18
Jul 13

Survival Of The Hittest

FT30 comments • 1,096 views

Now That’s What I Call Music! 85 (Not A Review)

It’s no secret that Popular, my main feature for this website, and a project that’s now run through almost 10 years of my life, spent much of last year beached – only 6 entries in 6 months. I never imagined I’d given it up, but I turned over possibilities as to why my enthusiasm had so clearly dimmed. More responsibilities? Sputtering energy? Reading too many comics? Maybe, maybe, but there was another factor too. Popular is a journey of indefinite length, but one where I can always see the future mapped out, and in 2011 and 2012 that map showed a miserable prospect. Clouds of grey hits in a chart I hardly paid attention to. Was this it? Had I stopped caring about pop? Bound to happen one day, of course – and it doesn’t need me as a listener. But if I had stopped caring, why care to write about it?

But then something happened. The pop songs I noticed seemed to be the ones a lot of other people noticed, but then – to my surprise – they were also the ones a lot of other people bought. Even better, songs people bought that I hadn’t yet heard turned out to be crackers too. 2013 has been a springtime for the Top 40, with a remarkable sequence of good Number Ones, some the kind of records I can’t wait to write about, others singles I know I’ll struggle to capture – but I’ll enjoy trying anyhow. Something has changed in my appreciation, though. For the first time I don’t have a mental model for who is buying singles, and how (and with whose money) – overall sales keep twitching up, setting new records each year, so “mostly digital, mostly cheap” feels like a good starting assumption. But how singles get to Number One? I could hardly even guess.

That detachment makes it more exciting waiting for what the charts will fling up next. So far in 2013, they’ve rarely disappointed. And I’m looking forward to this latest Now That’s What I Call Music! installment – Number 85! – as a return to the reason I originally liked the series, an inexpensive way to snap up a bunch of great pop singles. As opposed to… what? Why else would anyone buy one? Now albums are high sellers through the bad times as well as the good: their appeal doesn’t shift depending on my (or anyone’s) subjective take on the temperature of pop. But in one way this is quite strange. Now albums are the cultural equivalent of an alligator or a shark: they are surviving unchanged in an era of rapid evolution.

In particular, Now albums represent something that used to be central to pop, and is now far more marginal: they are among the last of the bundles. Pop used to be absolutely full of what marketers and accountants call bundled content. A week in pop might involve listening to Radio 1, buying the NME, and watching Top Of The Pops on a Thursday. If you were old enough you might go to the pub and put some money in the jukebox. And from 1983 on, you could go to Our Price and spend your wages or your pocket money on a Now album.

Radio 1, the NME, TOTP, the Jukebox, Now – all bundles, all based on the idea that the price of getting to indulge your tastes is that you have to experience other people’s. I doubt the notion of the chart as a Reithian endeavour – an educational space where different ideas of quality and creativity rubbed shoulders – was high in the minds of Radio 1’s founders. But that’s what it was, nonetheless.

Most of those bundles are gone now, or much altered. The NME is a slender magazine relying increasingly on the past; jukeboxes are no longer common; Top Of The Pops is dead. Radio 1 is still a bundle, but a lot more of its emphasis falls on specialist shows than it used to. Only the Now albums remain unchanged – 40 or so tracks across two CDs, the pick of the last 4 months.

The whole direction of web-era culture is anti-bundle: a turn away from the set menu and towards the buffet. Give people the chance to opt out of the stuff they don’t care about and – surprise! – they take it. This applies to humble websites too, of course. If Popular was a print fanzine – 20 write-ups an issue, say, plus a letters page – it would be a bundle: I’d have not much idea which of the write-ups people actually read, and I’d happily assume the answer would be “all of them”. But with social media and Google Analytics and other content management tools, I can see that Oasis and Blur bring in ten times the hits of poor Shaggy, and the imaginary venture capitalists behind Freaky Trigger might well be asking me to ‘pivot’ into reviewing every track on the Shine albums instead*.

So if bundles are ailing, why is the Now series so healthy? Its very fixity helps it, of course: it’s British pop’s equivalent to Wisden, or the CIA Factbook, or Jane’s defense guides – a journal of record. So a certain segment of Now buyers – people for whom being into ‘the charts’ is a very British sort of hobby, like steam trains or model soldiers** – simply pick it up and file it away (or play it once, and grimace). It’s also a very good deal, and a snapshot for those too lazy or disenchanted to keep up with high-selling pop. In a physical format, at least, it’s a solid gift. And, who knows, maybe the format retains a lucky-dip appeal, bucking the unbundling trend. I like bundles, after all – I can’t be alone. Turns out, for the moment, I like pop too.

*I am not going to do this, sorry Carsmile.
**No slight on these people. I’m at least halfway one myself.

Comments

  1. 1
    punctum on 19 Jul 2013 #

    Now 84 was a big disappointment. Too many heavy hitters missing; too much of the “two tracks by one artist from an album I’ve already got thank you very much indeed” syndrome. Now 85 looks set to be a classic though.

    Incidentally, recent browsing through an out-of-town used record store revealed several peak Now volumes on CD selling at ludicrous prices. Now 12 for £29.99? Now 13 for £32.99? Who on earth do they think is going to buy these at those prices? Not me for a start.

  2. 2
    Another Pete on 19 Jul 2013 #

    I think the most noticeable thing about this enjoyable glut of number ones is that it’s the song being sold first and foremost rather than as it has been for the last 5 years ‘the latest track from (insert unrelenting ‘hit’ churning act here) you must buy’. Even the track which according to the midweek sales is a shoe-in for number 1 this Sunday, despite adhering to the 2010s steadfast formula of European EDM producer collaborating with American R&B vocalist, is a welcome inclusion in helping lengthen that run.

  3. 3
    punctum on 19 Jul 2013 #

    The “American R&B vocalist” really makes that record. My score is eight great number ones in a row (this coming Sunday’s included). Was never much for “Watch Us Wreck Eric Sykes” as stated elsewhere.

  4. 4
    Tom on 19 Jul 2013 #

    I like it cos of the European EDM producer personally! – he’s the raviest of the big EDM hitters, I really liked his last #1 too. Not that the vocalist is doing anything wrong, quite the reverse. But yes, happy times.

  5. 5
    Steve Mannion on 19 Jul 2013 #

    DJ mixes may be the ultimate bundle (not that they’re as widely bought – and established series like DJ Kicks have been as solid as anything imo) but still massively popular and for many the main way to discover tracks. Soundcloud and the like allow people to skip through the mixes so easily though and the mix can feel more like an audible record box itself (although you don’t necessarily get a tracklist with it).

    Just noticed no #1 from this decade has stayed there over 4 weeks consecutively (curiously though three songs have done 4 weeks then dropped only to bounce back up for a fifth week, another had two separate 3 week stints – very unusual) so wonder where the next big blustering ballad #1 is coming from as these tend to be the most likely songs to stick it out longer.

  6. 6
    Tom on 19 Jul 2013 #

    The Great Eight (thanks Mike TD) in full, BTW

    Duke Dumont ft AME – “Need U (100%)”
    Rudimental ft Ella Eyre – “Waiting All Night”
    Daft Punk ft Pharrell Williams – “Get Lucky”
    Naughty Boy ft Sam Smith’s Old Brewery Bitter – “La La La”
    Robin Thicke ft TI & Pharrell Williams – “Blurred Lines”
    Icona Pop ft Charli XCX – “I Love It”
    John Newman NOT FEATURING ANYBODY – “Love Me Again”
    Avicii ft Aloe Blacc – “Wake Me Up”*

    *has not got to #1 yet! But will according to the midweeks.

    The record immediately before this was “Let’s Get Ready To Rhumble” by PJ And Duncan, which I’m not wholly counting because it’s a reissue, but I do like it. So perhaps this is the Fine Nine.

  7. 7
    Tom on 19 Jul 2013 #

    (& there have been at least 2 other fantastic number ones this year before that run)

  8. 8
    Alan not logged in on 19 Jul 2013 #

    i liked the first 3 of the year too – though I believe a love of the Bingo Players track is not something widely shared

  9. 9
    Alan not logged in on 19 Jul 2013 #

    nb I am currently listening to Vampire Weekend’d live lounge of Blurred Lines. It’s… not terrible

  10. 10
    TriffidFarm on 19 Jul 2013 #

    Re Now! standing with Wisdon as a journal of record: I am entirely on board – almost too much – with the the completest’s urges, and I can certainly understand the ritual of buying or being given this year’s entry.

    But for the person that places their copy on the shelf unread or unheard, it wasn’t irrational – there was always a satisfaction that your personal access to this song or score was ensured. And now (Now!) the internet is displacing this role so comprehensively that its almost become banal to say so – especially for chart music.

    So why has the archivist tendency not dissipated more?

  11. 11
    Hazel on 19 Jul 2013 #

    #9 this sounds like the worst musical thing :(

    I really like Now albums, partly because when I was buying them off iTunes onto my phone it would, of course, automatically load every track- this was simultaneously great and awful as it meant I heard and liked a bunch of stuff I might not have bothered with otherwise and partly because I took a perverse interest in the really awful novelty songs that there is absolutely no chance I would have listened to otherwise- in the maudling hashed together mess that was Helping Haiti’s cover of Everyday Hurts, whose voice suddenly cracks into something less rushed and more sincere? Etc.

  12. 12
    Alan not logged in on 19 Jul 2013 #

    Having Helping Haiti and a Jedward track in no way detracts from the triffic of Now 75

  13. 13
    Tom on 19 Jul 2013 #

    #10 I suspect this might be a thing where there’s a generational lag holding back behaviour a little. We have roughly three groups of people to think about:

    – People who still buy the physical copy of Now
    – People who buy the digital copy of Now
    – People who stream Now but never buy it.

    Do our Wisden-ites include just the first, or the second group too? I’d say some of the second at least – definitely from experience I have moved to largely digital but still have strong archivist tendencies.

    This is sort of what I’m getting at when I talk about not really understanding the singles market now, though. More singles are being sold every year than ever – I know why this is (long tail effect), but at the same time most of this year’s No.1 singles have topped 100k sales, compared to the 20-30k totals we saw in the mid-00s. So for all the ubiquity of Spotify and YouTube the buying habit hasn’t gone away. And I really don’t know who is still buying or why. (I mean, I know I do, but I am not who is getting Avicii records to #1)

  14. 14
    wichitalineman on 21 Jul 2013 #

    “I really don’t know who is still buying (singles) or why.”

    Great question. I haven’t got a clue to the answer. Tessa suggests it’s partially down to people wanting to add songs to playlists at parties. Or, in the case of Ed Sheerin, someone’s mum asking ‘what’s that song that goes…?’

    The Wisden’s comparison is spot on. That makes me feel better about my compulsive Now-buying disorder.

  15. 15
    Steve Mannion on 21 Jul 2013 #

    Sheeran’s fanbase is as much the daughters as the mums if not more so I think – this is surely what facilitated the recent Taylor Swift duet. His appeal to younger listeners is still easier to comprehend than Mumfords.

  16. 16
    speedwell54 on 21 Jul 2013 #

    Nice article.

    I think there is another reasonable group

    – People who pick and chose tracks from digital Now
    The week or two after Now is released there will be a few singles getting a little bump back up the charts.

    I buy the physical copy and am only just getting over the fact after 35 vinyl purchases the format was dropped. I probably listen to them now (ahem!) more than ever because

    1 I have children
    2 Radio One is largely unlistenable so wouldn’t otherwise hear some stuff
    3 a long commute
    4 renewed interest after finding FT about a year ago

    Totally agree with the purple patch of number ones this year. I think Witcha tweeted something along those lines recently and looking back for the last time we had just 4 good singles in a row took me back to 2005. IMO

    Finally really never saw being into the charts as being “British” or akin to steam trainers or model soldierists. What I mean by that is I never saw ME being akin to ‘those people’. Of the two though I’ll chose British.

    The difference to me is what I am interested in, is still happening. There are new things to listen to, new conversations to have, new things to be excited about and new things which are still pants. I am not knocking the interests of other people by the way, just don’t see the parallels.

    Roll on Now 85, just hours to wait!

  17. 17
    Tom on 22 Jul 2013 #

    I think I’d make a distinction between being “into pop” (excited by new music which is popular) which I guess an awful lot of older people are, and being “into the charts” – paying attention to what’s #1, the mechanics of hit singles, eligibility, risers and fallers, etc. THAT’s the thing which seems a little model soldier-y to me – and as I say, I don’t see that as a bad thing.

    Almost everyone who is into the charts will also be into pop.

    Not everyone who is into pop is into the charts.

  18. 18
    Mog unlogged on 22 Jul 2013 #

    @15 my most terrified moment of clutching my face and screaming at Tumblr came when I saw one of the young person’s text posts that just read ‘why can’t I get a scented candle of Ed Sheeran’s voice?’ and had like 15,000 notes.

  19. 19
    Tom on 22 Jul 2013 #

    I have good news for that young person.

    http://www.slinkycity.com/fart-scented-candles.html

  20. 20
    speedwell54 on 22 Jul 2013 #

    Tom.
    Fair enough. I see what you mean.
    I’ll get my coat. (which is obviously an anorak!)

  21. 21
    hardtogethits on 22 Jul 2013 #

    I recently had cause to reflect that those who are into the charts have an interest in their vitality. They indeed care about what new material is in the charts. This absolutely backs up the distinction you make at no.17, Tom. Likewise, FWIW, and the true purpose of my recent reflection – those who keep a particular close eye on the facts and figures of (any) sport tend to be as enthralled by the present as the past – and I therefore Echo Wichita’s Wisden comments at #14. Some of my best friends are into those things. I feel a kinship – see speedwell at #16.

    For me, this clearly distinguishes the hobby of following the charts from steam trains and model soldiers – both of those hobbies are ‘heritage’, historical interests – at the very core, the unit of fascination belongs in the past, even if it is newly-researched, or artistically re-interpreted, or written about in a very new way. Like, say, dinosaurs or cigarette cards. Funnily enough, some of my best friends are into those things too. I can see that emotionally we are operating differently when they talk about their hobbies to me, and I, mine, to them.

    I’m happy with what I’m saying here, even if there’s no danger of me reaching a satisfactory conclusion (or even explaining it well).

  22. 22
    Tom on 23 Jul 2013 #

    No, I think that’s a good point. I was probably thinking of tabletop wargaming in general – including the Games Workshop stuff – rather than specifically model soldier business. But actually military modelling is a living hobby like Wisden – I was in a joint toy/model shop a few weeks ago and there’s a load of modern US and UK military hardware on offer in 1:25 scale.

  23. 23
    lonepilgrim on 24 Jul 2013 #

    this seems relevant

  24. 24
    Another Pete on 28 Jul 2013 #

    Had a feeling this run was going to end today, pleased to say I was proved wrong.

  25. 25
    Tom on 29 Jul 2013 #

    I have a soft spot for One Direction because of all the fantastic funny/lustful blogging they inspire among people I follow on Tumblr! “Best Song Ever” washes over me a bit – and might end the run, I guess – but the chorus lyrics are terrific:

    “We danced all night to the best song ever / We knew every line now I can’t remember / How it goes”

    A great bit of how-pop-works insight that – like Katy B still dancing when the lights go up in the club.

    (Also 1D calling a song “Best Song Ever” is good trolling of the non-fans and truth in advertising for the fans)

  26. 26
    Lazarus on 29 Jul 2013 #

    Hmmm, just got around to reading this thread; I never thought I would see a reference to Wisden on Popular (although the Duckworth Lewis Method do have a new album out as it happens). I have one Now! – the first, which I got for Xmas ’83 – and Mrs Laz had a few of the early ones but I have no idea where they are now (sadly, she’s no longer here to ask, I have the Big C to thank for that). As to the charts, I used to take a quite unhealthy interest in the singles chart – but not the albums, which I suspect are followed , if at all, by a different group. Listening to the Top 40 every Sunday, tracking the climbers and fallers, writing up my own version (and I know some of you did that too! I’ve read that elsewhere) watching the ITV Chart Show on Saturday morning to get a preview of the next day’s Top 10, all that sort of thing. And, for the most part, I was into the music as well.

    This lasted from the summer of ’78 – currently being relived on BBC4 – to the Millennium. I made a decision that the nonsense had to end there – it seemed a good time – and I’ve never gone back. It may have been the end of Britpop, the arrival of Westlife (though I found some of Boyzone’s stuff perfectly acceptable), the emergence of PopStars and that ilk; also I got a job in the spring of 2000 that involved working Sunday evenings. So the charts are something I feel I’ve left behind for good. I doubt if I could name five Number Ones from the last 12 months, though I’m sure I’d recognise most of them if I heard them as we have Heart on at work all day. I do have every edition of Wisden from 1947 though!

    That Daft Punk record is alright, even got me dancing at the weekend. Being played to death though, natch.

  27. 27
    thefatgit on 30 Jul 2013 #

    “Tribute” + “Year 3000” = “Best Song Ever”.

  28. 28
    Alan on 30 Jul 2013 #

    “Tribute” + “Year 3000″ = “Best Song Ever”.

    fixed

  29. 29
    Rory on 12 Aug 2013 #

    So how does Miley Cyrus affect the run? Sounds less interesting to me, and seems to be channeling Gaga in the video. But it could have been worse.

    This would be bunny territory, except we’ll have long forgotten it all by the time we get there!

  30. 30
    Another Pete on 12 Aug 2013 #

    #29 It sounds like a Venn diagram was strongly involved, surprised it didn’t get a featuring credit.

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