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Charts struggle to stay relevant in the modern music world

ByHarry Vavasour

Nov 23, 2018

For decades, shows such as The Official Chart and Top of the Pops were staples of the UK music lover’s diet, with fans eagerly awaiting the Sunday countdown to see whether their favourite band would claim the all-important number one slot. To avoid the ignominy of not knowing that week’s leading singles one had to religiously tune in every week for the big reveal of the pecking order, meaning that people shaped their lives around the shows, with many crowding round radios and televisions to hear the latest releases or see their heroes perform live.

Not only were such shows important to the fans, but they also meant something to the artists, who were able to track the number of sales that each record was making and judge their success on where they ranked among their peers. Yet, in recent years, such shows have seen a decline in their popularity, with Top of the Pops being discontinued in 2006, while The Official Chart has been shifted to a Friday afternoon slot, with its content being squeezed from three hours at its peak to 105 minutes. It seems that in a world of smartphones, the nation doesn’t have time to tune in for so long to discover news that they will be able to find on Google later.

The charts have also undeniably been devalued by shows such as The X Factor, which for a while turned Simon Cowell into a real-life Father Christmas who gifted the winner the highly-prized Christmas number one year after year. The backlash this domination created among music lovers led to the lobbying of a peoples’ champion, with ‘Killing in the Name’ by Rage Against The Machine surging to the top of the Christmas charts ahead of Joe McElderry in 2009, despite being released 17 years earlier. While this campaign was seen as a successful retaliation against Cowell’s money cow, it also devalued one of music’s greatest accolades by showing how the power of social media could be used to hijack the charts.

In addition, the arrival of digital downloads and streaming services has meant the charts have lost their simplicity of the most bought track securing that week’s number one. With 150 streams on YouTube or Spotify being equal to one physical purchase it suggests that some music listeners are more important than others, making the system seem contrived to the extent that weighing the success of a single cannot be commodified by a chart. The rise of services such as Spotify and Apple Music also means that the success of an album is becoming less indicative of a popularity among the public, but more a sign of being promoted by these companies’ playlists and radio features, whose groups of songs are algorithmically similar. These algorithms, instead of rewarding originality, benefit those artists that create songs similar to other popular musicians’ hits as they link them together and play them more often. As a result, the popular music scene is becoming painstakingly repetitive without invention to challenge the norms, while listeners become more passive, listening to what is supplied to them rather than searching out new sounds. These sites have also allowed listeners to brainlessly play artists’ entire albums on repeat, meaning that there have been occasions when one artist has dominated the chart, most clearly last March when Ed Sheeran held nine of the Top 10.

Such monopolisation is unhealthy for a scene that thrives on variety and will lose interest if the same voices fill it endlessly. The charts are trying to fight back against these innovations, altering their criteria in the wake of Sheeran’s success to increase the number of streams needed to comprise a purchase and limiting an artist to three tracks in each chart list. Yet, unless they find a way to counteract the effect of streaming services, they risk slipping even further into obscurity and could be lost forever.

Image: badgreeb records via flickr

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