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.