Top Of The Pops is a brand. Marketing says so, the BBC say so. Question is, how important a brand is it? Vacuum cleaners would exist without Hoover and (these days) Dyson, but the existence of iconic brands within a marketplace helps raise the profile of that very product. But what if the brand is not actually representative of the product? What is Top Of The Pops trying to sell?
A naïve, and wrong, answer may well be pop records. The programme Top Of The Pops has not, for the last twenty years really, been much in the way of a showcase for the tunes featured on it. Let’s use analogy two. The Champions League Trophy is the aim of all the teams who are in the Champions League. They all want it. But they want the ideal over the actual silverware. The shape of the cup is not important, and the cup itself is not what is making these teams get better. If the real goal of pop music is to sell records (the business side), then the real goal of football teams is also to make money on the gate. Being on Top Of The Pops, and winning the Champions League helps, but has got to be seen as a subsidiary goal.
This thinking is important to the discussion on the continued existence of Top Of The Pops as, much like the Champions League, it is owned and has a purpose in itself by someone else. UEFA own the Champions League Trophy, and run the games partially so they too can make a profit. But more importantly, as a governing body, they believe it is important to promote “football”. Primarily (talking UEFA here) so that their members can make money, and hence UEFA makes money. But there is also a suggestion of a greater aim, the promotion of football on all levels helps fitness, community, a sense of greater understanding, the cause of entertainment. These masters are often in conflict, (and money will always win) but they exist to the end of putting football on a larger scale. Making it more important than just a kick around.
So back to Top Of The Pops. Is this a good analogy? Is the football / pop music crossover strong beyond Diamond Lights and football getting its return ticket home every two years? As a brand yes: because Top Of The Pops may not be the Champions League of Pop: it may have become more the Beezer Homes League, but pop needs charts. And charts, like league tables, need run downs. In all the talk of the BBC axing Grandstand they were always very clear that they were not axing Final Score. And if Final Score, news about the football chart movements of the day, deserves to exist as a public service then why not Top Of The Pops?
None of this really pulls out the importance of Top Of The Pops as a brand. The BBC have played so much with what might be seen to be the usual trappings of branding (logos, timeslots, presenters, format) that one might think that the brand is completely broken (THAT’S WHAT THEY WANT YOU TO THINK). But in the UK, and increasingly around the world, this quaint four letter phrase means “The Pop Charts”. And it also means that the pop charts are important. In the stratification of music genres there is a feeling that people don’t like a bit of everything. Just as Radio Two are playing Kylie, the BBC invent 6 Music – an AOR station – which won’t. The BBC have four pop music stations, and is not sure what to do with Radio 1: because none of these stations want to play teen-pop (not an important RAJAR demographic). So to be distinctive in a world of commercial stations the BBC states a commitment to live music, to real music, to all sorts of barrier creating words which then left Top Of The Pops in the cold.
Sorry BBC, you made a huge mistake. You can diversify as much as you like, as long as there is a place where everything connects. The 65-85 demographic may not get what a 1Xtra is, but they know when the big 1Xtra tune turns up on Top Of The Pops that it is pop music and therefore important. Why is it important? Because the BBC has put it on TV for adults. Now the only music the BBC puts of TV for adults has the decrepit stink of Jools Holland on it.
All this comes back to a statement I made when the BBC axed TOTP. In multi-channel TV, audience figures are not as important to the BBC than its commercial competitors. What is important is recognition. And as a TV brand in Britain, Top Of The Pops is iconic because everyone knows what it does. And for the BBC that is important even if no-one likes what it does. Because without it, the BBC are saying they have no business being involved in pop, that there is not an audience for pop and therefore they will not show pop music because it is NO LONGER IMPORTANT.
Which kind of begs the question: why are you running four pop music stations?
Top Of The Pops is an important brand for the music industry: because it allows the lie that the goals in the biz are not just fiduciary.
Top Of The Pops is an important brand for the BBC because everyone knows what it does, it is part of the public service remit and therefore legitimises the BBC’s very involvement in pop music.
Top Of The Pops is an important brand for Pop Music, because it is so intertwined with the history of pop.
Top Of The Pops is an important brand for television, because for forty years it illustrated a way of displaying the arts on television in a prime time slot (not always well, but in a way that people knew how to use).
And up until this year Top Of The Pops was important because it was – and in my opinion – still is a brand that is impossible to break. When I now see the chart run down, on the BBC website on a Monday morning, I can construct my own Top Of The Pops in my head. It is the way I read the run down. So it lives on in me and every old pop fan. And it will be back – if there is one truism with brands, you can’t keep a good one down. And Top Of The Pops is one of the best.