Whither charts?

For a long time, the Top 40 Singles Chart on Radio 1 has been the metric of what’s hot and what’s not in the world of music. Sure, there are other pretenders to the crown, but they aren’t generally considered definitive. But all these charts are hideously biased because record sales are no real measure of the true popularity of a track – it simply reflects the playlists of the radio stations, and the marketing muscle of the music industry.

So, enter last.fm, and audioscrobbler, which are tracking not what people buy, but what people actually listen to. This is powerful stuff – a true measure of the popularity of a track, rather than of the commercial potential. It’s no secret that the audioscrobbler clients register what country they are in, so suddenly we have a way to do global and local popularity charts with ease. (Caveat: I don’t know what, if any, measures the audioscrobbler guys take to prevent spoofing … in theory hacking a client has to be easier than going to ten different music stores in each town and buying up all copies of a single.)

Now, let’s think about where things are going with portable music players like the iPod. I hope it won’t be so very long before they all have built in networking – either because they have taken on a mobile phone dimension, or because they ship with wifi as standard. Suddenly, the music you play on your PC and the music you listen to on the move can be charted. How long before hard disk-based music players replace CD players in the lounge or bedroom? Hook ‘em up to the network and scrobble them, too.

If P2P and iTMS weren’t the nails in the coffin of the traditional music industry, this surely will be. Suddenly the word on the street and the recommendation of friends will carry more power than any amount of advertising dollars, and the truly successful musicians may be the ones that are best at viral marketing campaigns – or just maybe, the ones with the best music.

Incidentally, The Sad Song by Fredo Viola, is both a lovely piece of music and a truly fantastic video (via Gizmodo).

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4 Responses to Whither charts?

  1. Alex Hudson says:

    I seriously hope that doesn’t happen. The charts aren’t “What is the most popular music at the moment?”. It’s “What is the most popular new music at the moment?”. You can argue about how to answer that question, but record sales are a reasonable metric. Playlists and advertising pounds are probably less influential than you might imagine – witniss Gary Jules’s Christmas #1 which had very little marketing money spent on it. It’s quite easy to say “Oh, the record companies make things popular by spending money on it” – in reality, they only really push hard the stuff they know would sell. You can lead a horse to water, you can’t make it drink (e.g., the piss-poor 20k-odd sales of the current #1).

    People also increasingly believe the album chart is becoming more ‘credible’; I think this is also wrong. The singles market is changing hugely, and stuff which makes a good single doesn’t necessarily imply the album is much good (people tend to like good quality across an album – so, while bands like Placebo keep putting out amazing singles backed up with shockingly awful albums, the albums that do well often yield quite a few hits – Moby, RHCP, Coldplay, etc.). And, vice-versa, “decent” (by sales) albums don’t say much about the quality of songs – albums like Morrissey’s, which appeal to the most base instincts of middle-aged men, having nothing which stands out. I guess it’s the difference between a mean and a peak.

    I know people like to think this whole “make playlists really accessible, recommend tracks, share music” thing will broaden people’s horizons. I don’t believe it. People need expert help to find good music. I know a lot of people think they have great taste in music, but of course the majority don’t. Half of all people have worse taste in music than the average person! It’s just that people don’t like to feel they’re being influenced – it’s the same with advertising; people profess to not like it, and think everyone else in the world is influenced by it and lives their life as a sheep. You don’t have to think about things for long to realise that’s utter nonsense ;)

    If we have a chart based on “What is most popular right now?” that immediately biases it hugely in favour of the big bands. The number of salesmen who rove around in their Mondeos listening to “classic rock” (or, Virgin Radio, XFM, Magic, or any number of the other middle of the road stations) is huge, and frankly their taste is awful. Music, like fashion, has fads and trends, but ultimately the best music is that which has just come out – other stuff proves to be “good” over time, but the chart is about the zeitgeist of the industry.

  2. Ugo Cei says:

    How did you get that iScrobbler plugin to work in iTunes (assuming you do use iTunes?) It inevitably fails to connect to the server!

  3. Hi Ugo,

    It ‘just worked’ for me … took a while to work out that you need to quit iTunes, start iScrobbler, and then start iTunes. (And don’t forget to set username / password in prefs.)

    There’s been quite a few times recently when the audioscrobbler website has been down, so this may be the cause of your problems? I think they are suffering from their own success …

  4. Ugo Cei says:

    Sigh. I always get a “404 Not Found” as a result from the server. I even upgraded to version 0.7.1 of iScrobbler and now all I get is a 503 error code :-(