Both Coldplay and the Teletubbies came out with their respective albums Music of the Spheres and Ready, Set, Go on October 15. At the time of writing, both are vying for the number one position in the charts. But this leaves us the question, who pays attention to the charts anymore? It is certain that in the age of music streaming, we are inundated with a plethora of new ways to measure a new music release, but which of them is a better reflection of the success of the work?
Gone are the days when one had to physically go to a store in order to purchase the latest Johnny Cash or Beatles album. Gone are the days of buying individual albums and songs on iTunes, and of visiting shady illegal websites to download content. Now, a free Spotify account (unless you want a break from the ads) can get you virtually all the music and podcasts one could ever want. It is no longer necessary to choose between which release you want to buy. Artists no longer have to fret about which music you will commit too. This is because the new response can now be “all of the above”. It could be said that the idea of the attention economy fails to fully take this into account. We can go to our favorite streaming service, look up whatever we want to listen to, and add that to playlists. There is no longer the antiquated notion “either/or” in our music listening habits. That is to say, we no longer have to be preoccupied over what to listen to next. The opportunity cost of making a choice has been drastically reduced in that the number two choice now has only been relegated to being played a couple of minutes later. You do not have to buy every song, and you do not have to take out the CD or vinyl just to switch artists. The entire process has been streamlined.
Returning to the Coldplay v. Teletubbies rumble, to an extent, it does not particularly matter which one ends up with the number one position in the charts. Coldplay listeners will listen to the new Music of the Spheres when it is released, and the kiddos will turn on Ready, Set, Go when the time comes. Music fans tend to sort themselves out into the various spaces available on their preferred platform. The measure that does seem to matter more is the number of plays a song gets. Listeners can easily see what the most popular songs are, and then decide between jamming out to the hits, or grooving to something a little more off the beaten path. But the choice is ultimately in their hands. And the collective choices of many sets of those hands have the power to make or break an artist in the songs they choose.
But why is it that the number of plays is the most important determiner of the song? First we must ask ourselves, what is the most important part about the artist’s music? What is the main end that any quality song should arrive at? There could be any number of answers; but one would be the enjoyment that it instills in the listeners, the joy and love that it spreads across its fanbase. The number one Beatles song on Spotify, “Here Comes the Sun,” has been enjoyed over 714 million times. “Something Just Like This” by Coldplay has touched the hearts of listeners more than 1.6 billion times.
To add insult to injury, charts can often be less accurate at predicting success than they are often given credit for. There have, of course, been instances where an artist manages to obtain a high position in the chart despite not really racking up the predicted number of sales. Conversely, there are the ones that draw huge crowds to their concerts without getting that coveted position in the charts. But what does this all mean? Put simply, let the people listen to what they want; they know what they’re doing.
We are witnessing a realignment of our institutions, and the music industry is part of that. It has been democratized, along with other facets of our society. This is not only true for the musicians, who can easily make their work available to the world, but for the listeners as well, who can easily turn on any song whenever they want with the press of a button, or the subtle movement of a finger.