Thursday, 1 November 2012

Is The UK Top 40 Singles Chart Irrelevant?

A few weeks ago, following some lively debate on twitter about the state of the UK Top 40 singles chart, Mike from Brighton’s The Recommender posted this blog called The Final Countdown. His argument was that the music in the UK singles chart is generally a pile of crap. He argued that the charts have become generic, diminished in quality, lost all relevance to his music listening and are hence dying. He suggested that the real reason for this was that most people are very stupid and are led in their music purchasing by marketing.

After this Chris from The Metaphorical Boat followed on with some well thought out reasons why the UK singles chart doesn’t contain the types of music you possibly like in a post called Six Reasons Why The Artist You Love Isn’t In The UK Charts.

Here’s a few follow up thoughts, from our chart listening selves. (We might not like everything in the charts, but we still listen week in week out for those special moments when a song we love does go top 40 and hence vindicates our taste not being as wildly out of sync of the rest of the music purchasing public as we thought) This piece attempts to deal with some of the core issues of relevance, quality and the value of the charts in the digital age of music consumption. If you’re short of time, just skip to the bottom and read the summary.

The UK singles chart is still relevant to the job it does.

That job is to measure sales, pure and simple. The chart remains the only available and well-regulated tool to measure this. It has its flaws; it doesn’t for example measure all sales (the second hand market, purchases direct from artist websites etc) but still gives a broad picture of what songs have sold in any particular week.

The bigger question is, does the measurement of sales still count for something / anything? Are sales relevant anymore?

To look at this we need to consider two elements – the music industry itself and then the public at large.

For The Music Industry

Certainly for the music industry it does count. More sales and a higher chart position is still a measure of ‘success’. A higher chart position can mean more exposure for the artist, particularly in terms of radio play. More exposure can mean more earning capacity in other areas, from selling tickets for concerts to sync deals. This article by The Guardian explains just how important chart positions still are to parts of the music industry and how bands can be dropped like a ton of bricks if they don’t achieve the chart placings that their labels expect of them. The chart is also useful to show trends, which the industry can use when considering future developments. For example, old songs have re-entered the charts after being covered on the TV show X-Factor. It’s a signal to labels that it might be time to promote that particular artists greatest hits album perhaps?

However in this digital age, the currencies are slowly changing. Non financial audience interactions are becoming the new currency. You Tube and Facebook likes have developed a value all of their own – witness the transition of Psy’s Gangnam Style, from a viral You Tube sensation, to radio play, to eventual sales and chart success. However a word of caution about You Tube hits – they often represent short term success. Facebook likes are a better measure of long term organic popularity.

For The Public

Personal relevance is harder to judge. The Recommender suggested that the charts are not about quality (a highly subjective word in terms of listening to music – for quality we could insert the word taste) and have become generic and therefore mean nothing to him. We’re sure many other people feel this way. Yet even now just under 2 million people (including ourselves) listen to the Radio 1 chart show on a Sunday evening. This is a far cry from the 7 million or so that Bruno Brookes used to get on Radio 1 many years back, but the wider availability of channels (radio, internet and personal vehicles for listening to music) was more limited then so audience figures were higher for all shows. However these figures demonstrate that some people are still interested in the charts – they still count for something for the public as well as the industry.

If sales still count for something (albeit less than they did years ago), what about quality? Has that really dropped?

Through the ages, the main goal of most pop music has nearly always been to entertain for commercial reasons, rather than having artistic depth. (Hence the title pop (=popular) music). Therefore as a genre pop music is likely to be recorded in a way that desires to have a mass audience appeal. It’s for this reason that every decade is identifiable as a having a certain sound – because what sells well will be copied. If we asked you what ‘80’s synth pop’ or ‘50’s rock n roll’ sounded like you would probably instantly know, because the pop music of the time often had common characteristics that have proved to be commercial. So, pop music by its very nature and ambitions is generic. But this is often perceived as low quality by those who want greater artistic depth rather than just to be entertained.

We’re not entirely sure if the ‘quality’ of the charts has deteriorated, and besides to accuse them of doing so is ultimately pointless. The charts have never measured quality, nor do they claim to do so, so criticising them for not having quality is like criticising a crocodile for not being a banana. Yet the official charts certainly don’t fully match our listening taste. A quick scan of this weeks chart finds only 5 songs that we could say we like (by Bastille, Ellie Goulding, Adele, Of Monsters And Men and Florence And The Machine (Calvin Harris Remix)) but who is to say that our choices are better quality than someone else’s different choices ? Likewise looking back at past charts it seems that our ‘quality’ threshold is always at about the same level. Take any chart from the last 30 years and it’s rare that we like more than 10 songs or less than 3 songs in it. Quality, when it comes to music is an intangible and subjective characteristic.

So in summary….

1. The charts still do the best job of measuring sales – it’s not perfect but it’s the best we’ve got.

2. Sales (and therefore the chart) still have some value and relevance to both industry and the public, but with the changing digital landscape, possibly less than they used to.

3. ‘Quality’ in music is often misinterpreted as ‘taste’. When the charts get ‘worse’ it probably just means that your taste no longer aligns with the charts. In order to survive pop music has to undergo stylistic change in order to excite consumers, this change may not match with some consumers taste anymore, but it doesn’t necessarily mean the quality has reduced. (We would argue the charts have always contained a lot of crap, but there's always been some good stuff as well - that's our taste.)

4. The charts have never measured quality, nor do they claim to do so. So there’s little point criticising them for it.


Christopher McBride said...

An interesting article, as usual. As long as people are continuing to buy music, there will be a need for an official chart.

On a slightly tangential note, I wonder how many people who complain about the charts not reflecting their music tastes actually buy copies of the single that they wish were in the charts? If they don't, then technically it could be argued that, ironically, they themselves are a part of the problem.

It's interesting to note that this month the BBC are running a series of TV programs to celebrate 60 years of the UK Chart, so I expect to see the charts under the microscope a lot over the next few weeks.

The Recommender said...

It would be rude for me NOT to comment on this wouldn't it...

It was another enjoyable and succinct article, so thanks for responding. I knew you would have an angle on the debate.

Personally, I think that to reduce the argument to the bare facts - in which the chart is purely a measurement of sales - somewhat denies what was at the heart of my article. You touched on the relevance, and it's certainly relevant to the industry which you mention, but who cares about that/them? I care about music and my culture and the discussion. Regarding the public, which you go on to mention, a reduction of 7 million to 2 million is not particularly great, even with new competitive channels etc, but again that reduces it to numbers, rather than it's real relevance.

The chart isn't, (or at least wasn't), just about sales and numbers. It was a barometer of loads of subjective things, such as quality, cool, trends, interest, movements, cultural significance etc.

You've reduced the passion and interest into a topic about numbers that only ever float above criticism. I honestly believe it's cultural significance is open to debate and elements of how and why it's changed are open to criticism.

I believe there is something in the fact that you, me, The Metaphorical Boat and The Guardian (among others) have debated it so fervently is precisely because we have a passion for this 'measurement of sales'.

The chart has shifted most likely because the business - the machine behind the industry - has shifted. It's struggled to compete with online services, it puts £ signs on talentless boy bands, is reckless with it's quality controls, it focusses on young impressionable markets more etc. To be honest, the list of reasons is endless AND subjective, but there's no denying things have changed, (oh and it's not just me getting older, as I'm into more fresh music now than at any other time in my life).

I believe the charts used to be of more interest, culturally and financially, as I don't remember the last time I got excited in the same way people did when Elvis, The Beatles, The Sex Pistols, Joy Division, Nirvana, Oasis, etc topped the sales list. If I'm in a minority of one, and my opinions can be dismissed as pure subjectivity, then nobody anywhere, any time, can make a cultural comment ever again.

The truth is you and I know precisely how exciting music is in 2012, and particularly on that thing the music industry struggle to understand, The Internet. I only wish more people visited your blog, my blog, all the other awesome bloggers, writers, journalists and websites out there. To discover The Hype Machine, or, or Music Robot, or Flipboard, or We Are Hunted, or, or This Is My Jam, or Bandcamp, or, etc, is to discover a rich and exciting world of music beyond One Direction, or JLS, or David Guetta. It's a world of optimistic, dynamic change, beyond the traditional formats like Radio One, which cater to the major labels like knowing whores on their daytime broadcasts.

Like you, I'm trying to shout and promote all the awesome stuff that's out there. Sure, what is considered 'awesome' is indeed subjective, but you know and I know that so much quality, both in terms of music and in terms of the way in which it's discovered and delivered, is so often lost when it comes to the mass market. That's a really sad thing.

Anyway, great piece. Can't wait to discuss it in person. Keep making an awesome blog and doing your bit. I love it. Other people I know love it. That's all that matters for now. Hopefully one day soon everyone will love it.

The beat goes on...

@ The Recommender

Breaking More Waves Blog said...

Thanks for the comment Mike.

Re; Who cares about the music industry ? My article wasn’t discussing who cared about the music industry, just highlighting the fact that (as you concur) that the chart is relevant to the industry. Who cares about the music industry (certainly the people that work in it probably do) is another discussion away from this one.

Re: ‘Public relevance’ you talk about ‘real relevance’. What do you mean by ‘real relevance’? I attempted to give one example of some figures that help quantify the relevance which to me makes things a little more real than subjective arguments. I’m not sure if I understand what you mean by ‘real relevance?’

You say “The chart isn't, (or at least wasn't), just about sales and numbers. It was a barometer of loads of subjective things, such as quality, cool, trends, interest, movements, cultural significance.” I don’t disagree as such, but for the sake of keeping the original article readable I didn’t touch on these subjective elements (the original version did but I decided to do a large edit), which in its pure form the chart isn’t designed to measure or quantify.

However I do think the chart still does reflect some of the things you identified even these days. For example take Psy’s Gangnam Style. This is a massively culturally relevant song on a number of counts. It says a lot about our now one global multi-cultural society bonded by the internet and have a greater acceptance of different cultures. Psy’s the first K-Pop act to have a hit in this country. That wouldn’t have happened in the 60’s I’m sure. His hit also shows a growing trend for songs to go viral on You Tube before becoming a commercial hit. Trends such as the prevalence of autotune, grime, dubstep influence are all displayed by todays chart. The interest in shows like X-Factor (which like it or not has massively affected mainstream TV culture and pop music) is clearly displayed by the charts. These shows or music may not be to your taste but they resonate with a huge number of people in this country and therefore have some relevance to modern popular culture.

Re: £ on talentless boy bands. : Well I'm sure The Osmonds, Jackson 5, The Monkees, New Kids On The Block, Take That and Westlife were all called talentless boybands at some point. There have always been boy bands in pop. Are they ‘talentless’? Well they can all sing and dance – that’s some sort of talent. Just like One Direction (one of the biggest selling UK acts in the US right now). The music industry is like any other industry, it’s going to invest its money where there is money to be made, and ‘untalented’ boy bands are often a good bet.

Final thing re; your frustrations that the music you love doesn’t necessarily get found by the mass market. Of course in my ideal world the charts would be full of the stuff I feature on my blog, but I’m realistic enough to know that it won’t. Which is why when an artist I do like (and have written about) on the blog does get in the charts, I believe its worth celebrating. That's why you'll see me tweeting about it sometimes.

Right can someone sort it for me to have Alice Jemima in the Top 10 by this time next year ? Thanks.

Thanks for the comment always appreciated.

scryst said...

Seems to me that everyone in this discussion agrees that the charts have a lot of stuff that is poor in them at the moment, but I tend to agree with Robin that just because the quality is poor doesn't mean they aren't relevant in a wider sense. I think Mike is just talking from his own perspective rather than a broader scale.

Anonymous said...

Some very interesting points here. Though in typical childish manner, I guffawed at the crocodile and banana metaphor.

Andy Von Pip said...

The Charts, a wonderful marketing tool to separate the teenager from their pocket money. Surely only relevant to bean counters and 12 year olds? That's their only point and thus they are the product of predatory capitalism and by definition generally full of soulless big label factory farmed shite.

Jordan tops the "literary" charts do we say her oeuvre is utterly shite and is as hollow and empty as David Cameron's ball sack because a/ It actually is utterly shite or do you excuse this nonsense with b/ It's just taste...

I mean sometimes you just have to say shite is shite is shite. Ah but what is shite I hear you say, on persons shite is another persons caviare.. Balls! Viva La revolution comrades people with bad taste will be locked up and forced to listen to Robbie Williams on rotation until they BEG for something else Hehehehe.

I half mean most of this, or do I ?

Ryan said...

The UK top 40 is just another form of the audience - media engine. Heavy media presence generates high audience reach which in turn generates sales and so on and so forth. Just business and some say why shouldn't it be. Major labels are completely reliant on top radio shows such as Radio 1 just pedal pop and in return get you to spend money on records or merchandise ect.

Although we are all aware of the decline of the recorded music industry and the radio, due to the internet and music services and outlets such as YouTube and Spotify. The top 40 is becoming more and more obsolete.