A Stillness Falls…

Except for December each year, when A Fairytale of New York makes its annual pilgrimage, I pay virtually no attention to the British Pop Charts. It is many long years, indeed decades, since the music was of any genuine interest to me (which is as it should be), and except for December, it’s exceedingly rare if there be one track on the top 100 with which I’m even passing familiar.

I like it that way.

But old habits die hard, especially ones that you’ve been nurturing since 1970, and I still check the chart every week, eve though it is a list of titles and artists that are practically meaningless to me. Admittedly, since they brought the date forward to Friday evening, as opposed to Sunday, I’m late in ‘catching up’ more often than not. I’ve only just checked this week’s chart, and it makes for some interesting reading.

Number 1 for a third week is Mike Pozner and ‘I took a pill in Ibiza’. I realise that I could, at any moment, go on YouTube and access this, and any other song I chose, but I have no intention of doing so. The mere title suggests all manner of things horrible to my ear, and I’m not concerned to learn what diference there may be to my prejudices.

What causes me to write is something other. Pozner’s been at no. 1 for thtree weeks, and before that one Lukas Graham was top for five weeks. In fact, we’re now in April, and there have only been five no. 1s all year thus far. There were only twenty-three in the whole of 2015, as opposed to thirty-seven in 2014, thirty-five in 2012 and thirty-five again in 2010.

Alright, that proves nothing of itself, given that the alternating years each produced less than thirty, but there’s more evidence to consider. For a second successive weeks, there are no new entries directly into the top 40. In fact, the highest new track is at 61, and the next at 84. There are five further entries between 91 and 100, but three of these are re-entries.

And taking the top 40 in isolation, there are only two ‘new entries’, and the lower of these, at 38, is a re-entry. Only Meghan Trainor, at no 30, is actually new to the top 40.

It gets worse: there are joint highest climbers, at 26 and 11, both of which have only risen seven places, and the fastest faller is at 36, down 9. Practically the whole top 40 has changed places since last week by three places or less.

Now, I may not be interested in the contents of the chart, but I remain fascinated by its mechanics. In 1970, when I first grew interested, the charts – then a top 30, that expanded to a 50 – were in a static phase: no new entries directly into the top 20, long-running no 1s (four consecutive no 1s took up twenty weeks in the summer/autumn, and one of those only lasted one week).

But even those staid days were volatile compared to what I’m seeing here. And the comments under the Chart on its official website make it plain that the natives are growing restless.

There is seemingly a simple answer: the inclusion of streaming in creating the charts. One commentator alleges that record companies are exploiting a new form of manipulation, paying people in call centres to stream certain songs 24 hours, and that this will soon be exposed publicly. Most people are blaming the increasingly unchanging charts on the inclusion of streaming, and calling for a return to sales only.

According to one source, The Pet Shop Boys’ latest single, ‘The Pop Kids’, a self-referential song I’ve actually heard, when I can’t be arsed to switch off Radio 2 after Sounds of the Sixties and run on into Graham Norton’s Show, is at no 2 in the Physical Chart and in the mid-90s on the Sales Chart (which I assume is the one that adds in the downloads) but is yet to appear in the top 100.

If this is correct, it’s hardly surprising. The moment chart music was unhitched from purely physical formats, the Music Industry lost control. People were no longer restricted to only what was printed. Deleted singles ceased to have any meaning. To buy a physical copy of my beloved ‘Something in the Air’ in a record shop. I have to go hunting in second hand shops and stalls. But I can download it any time I want, as often as I want.

Enough of us, responding to, say, its use in a popular TV drama, can send it back into the Charts without any record company being able to stop us.

But the smothering of new music, even if it isn’t what I want to hear, in this fashion isn’t good for music. Nor was the breaking down of the single, when an enthusiastic fan base can download an entire album’s track-listing into the Chart, at once, by concerted purchase of individual tracks.

I shall watch developments with interest. Pop doesn’t do standing still very well. It’s something about the genes, as opposed to the jeans.

Sunday night mus(ic)ings

About three to four weeks ago, the rules governing the compilation of the official UK Top 40 were again amended to reflect the changing ways in which music is consumed. Livestreaming, through Spotify and the other legal streaming services, started to be counted, in addition to all the legal downloads and increasingly rare physical formats.

It’s not just years, but decades, since I last listened to Radio 1, last interested myself in contemporary pop music. Nevertheless, at some point after 7.00pm on a Sunday night, I log on to the Official Charts Company website and check out the new Top 100. Even though, except during December, when the Christmas classics re-populate the public consciousness and I get to measure the progress of A Fairytale of New York yet again, the vast majority of weeks the chart consists of 100 records I’ve never heard and never will.

(As it happens, this week’s chart only features 99: the early-Seventies top 30 hit, ‘Hooked on a Feeling’ by Blue Swede, is a re-entry at no 90. It’s obviously featuring on something at the moment, a commercial, maybe. But it’s an oasis of recognition in a desert of stupefaction for me).

Given my ignorance of and indifference to what constitutes the music scene of 2014, checking out the Chart each week is a waste of time, a habit that logic says I should break. But logic sometimes is an inadequate argument when it comes to a practice I’ve been following since discovering pop in 1970, especially given that for over fifteen years I religiously wrote down each week’s chart, adding to folder after folder the minutiae of pop’s currency.

New entries, fastest climbers, singles dropping out, sometimes precipitately, as support for a single that had obeyed the traditional slow-climb, slow-decline curve would precipitately vanish. Behind each such movement lay a sociological wonderland I could only wonder at: what changes in mind of the Great British record-buying public lay behind the seven week yo-yo progress of Johnny Cash’s ‘What is Truth?”, four times a new/re-entry, four times dropping straight back out of the Top 30.

Why, when Eddie Holman’s re-issued ‘(Hey There) Lonely Girl’ had started to drop from its peak at no 3, did it then suddenly reappear in the Top 10, from 13 back up to 7, only to drop completely out of the Top 30 the following week?

Sometimes there was an explanation even I could understand: after years of declining to supply their sales figures to theoretical rivals, Woolworth’s started contributing returns to the chart on 1 January 1974: the preponderance of dull, drab, middle of the road hits for the next six months were clearly a consequence.

I’ve already mentioned that, in my early years as a chart aficionado, it was standard practice for records to enter low, climb to a peak over the next five to seven weeks, and start to drop away with a similar steadiness until they were gone after a chart-life of ten to thirteen weeks. Those records that defied this pattern were thrilling exceptions: Mungo Jerry’s ‘In the Summertime’ crashing in from nowhere at 13, and jumping straight to no. 1 for the next seven weeks, five of them holding off Free’s ‘Alright Now’ at no. 2.

By the time I stopped listening to the radio, in the late Eighties/early Nineties, it had all changed. For many years, the idea of a record hitting low and climbing was utterly ridiculous. Record company promotions, pre-release airplay, scheduled release dates all contributed to a world in which the no. 1 was always a new entry – in the year 2000, counting the last no. 1 of 1999 holding over for the first week of the year, there were 43 no 1s – and indeed almost every single reached its highest position in its first week of release.

The charts would consist of multiple new entries – one week, almost half the entire top 40 was new entries – clustered high, and records sliding down the chart at varying rates of knots.

The advent of downloads as a contributory factor was supposed to restore the balance, re-create in one degree or another, the old era of climbers and fallers. It certainly stabilised the charts to some extent, ending the most extreme example of the here-today, gone-later-this-afternoon culture, but that era of lazily changing charts is gone forever, as dead as Merseybeat and the Tottenham Court Road Sound.

What arouses my interest is the changes that appear to be flowing from this latest bow to technology.

Take today’s top 100. For a start, there’s only four new and one re-entry in the top 40 that Radio 1 still (I assume?) use. Of these, only two are brand new to the top 100, and whilst the no. 1 is a ‘new entry’, it’s actually a record that’s climbed 51 places to the top. That kind of prodigious leap is counter-balanced by an equally precipitous fall, last week’s new entry at 6 tumbling to 31.

But it’s the rest of the Top 40 chart that’s interesting to me. Excluding the six records already mentioned, I find it extremely curious that of the remaining 34 songs, there are two that do not move, and twenty-two that change places by two positions or less. Over fifty percent of the chart consists of a very limited reshuffle of the tracks that were there the previous week.

What’s extremely interesting is that that has been the pattern for each of the weeks since the introduction of streaming. And that was not the case before the change was made.

Now I haven’t made any kind of statistical study of this. I can’t quote figures except on this week’s top 100, the only one accessible to me. And perhaps I wouldn’t have noticed this phenomenon if I had any interest in the music and wasn’t free to look at patterns of change.But it seems, on first impressions, that streaming has flattened out the chart far more than in any era. That we have a handful of rapid movers, against a static background that might shift only slowly, over time. From volcanic volatility to glacial stasis.

But I’ll be following this development with avid interest. As might the record industry if my suspicions are in any way correct.