, but at the crossover point after March 2006, between CD sales and digital sales being included in the roundup, the number one was earned with just 17k sales. Individual singles’ sales from from the last six months of 1997 never dropped below 100k/week and collectively they actually averaged well over 198k/week, (even if you remove the Elton John single, Candle In The Wind, which sold an incredible weekly average of 823k/week over it’s four weeks at number one!). Compare those sales with this year’s, which see averaged singles sales at around 90k/week, although the variety of what people now buy is much higher, due to the ease of scanning around online digital stores and the variety that they can offer, as opposed to the 100 singles on offer in an old record shop. Last week the size of the market was 3,431,449, showing us the kind of numbers which in the past you only saw in the week running up to Christmas. It’s a mixed bag of stats, but the average sales are lower this year than they have been in the past, and the variety is up. A cynical ponderer might assume that getting a precious number one with a lower rate of sales could make it easier for major labels to manipulate it by spending enough on marketing their artist, but we don’t think either the sales or the label have quite reached that kind of low point quite yet.
So if the sales figures aren’t a big reason behind the chart’s decline then is it all about the quality of the music? Since the millennium a range of pretty appalling artists have appeared as the top sellers in each year, which is of course a subjective statement, but by anybody’s standards it reads like a shit-pile of re-hashes, comedy ideas and major label manufacturing. It lists the following: Bob The Builder (year 2000), Shaggy (2001), Will Young (2002), The Black Eyed Peas (2003) Band Aid’s re-release (2004), Tony Christie/Peter Kay comedy single (2005), Gnarls Barkley (2006), Leona Lewis, (2007), Alexandra Burke, (2008), Lady Gaga, (2009), Eminem (2010). How many of these would you consider genuinely credible, or independent, or releasing songs that will stand the test of time, or inspire a generation? Perhaps a few, but overall they hardly compare strongly with the 60s, which had several singles by the likes of Elvis and The Beatles as regular best sellers of their period, although that decade also had giant hits from the likes of Ken Dodd and Engelbert Humperdinck, the latter of which criminally prevented perhaps the best single ever written, The Beatles’ double A-side, Penny Lane/Strawberry Fields Forever, from reaching the top.
We’ve always had poor-quality clutter – who can forget Teletubbies Say Eh-Oh? – but it seems more pervasive now. The struggle over quality has always been fought at the peak, but it seems as though the poorer quality tunes are getting better at winning the race as the decades pass by. Why is this? Well, we know that the major labels have mastered the art of obtaining the all-important ‘traction’, in which an artist needs to find grip in the public consciousness. Making people aware of a label’s music has become an expertly tuned process over the years. It’s nothing new as you can trace masters of the art, such as modern purveyors like Simon Cowell, right back to the original moguls, such as with The Beatles’ manager, Brian Epstein, both of whom fully understood how to manipulate the public and market their product convincingly – Epstein famously removed John and Paul’s leather jackets in place of suits and mop-tops to separate them from the 50′s look. However, these days key-holders such as Simon Cowell seem to ignore and remove the actual need for quality song-writing, instead empowering the public by allowing them to choose a ‘winning’ artist via popular television shows such as X-Factor or Britain’s Got Talent, handing over songs usually written by somebody else to the eventual chosen ones. And herein lies one of the main problems.
Simon Cowell doesn’t care how good these people are at song writing. He doesn’t particularly care if they’re that talented either, as he can train them to sing, or play an instrument so long as they look good on stage – although only a fool would fail to be impressed by the talents from artists such as Leona Lewis, but it’s not like she penned her own hits. What he wants most of all is to have that magic traction stuff. And he is a grip-master, creating his television showcases – which are actually a form of half hour adverts, watched by millions every week, for months and months. Facile gimmicks help too, such as if you’re good-looking, or swing completely the other way, with the likes of Suzanne Boyle, who had a wonderful voice, but who gained attention by surprising everyone, eventually playing on the gimmick of being unattractive-but-talented. Formulas, or in Boyle’s case anti-formulas, are known to work, as they pull the same old tired tricks, with boy bands that can count distinctive stereotypes in their numbers – something The Spice Girls took to a trivial level with a ‘Sporty’ one, or a ‘Blonde’ one, as if to cover the public’s bases reassuringly. The biggest problem with all this manufactured bullshit is not in fact with Cowell or any of his predecessors, they are just tapping in to a genuine public appetite, but also to the stupidity of the crowd.
This leads us to the real problem: most people are in fact very stupid, and perhaps getting more and more stupid as the years pass by. They’re suckers for the clever marketing teams. They are seduced by the power of the crowd, eventually joining in even if they initially resist. In this stupid public we get a world in which the likes of Tescos becomes the the most popular supermarket, even though it’s produce is low in quality, MacDonalds sells processed, re-formed meat as if it’s the most attractive thing you’ve ever seen, The Sun is the biggest selling newspaper even though it’s content is low-brow, and Primark dominates in ever-larger high street stores, even though it’s products unravel after just a few weeks. They’re successful not because they sell quality goods, but because they sell cheap goods and then use clever marketing techniques to convince the public to buy into it. We are sheep and our adoration for futile things is growing – just see how things such as cosmetic surgery gain in popularity, as people chase a desire to be what they believe is more beautiful, with a similar mindset standing in ever-longer queues at the annual X-Factor auditions, in the hope of obtaining the short cut to fame. Sheep follow everything and anything if it’s marketed well, with corporations and celebrities now being adored in place of religious figures or political leaders. It’s nothing new, but it is getting more facile. And this disintegration can be seen in something as trivial as our charts.
After all this discussion, the degradation of the charts might just be all of our faults for believing the hype.
So can we sound the death knell for the Official Top 40? Not quite. The chart remains for now and the overall sales are still good, so it’s just the death of The Recommender’s own personal interest that is certain, but the key question is whether our opinion and experience is shared by like-minded others and what size of minority are we in? Will our interest ever turn back, returning to view the chart as a bastion of quality, a true pinnacle of achievement, alongside it being a simple totting up of sales? We doubt it. Perhaps the chart was never supposed to come with expectations and should only ever be about which artist sells the most singles – a literal explanation of the chart after all. Perhaps there was never anything more you could take from it, leaving us to conclude that it’s just the quality of music that has shifted out of line with our own pithy, subjective tastes. Perhaps there is no social comment to be made just because we don’t like what’s in the chart…
…or is there?
Perhaps we are not alone? Annie Mac, the respected Radio One DJ and pioneer for emerging music, recently stated that “I feel like the charts won’t be around for much longer“, adding that, “I feel like a lot of that process does feel old and maybe not 100% fair on a lot of the artists out there“. Can this decades-old process of charting music sales remain un-evolved and un-changed indefinitely? With radio pluggers and other PR representatives punting their artists out to the radio stations, demanding coverage in line with the required release cycles, can the process remain relevant in an age when the Internet allows blogs and other websites to proliferate artists when ever they fancy it? Amateur bloggers can often make the buzz of an artist sometimes be out of line with the actual official release of the music. The Recommender first covered artists like Clock Opera, or Alt-J, among many others, years before their eventual album arrived. And we’re not alone. Even the mainstream world of manufactured pop isn’t safe. Imagine if Pop Justice – an enormous, taste-making, established online commentator of such music – decides to write about the new Katy Perry single months in advance of it’s official release, which in turn gets it a number one on Hype Machine, then surely the official release comes too late to capitalise on that unofficial buzz. Does official even mean anything any more?
We all have different tastes and so we will all have differing opinions on the chart and it’s ability to stick around, and we imagine that the side of the fence in which you will fall depends somewhat on whether you’re a Justin Bieber or Black Eyed Peas fan to some extent, or whether you give credence to hollow, manufactured music. Certainly any artist that gains a number one would surely still feel an enormous sense of achievement, whether it’s their first ever, or their 19th consecutive chart-topper. The artist and the label still care. These days, it would certainly be impressive if an independent artist, or a small independent label managed to beat the mighty marketing teams at one of the three major labels to the number one spot, so if anything the top of the charts is harder to reach now than ever before. This should make charting a positive process, but in reality how many independent artists get to the number one spot? We imagine it would require a gimmick, or a tabloid headline to assist them. Years ago we remember a new artist asking us “How can I get my music into the mass market?“. Our answer? “Get some paparazzi, go find Pete Doherty, and kick him in the balls“. He responded, “but what about the music?“. Quite. What about it?
Looking to the future, we believe the chart will remain, so long as artists sell singles and people continue to show an interest in this silly sales competition, no matter whether the number one position’s sales actually shrink. It’s worth noting that the BBC’s flag-ship televised chart show, Top Of The Pops, disappeared years ago with nothing to replace it, suggesting that the interest isn’t what it once was and that nothing lasts forever. In the background we have seen the start of a possible new world order – a separation of the charts themselves – not just as genre-specific categories, such as the ‘rock‘ or ‘dance‘ charts, but in the overground and underground. The Hype Machine, We Are Hunted and the newly-launched blog chart, Music Robot, have started to establish themselves, not just with the public, but also with record labels as they too regularly check to see if their artists have reached number one, not as a barometer of sales, but as a barometer of cool – after all, that essential stuff they call traction will often require the initial burst from a taste-maker’s hype. One glance at the current Music Robot chart, (at the time of writing this), shows one of the most hyped new bands of 2012, Pins, at number one, and that says something significant in the differences between the official and the unofficial charts. We know which ones we now pay attention to. How about you?