Sometimes I manage to get my unstoppable, disproportionate rage at the world and all its absurdity under control for awhile. At these times, I allow myself back onto the internet, which is of course how the self-perpetuating cycle of apoplexy continues.
The thing that’s most recently made me blow a gasket and resort to the online equivalent of actual violence (which is to say, borderline passive-aggressive facebook updates) is an apparently harmless list of “12 Extremely Disappointing Facts About Popular Music” on Buzzfeed. What the hell am I doing on Buzzfeed? Well, like every news source I now largely access it through the medium of salacious headlines Facebook informs me my friends are reading so as far as I’m concerned, it now carries roughly the same weighting in the likelihood of me bothering to read it as the Guardian. I am the very destruction of a generation.
Of course, no one’s forcing me to read anything but I’m afraid this particular list and the frequency with which people were posting it (apparently without irony) led to ‘Someone Is Wrong On The Internet’ syndrome and so it is without further ado that I need to explain the ‘facts’ in the most civil way I can still manage.
Younger readers may be surprised to know that there was a thing called the 20th Century just a short while ago. During this time, music really became a thing. It had been a thing before- people played it (live and acoustic!) and everyone knew about it but man, Western manufacture and distribution of things that eliminated all that fuss really took off. To be totally traditionalist about it this was really when music died* -anyone could listen to it whenever now, so long as they had a gramaphone and some recordings. Totally cheapened the experience- they’d be selling it in shops for young people next.The (obviously, deeply regrettable) progression to recorded sound aside, people in general thought this was a good thing. Humans like music and they like being able to listen to it, especially with other people. It’s a great talking or indeed dancing point. People started buying it, sharing it with their friends and ultimately, killing it. Real music had already died, as detailed in the above paragraph but somehow each record play reanimated it and slaughtered it again. Thousands of screaming girls chased Elvis and society was saddened at the horrors that this once beautiful thing had wrought.
Of course, at around the same time as all this was going on, some other people claimed that real music had finally been invented and thank god everything that had gone before was being knocked into a hat. The debate, it seemed, as to whether music’s corpse should be left the fuck alone was going to rage. In fact, some people claimed that Elvis was evidence that music was alive and well and had maybe just not been returning people’s calls because they were fuckwits. The rumors of music’s death would be greatly exaggerated at bi-weekly intervals for the next sixty years it seemed, with each progressive announcement solemnly bemoaning that true music had died and of course you would see some weak after-images of what you might mistake for music (if you were extremely untrained) but they could only ever be ghostly effects of what had once been so great.
Plunging further into the Narnian onion skin of music’s shroud, we would reach the 1960s; Jimi Hendrix, as an artist and producer, pioneered studio techniques that progressed music publication beyond the raw, live sound and into something looped and amplified through studio production and electronic interference. This would later become autotune, something that almost everyone is agreed was the long overdue death knell for whatever remained of popular culture. After this time there was nothing left to do but mop up the sorry, gory remains and sit quietly until we all died.
In light of all that doom, it seems a waste to expend any effort at all writing a list of the most disappointing facts music could offer but let us not forget that it is sometimes possible that “facts” are, well, wrong. As Ben Goldacre has spent years pointing out, even “hard” numerical facts are sometimes merely statistical manipulation and incorrect correlation dressed up in an Excel spreadsheet. Maybe, just maybe, music isn’t dead. Dare to believe!
According to that list, Jimi Hendrix (creator, let us not forget, of autotune) has been outsold by Creed (stalwart creators of perfectly fine xtian rock) over the years. Aside from the fact that every single CD sale of any of Jimi Hendrix’s records has only gone to line the pocket of whoever owns the copyright to his songs after his death, it seems somewhat disingenuous to attempt to compare the sales figures of a band who started making music at a time when most households owned multiple radios to a man who started making music at a time when many households did not own a fridge.
I don’t know about you but I suspect that 1993, when Creed’s first record was released, was a year when it was easier to distribute and listen to records than 1963, when Jimi Hendrix’s first record was released. I don’t want to blow anyone’s mind too much but it is just possible that in the 18 years that Creed have been releasing albums, there have been some small and barely noticeable increases in the ease with which music can be distributed.Let me explain. In 1963, in order to buy a record you went to a store and paid what was more than a week’s wages for a lot of the population for a huge vinyl disc. You then took this home and you put it in the enormous record player you owned. Then you listened to it. Sometimes friends would come round to listen to it. Admitedly, I’m gathering this from hearsay since I wouldn’t be born for another two decades but I think I’m roughly on the right tracks.
In 2010, when Creed released their last album, you pay 79p for a single from something that sits on your desk or you carry around in your pocket. 79p amounts to a fraction of an hour’s wage on even the lowest legal pay in many of the countries where these records are available. Most people listen to the record on their portable device, which although a luxury item often costs less than a week’s pay to fund every month. Creed have also been active for a full 11 years longer than Hendrix’s living career, an anomaly in the “comparison” big enough to merit its “findings” being discarded.
Of course, that’s not the point of the thing. I’m supposed to be dismayed that people “like Creed more than Hendrix” but even supposing the net number of records sold (and I don’t know what this is- for all I know the article could be wrong about that, too) is in any way a decent metric of how much people like anything** then what does it say that more people like Creed than Hendrix? Nothing! Or at least, only that fact. It doesn’t change any sort of equally nebulous metric of goodness between the two or indeed, make them mutually exclusive.
Which brings me to the second comparison. Rihanna, famous for bringing the word ‘oath’ back to the pop scene in a major way, has had more number one singles than Depeche Mode, Led Zeppellin or REM. Aside from the fact that the number of bands and artists who have had 0 number one US singles vastly outweighs the number which have had ten US number ones to an utterly laughable degree (you could replace the three bands with Scooter, Rachel Stevens and Stromae and it would still be totally true) there is a structural problem here in the sense that one of the many reasons that Rihanna has had ten US number one hits and, to pick one, Led Zeppelin have had none might be because
(Westwood bomb dropping noise)
Rihanna is actually trying to get them.
That’s not a judgement on the bands, it’s just that I don’t think Led Zeppelin ever went on the Old Grey Whistle Test and bellowed ‘HELLO GUYS, BUY OUR NEW SINGLE!’ Rihanna does, it’s how she works; the industries in which they exist are while nominally the same, totally different- for Rihanna, anything less than a number one single is failure. For Led Zeppelin, that didn’t matter so they didn’t do it. Which brings everything rather neatly around to what the fuck they have to do with each other in the first place and consequently the fact that Tik Tok by Ke$ha has outsold any single Beatles song.There was a point about seven years ago where I theorised that everyone who wrote about music had contracted Woganitis. If Terry Wogan didn’t like it, if it was too new and disturbing, then it couldn’t be any good at all. Of course, to single out Wogan (who still plays plenty of new music on his Radio 2 show) was unfair and innaccurate as the main culprits for this are people who look you dead in the eye and tell you that no band could ever be as important as [insert name here] as though they are revealing the profundities of the universe. It is ok to think this but do realise it is the equivalent of announcing your commitment to creationism to Richard Dawkins (or visa versa) and then saying “you know I just wish people would APPRECIATE GOOD THINGS.”
Another thing flagged up here is the notion that pop music is lazy shit that no one actually likes but is just sheepled into liking. Supposedly, the lowcultural machine provides us with masses of said shit and people just like it because it’s there and they don’t know any better.
This has never been true- there are all kinds of things that are “just there” and not the biggest thing in the country and/or world. Even disregarding the fact that the most popular radio stations, when there are plenty of others available, are a healthy indicator of choice there’s now the beauty of Spotify. Endless, infinite choice- a lot more of some things than others, though, which by the logic of the ‘pop is shit consumed by mindless individuals because it’s there’ brigade would mean that the entire internet-equipped population would be listening to gregorian panpipes in their few spare hours between indie for baby compilations. Does everyone do that? No they fucking don’t. You know why? Because they want to listen to some fucking Rihanna.
On and on the list goes; the same number of copies of Low by Flo Rida have been sold as of Hey Jude. Well, that’s because Low is about ladies wearing far too many clothes (apple bottom jeans, boots with fur, baggy sweat pants, Reeboks with the straps) and Hey Jude is a massive outro. In any case, that’s only talking about singles sales, it’s not even a tiny bit representative of how many endless trillions of copies of Hey Jude are in circulation. You can’t move for compilations with it on and when physical copies both took up space and were impossible to integrate with a later album purchase (as they are with iTunes’ ‘Complete my album’ extreme drunken internet usage danger button) then there was every incentive to wait for the LP. When Hey Jude was released (indeed, when Angels by Robbie Williams was released- remember these are recent developments) singles that sold for too long were recalled and remaindered- bands had other songs to release. Now songs are held as potential chart-eligible purchases in perpetuity so if I go and buy Tik Tok now, it would count towards the total purchases as much as if I bought it on the day of release. Selling in excess of 8 million copies is still an enormous achievement but the rules have fundamentally changed.
Similarly, it’s loopy to say The Black Eyed Peas’ I Gotta Feeling sold more copies than any song by Elvis or Simon and Garfunkel (I don’t know if it sold more than, say, You Can Call Me Al) which even if that mattered is another false comparison of distribution methods. Celine Dion and Shania Twain’s records sold more than any Bruce Springsteen, Nirvana or Queen; well, yes. You know what the biggest selling independent record of all time is? It used to be Smash by The Offspring, I’m absolutely certain it’s now 21 by Adele. When Epitaph released Smash, they had to physically drive the stock around to persuade people to buy 13 million copies. When XL released 21 they put it on iTunes- all the care and production and copyrighting had to be done just the same and physical copies of the album obviously available but vast numbers of records could be sold without anyone getting into a van at all. Magic!
What’s that got to do with anything? Well, Celine and Shania hit a convenient point, too- economic growth meant a lot of people had a new CD player and there was a CD out there to buy, in turn large sales meant that that CD could be priced cheaper than something painstakingly distributed by an independent operation or sold at a previous time. Queen and Springsteen’s hits came at a time when record sales weren’t the same scale, no matter how mindbogglingly huge a band was; Nirvana’s at a time when home taping had grabbed the butcher’s knife for another go at music’s Rasputinian execution. There’s a lot to be said, record sales-wise, for appealling to people who don’t have to borrow the money for your album off their mum and not calling your fans shit.
And Katy Perry doesn’t hold the same record as Michael Jackson with regards to the most charting singles released off a single album, as she holds the female one and he the male. Pedantry? Well, yes- to get to her record, Perry could have sold hundreds of thousands fewer records, after all, you only need to chart. In any case, who cares? If enough people are interested in something that they’ll continue to buy singles from an album two years after its release then this sounds like exactly the sort of thing that calls for an article announcing ‘sound the massive klaxon, I might not have any urge whatsoever to go out and buy this myself but perhaps the entire music industry isn’t in total crisis after all.’ Ditto Barbara Streisand- if someone can sell 140 million albums then thank god for that- if you thought Pearl Jam should have done it instead then they have only themselves to blame.
More people bought Billie Ray Cyrus’ album than Bob Marley’s, which flags up something more sinister than a liking for mullets; people are, well documentedly, racist. Or at least, institutions are and definitely were 20 years ago- the amount of distribution Bob Marley’s LPs got during his lifetime is surely rather more limited than that that Billy Ray’s have; equally, Billy Ray had a major incentive to sell records and make commercial appearances in a way that Bob Marley never did; maybe his exclusive, in-depth interview with People has just passed me by but I suspect it never happened. Stoners now just torrent records to grow their white dreadlocks to.
The cast of Glee have had more songs chart than the Beatles. Well maybe The Beatles should have thought through their strategy more and released three to four songs a week! Wait, that’s not at all what the Beatles should or would or indeed, could have done. Fact is the charts are different now and Glee is a TV show that thrives on featuring multiple songs every episode, whereas the Beatles were a band that made songs. That difference isn’t something you can apply some kind of value judgement to, it’s just something that is, the same way the charts are radically different now. Twenty years ago Glee would’ve released exclusive soundtrack CDs free with the VHS box set of a season, with maybe one single at Christmas if it was really enormous. Fifty years ago, when the Beatles were making a lot of their music, it would’ve been on a stage and a soundtrack would’ve been released after a successful decade.
Finally, though, the list drops its real bomb: JUSTIN BIEBER EXISTS.
That’s right, the existence of a short seventeen year old boy is a musical disappointment so intimidatingly terrifying that someone concerned for the welfare of insecure artists such as Paul McCartney and Brian May must immediately seek to right this wrong. Every major artist is shitting themself that their hardcore fanbase of rockist music writers is going to jump ship if they don’t get their own, censored Ludacris guest verse and a Christmas album out STAT. People buying music, rather than being something that generally enriches music and keeps money in the industry, is an endless struggle against the existence of seventeen year old boys.
Coming up next week: I liveblog the aneurysm I have reading the BBC’s ‘Sound of 2012′ list.
*Where ‘traditionalist’ is ‘satirical,’ just in case anyone has fallen asleep at the back.
**Do you only buy records you truly love? I cannot believe this is true of anyone who has been drunk in charge of an iTunes account or hit a record store bargain bin.