6
Nov 13

Pop Science

FT36 comments • 1,856 views

popscience

This data – on every UK Top 10 hit, taken at 10-year intervals – comes from a study on alcohol references in music, published in Psychology Of Music last month. The study is less interesting to me than this one fascinating table, which puts a bit of concrete data around trends in pop over the last 30 years. They even significance tested it! I’ll add my analysis under the cut.

TOTAL SONGS: This confirms that there was a “pop bubble” in the early 00s – simply put, far more records got into the Top 10 in 2001 than in any of the other years surveyed.

WEEKS IN CHART: Here’s where things get interesting. This data shows that the glut of records did have an impact on how long a Top 10 hit stuck around – only 22% of them managed 10 or more weeks in the chart. BUT this change wasn’t as dramatic as it might have felt – the figure in 1981 was only 29%.

Long hits were never the norm – until now, when the mean number of weeks a Top 10 hit lasts has risen dramatically, presumably thanks to a shift from physical to digital purchasing (there are no longer limits on the number of units available to buy, so the “tail” of a hit can be a lot longer).

What does that mean? It means that the idea that the charts in the 80s reflected ‘real’ hits, and the charts in the 90s and after didn’t, may not be backed up by the data. Top 10 hits behaved roughly the same way throughout the physical music era, sticking around for (on average) between 7 and 9 weeks then falling away.

The download era, on the other hand, seems much more effective in locating hits which have longer-term support. One counter-intuitive conclusion is that the charts may actually be BETTER than ever at identifying songs people want to buy for longer. (Of course, the way records are promoted plays a huge part, and we don’t have data on the average sales of a top 10 hit).

% AT NUMBER ONE: Here’s where you do see the effects of pop marketing in the 90s – the 2001 figures show an uptick in the proportion of Top 10 hits reaching No.1, which probably does represent the efficiency of the record industry in managing release and radio schedules. This is an art they’ve only got better at by 2011, when almost 1 in 4 Top 10 hits gets its turn at the top.

Taken with the previous data, this suggests that what changed wasn’t the overall demand for a song (within the context of the Top 40), but simply that marketers got good at frontloading demand – a high proportion of sales then a tail-off, rather than a rise and fall. But the overall lifespan of a hit changed a lot less than it seemed (until downloading).

GENRE: The weakest part of the data, simply because it’s so subjective which genre any hit is – a “pop” song in 2011 sounds very different from a “pop” song in 1981. Broadly, we see a peak and fall in dance music, a decline and collapse of rock, and a rise of “R&B” which includes hip-hop. Which fits with what anyone might observe.

ORIGIN: This is interesting – evidence for the globalisation of the US record industry in the 80s. As I wrote in Zero Books’ Michael Jackson book, Thriller was both evidence for this and an accelerant of it, setting new expectations for the levels a global audience might reach. The proportion of British records in the UK Top 10 falls sharply between 81 and 91 and continues to decline after that, with American records moving in.

In the paper the authors suggest this is because of a shift in trends towards R&B and hip-hop, but that doesn’t really account for the 81 to 91 shift, when hip-hop was important in the UK but not yet the default language of pop. I’d suggest instead that the globalisation of the biz during the 80s made it easier to export a distinctively American genre AND to maintain the (financially very helpful) perception that US hip-hop was more authentic and higher-quality.

ARTIST: Another fascinating, and very little discussed, shift. 10s pop, by this reckoning, is defined by a collapse in interest in the group/band as a format, with solo acts prospering and collaborations between them taking up the slack. This trend should delight accountants and managers at least. It’ll be very interesting to see if this is a blip, which the data happened to catch, or something longer-term.

The individuation of pop via reality TV, and in fact via social media, would be good rationalisations for what’s going on here, as well as technological trends moving away from the idea of bands and band-based music.

GENDER: And finally, something I have noticed, though haven’t quite got round to writing about yet (if only I’d seen this in a few Popular entries time…) – a steady decline in male presence in the Top 10 and a rise in female presence – “mixed” presumably means groups and collaborations with both men and women billed.

This doesn’t tell the whole story – backroom staff from producers to executives remain very strongly male, I’d guess. But it’s interesting – if not surprising – that the steady rise to prominence of women acts over this period coincides with the rise of a desire to dismiss the charts as in decline, less relevant, ‘unrepresentative’, etc.

Comments

  1. 1
    @euanmackay on 6 Nov 2013 #

    Interesting RT @tomewing: [data on] UK top 10 hits at 10-yr intervals from ’81, uncovering deep-lying pop trends http://t.co/U88feNt49f #mrx

  2. 2
    Rory on 6 Nov 2013 #

    Fascinating stuff. I wonder if the shift from groups to solo artists has had something to do with there being less money around for musicians in the decade to 2011, so acts that have had to split the proceeds have ended up with less to live on per person – an incentive to go solo with session musician backing, perhaps? With the occasional collaboration to regain some of the creative tension that would otherwise be lost?

  3. 3
    Tom on 6 Nov 2013 #

    It’s possible, but I don’t think the issue is a shortage of people forming groups – it’s just that they aren’t selling (which means they aren’t being backed, which leads to which is open for debate). It’s a shame they took the data in dips though – methodologically defensible but 2011 was a weird year in some ways, very stylistically homogenous.

  4. 4
    thefatgit on 6 Nov 2013 #

    In danger of sweeping generalisation and missing the point altogether: aren’t most “groups” rock-centric or signed to indie labels? Therefore less money is spent to promote their product into the top 10? The “group” vs “solo” thing may be reversing (or swinging) with 1D, The Wanted and I dunno, Union J & The Saturdays getting regular top 10 hits.

  5. 5
    Tom on 6 Nov 2013 #

    That’s fair – the decline of rock will lead to a decline of groups, as that’s one pop form which really uses them. It’s notable though that most of the big “alternative” pop successes recently – Ed Sheeran, Jake Bugg, Lorde I guess would count – are in a singer-songwriter mold with no group implied.

  6. 6
    lonepilgrim on 6 Nov 2013 #

    fascinating to see how UK music dominated the top 10 in 1981

  7. 7
    Rory on 6 Nov 2013 #

    True. But maybe the shift from group to solo performers (for economic or other reasons) has hastened the decline in rock, rather than vice versa? Who knows.

  8. 8
    Steve Mannion on 6 Nov 2013 #

    I’m surprised that the mixed gender figure is higher now than before although I suspect this is down to what seems like an increase in ‘Male producer ft. female vocalist’ hits which sadly obscures the surely reduced amount of any other gender combination act.

  9. 9
    hardtogethits on 6 Nov 2013 #

    Firstly, Tom, thanks so much for bringing this brilliant study to our attention.

    As someone who works in Public Health (like the authors), I’m disappointed that the study is less interesting to you than the table which focuses upon the turnover of hits – but maybe that’s just because that table is so damn interesting (not because the study is uninteresting). I wonder do you accept the authors’ view that “the inclusion of alcohol references in popular music can be more than just a portrayal of drinking behaviour, but also a form of advertising and marketing for alcoholic products.” ?

    I think it’s a bit of a shame that by the time Katy Perry is mentioned on p10 the article – for me – reads as if it is ironic and self-mocking. Have the Daily Mail got hold of it yet?

  10. 10
    Mark M on 6 Nov 2013 #

    I think the rise of the Americans is really interesting. I was wondering how much this was to do with the dominance back at the start of the period of AOR, the kind of stuff that only penetrated over here years later via TV shows and samples. Anyway, here’s the Billboard Top 20 for ’81:

    1 Kim Carnes: Bette Davis Eyes
    2 Diana Ross and Lionel Richie: Endless Love
    3 Kenny Rogers: Lady
    4 John Lennon: (Just Like) Starting Over
    5 Rick Springfield: Jessie’s Girl
    6 Kool and The Gang: Celebration
    7 Daryl Hall and John Oates: Kiss On My List
    8 Eddie Rabbitt: I Love A Rainy Night
    9 Dolly Parton: 9 To 5
    10 REO Speedwagon: Keep On Loving You
    11 Joey Scarbury: Theme From “Greatest American Hero”
    12 Sheena Easton: Morning Train (Nine To Five)
    13 Smokey Robinson: Being With You
    14 Juice Newton: Queen Of Hearts
    15 Blondie: Rapture
    16 Ray Parker jr. and Raydio: A Woman Needs Love
    17 Blondie: The Tide Is High
    18 Grover Washington Jr.: Just The Two Of Us
    19 Pointer Sisters: Slow Hand
    20 Climax Blues Band: I Love You

  11. 11
    Tom on 6 Nov 2013 #

    #9 I accept the view, but it’s less interesting because any conclusions about effects on actual behaviour would be extremely vague. The same authors, though – this is how I found the study! – published some very interesting empirical work on the impact of playlists on alcohol sales in a bar. The playlist of alcohol referencing songs did indeed result in higher sales of alcoholic drinks. I was hunting for their actual numbers for work when I stumbled on this!

  12. 12
    Steve Mannion on 6 Nov 2013 #

    Also keen to know what was considered R&B and Dance in 1981 (presumably defined more broadly) e.g. was ‘Being With You’ considered as one or both (or neither)?

  13. 13
    Mark M on 6 Nov 2013 #

    OK, having skimmed the study, a couple of thoughts. The first, which I think would distress the Communications Dept at Goldsmiths, is it seems to we haven’t got away from the assumption that words/subject matter are what it’s all about. On the one hand, people gain endless amusement from how easy it is to get the words to a song you’ve heard a thousand times completely wrong, and yet at the same time lyrics are still regarded as somehow the point of songs.
    Secondly, as basically a non-drinker, I think if I was looking for the roots of the dysfunctional drinking culture in this country, J-Kwon and R Kelly would be the bottom of my list. Utter bewilderment that you could a) consider a night out without drinking or b) get through a tough week at work without that friendly glass of red at the end of each day, is rife among most age groups I encounter and probably more prevalent among people I am pretty sure never listen to RnB.

  14. 14
    Mark M on 6 Nov 2013 #

    Re 11: That does sound a lot more interesting.

  15. 15
    @alexwhines on 6 Nov 2013 #

    Interesting data on UK pop charts: http://t.co/dLOAyEaXOL

  16. 16
    Steve Mannion on 6 Nov 2013 #

    #13 I’d like to see the drop in instrumental top 10 hits as it’s my biggest pet peeve, I’d expect a firm decline in the last ten years and I can’t think of any off the top of my head since Eric Prydz ‘Pjanoo’ fiver years ago unless things with just a sampled-not-sung minimal hook like Sidney Samson’s ‘Riverside’ are generously included (but I also have less knowledge of top 10 hits of the last two years generally).

  17. 17
    tonya on 6 Nov 2013 #

    #10 I wonder how much the rise of Americans intersects with the rise of women, when I’ve posted the American #1s in the year end threads I’ve noted how many more women there were in the US charts than the corresponding UK charts.

  18. 18
    hardtogethits on 6 Nov 2013 #

    The authors reference Engels et al, 2011, on p2, which is a similar study to the one Tom mentions. From a Public Health point of view, this is not about saying RnB listeners are the biggest drinkers, or binge most – that may well be a nonsense. It’s about the perils of normalising and trivialising hazardous behaviour in such a way that a potentially abstemious audience is primed not to be abstemious. If the work of Katherine Hardcastle et al isn’t your cup of tea, but you wonder whether they have a point, I’d urge you to consider their work in conjunction with Engels’ (et al). Some may question the role of Public Health in this at all (I could predict the objections right now) but what Hardcastle’s article says is that hits positively referencing alcohol are a new phenomenon, and lyrical promotion of alcohol has been shown to prime the listener. It’s not credible for anyone to say “oh give over, we used to spend hours listening to American records extolling the virtues of drinking heavily, and it never did us any harm”.

  19. 19
    @RJBayman on 7 Nov 2013 #

    This is great: pop trends based on analysis of UK top 10 hits at 10-year intervals from ‘81 http://t.co/BMzRmaH7kc via @tomewing

  20. 20
    Tim Byron on 7 Nov 2013 #

    Very interesting, Tom! I hadn’t read this, but I should. Re: the lack of American music in the charts in 1981, could that be an artifact of picking that particular year? There could well have been more American singles in the charts in 1976 than 1981…reading Bob Stanley’s book, he paints 1981 as a time when American pop was particularly self-absorbed and British pop was making inroads on the US charts because of MTV etc. While I get the dipping methodologically, I think they’d have benefited from a sample every 5 years rather than 10.

    As to the public health stuff hardtogethits mentions…one thing to remember with statistics like these is that the public health perspective is a broad one, in which small changes in behaviour can have statistically real effects which matter from a public health perspective but which are probably imperceptible to the naked eye of someone observing behaviour in the real world. The kind of changes the authors are concerned about might well be little nudges in one direction, rather than people deciding to drink because they’ve just heard “Pop A Bottle”. However, because these researchers haven’t attempted to correlate these data with actual rates of problem drinking in the UK, it’s hard to tell how much influence it’s had (and that’s before we get into trying to figure out what else might be causing a positive correlation if it exists). If anything, I thought problem drinking rates had declined somewhat over the last couple of decades?

    (disclaimer: I’m about to get an article published in the same journal! Whee!)

  21. 21
    @hillsonghoods on 7 Nov 2013 #

    Interesting! @tomewing analyses data on changes in the statistics of pop in the UK: http://t.co/MPexEUo6wq

  22. 22
    hardtogethits on 7 Nov 2013 #

    A clutch of interesting points made above!

    1981 was not exceptional (statistically significantly different) from surrounding years in its preference for UK hits; I’ll present data here sometime soon if no one else does, but the clarity of the methodology allows anyone to have a go. (Obviously using 5 year intervals would have doubled the resources required at the resource-intensive end of the study, as well as muddying the waters somewhat).

    That the researchers haven’t correlated with drinking prevalence is to me, working in Public Health, immaterial. I know those data. There’s plenty of evidence to suggest ‘problem’ drinking has worsened (leading to death, accidents – the real hard to ignore stuff) – choose any year for your base year until 2008, and it would be hard to argue that things are improving nationally – in more deprived areas, things continue to worsen.Whether ‘moderate’ drinking rates have fallen is challengeable. They’re all over the place. Up here, down there, different changes amongst different groups. Indeed, it’s just an opinion, but these less-than-clear trends in moderate drinking might reduce the power of the message about drinking at harmful and hazardous levels. A little bit of alcohol may be good – actually positively GOOD – for you, therefore it follows that the more people that do it, the better. GPs tell me that’s a difficult message for any individual to act upon.

    But – all of that to one side – speaking FROM a Public Health perspective, I embrace the survey for what it advises about values, beliefs, norms, attitudes – irrespective of whether they can immediately be associated with behaviour. It’s not a big stretch to say that sooner or later, the former may well lead to the latter. We have very strong evidence to suggest attitudes are changing towards drinking amongst those who would unlikely to have been seen as a target market – drinking, heavy drinking and the association of alcohol with success (the latter of which I believe is not permitted in advertising) ARE becoming normalised.

  23. 23
    Conrad on 7 Nov 2013 #

    what are “weeks on the chart”, I mean – what is “chart”? Top 75? Top 40? If Top 75, I would expect the impact of downloads to prolong longevity

  24. 24
    Tom on 7 Nov 2013 #

    #23 it’s Top 40.

    #22 Yes, plenty of evidence that norms influence behaviour, and changing norms change behaviour. They’re not the only influence and may not even be the most important, and may also be very hard to separate out, but they are important.

    I’m not a psychologist, and I’m not working in public health, so I don’t know as much about this area as some, but I think a lot of different effects get lumped together in a public/media perception of “studies show X causes Y”. So the playlists-in-bars experiment is measuring an in-the-moment triggering effect: if you play songs about booze in an environment where people are drinking and drink is on sale, it will help create an environment that triggers behaviour change at the margin – someone who might have drunk 3 pints drinks 4, someone who might have had a coke has a glass of wine… and in total this means a significant sales increase even though no individual’s behaviour is affected THAT much. (It doesn’t imply that hearing Dr Feelgood on the pub stereo turns a teetotaller into a beer monster, in other words.)

    The norms argument is slightly different – it’s about behaviour at a distance from the stimulus, so it’s nothing to do with direct triggering. It’s about creating an environment where particular behaviour is presented as normal and so becomes a default choice. The behaviour doesn’t *have* to be positively presented, incidentally – I think this is where Mark M is right and the emphasis on lyrical content is a bit off. One classic example is campaigns warning of drinking which say, eg, “1 in 4 14 year olds binge drink” – this is meant as a negative, but actually 1 in 4 sounds pretty high and presents binge drinking as more normal, not less.

    Where the media tend to be idiotic about behaviour change – and rightly get a backlash from fans etc. – is that they like to focus on single objects (because it makes a better story). So they want a single song banned because of drug references, or a single video game banned because of violence. Which is usually implying that said cultural artefact has strong behavioural effects on individuals at a distance, which is almost always bunkum, and then simplistically extending THAT error to say eg “videogames cause violence”. Which they don’t.

    (Muddying the waters even more, you can apparently trace some bits of consumer behaviour to bits of culture, often films – Tom Cruise in Risky Business changed mens underwear trends, according to an underwear expert I know.)

    Anyway, this media wrongness about what influences behaviour makes a lot of people wary of ANY link between culture and behaviour, even people who are happy to accept links if they agree with the politics behind them. (The arguments around boys’ and girls’ toys are on one level argments about normalisation and its impact). So increased alcohol references may well be influencing society without a particular song or even a set of particular songs being paid direct attention to.

    Think of normalisation like home advantage in sport – it’s an observable phenomenon without there needing to be an individual chant or particularly loud fan which causes it.

  25. 25
    Tom on 7 Nov 2013 #

    That comment wasn’t meant as an explanation to hardtogethits, who obviously knows this stuff – just as a place to collate the thoughts I was having about on the train coming in this morning.

  26. 26
    hardtogethits on 7 Nov 2013 #

    Tom, are you implying that there might be a benefit in an experiment in ‘distance triggering’? That would be good – and the worlds of Market Research and Public Health could collaborate beautifully. by and large, neither one of those disciplines trusts the other when they work independently of one another.

    (I don’t think it’d work though because I’m talking about a delay of years)

    (Just got to reedit when I saw your #25, thanks, lol, etc!

  27. 27
    Tom on 7 Nov 2013 #

    I think “an experiment in distance triggering” describes the entire history of broadcast advertising ;)

  28. 28
    hardtogethits on 7 Nov 2013 #

    Oops exchanges taking place too quickly now – please see re-edit at 26! #27 yes it does – ha!

  29. 29
    c_b_ on 7 Nov 2013 #

    I’m not sure if the increasing prominence of women in the charts is the reason why it’s being dismissed as irrelevant. Acts like One Direction or the Wanted are all-male but would largely appeal to women. A female singer like Lorde would be seen as far more acceptable to a male audience. I think the decline is more because it’s become dominated by American Hip-Hop/RnB artists and European Dance producers who for obvious reasons aren’t going to be as fixated on the Top 40/No.1’s or the Single as the British pop/rock music from the early 80’s.

    The number of “real” hits is about the same as it always was but what changed in the 90’s was influx of fanbase hits and hyped up one week hits alongside it. It meant that chart positions weren’t an accurate indication of how big a hit was. Often the “real” hits were being kept down the charts due to there being “fake” hits above it.

  30. 30
    Mark M on 7 Nov 2013 #

    There is an article in this week’s Spectator about how teenagers are better behaved than ever and how it’s the forty somethings who are the big hedonists. This does match up with a look of stuff I’ve read in the last 10 years*. Frazer Nelson isn’t particularly rigorous in his citations, and I seem to recall him being a bit free with the stats in the past. On drinking, he refers to the decline in young people’s alcohol spend, but you’d really want to know how that breaks down. (One thing I meant to mention before, and I’m not sure whether this was talked about in the study, was how the songs being discussed often mention expensive alcohol in particular – are we saying that’s not a factor because that would be looking for too direct an effect – you can get the general vibe that drinking is a good idea without actually sipping Hennessey or whatever).

    *In Britain, our continuing ‘worst in Europe’ status in things like teen pregnancy can obscure positive trends.

  31. 31
    tm on 8 Nov 2013 #

    Kids these days are too busy studying so they can get a good job to buy booze when they’re older. There’s no evidence for this but it’s definitely a scientific fact.

  32. 32
    intothefireuk on 9 Nov 2013 #

    How depressing, the decline of male oriented rock groups and the rise of female dominated rnb. I blame it all on the amount of oestrogen in our water supply.

    As regards the study, I wonder what the stats would be if you substituted drug references for alcohol references and included data from the 60s and 70s?

  33. 33
    koganbot on 9 Nov 2013 #

    Is the British singles chart still sales only? I’d think that at some point it simply will have to take account of streams, even though as far as I know it never did count airplay.

    Are there demographic differences between the audiences that purchase singles now and those who did so in ’81? I assume that there’s an increase in nonwhites in the population and in the music consuming public, hence in the purchasing of singles as well. But what about age, gender, and class, as well as “ethnic” changes that aren’t simply accounted for by increases in the “ethnic” population?

    I assume such numbers are hard to come by, but that if anyone is likely to know where they are it’s you.

    A problem I have with Brit singles chart versus e.g. Billboard in America is that, by not counting airplay and the like, the former simply excludes whole chunks of the public: those who like a particular track but buy it on the album; and those who like a track but whose main consumption of music is via radio and/or TV.

    The elephants in the room of popular music, the ones who not only don’t get talked about by critics and who (as far as I know) don’t get paid attention to on news or entertainment sites either, and who get undercounted on Billboard but who are mostly excluded from the Brit singles chart and Popular, include what was historically called “easy listening” or “beautiful music,” as well as smooth jazz, quiet storm, lite rock, adult contemporary, urban AC, and oldies. Music liked by these audiences will always get undercounted because listening is less concentrated on specific tracks or on recently released ones but also because these audiences are less likely to buy the music directly, whether singles or albums. They’re nonetheless consumers, and presumably respond to what gets advertised on radio and TV (and now on YouTube?).

    But I’m guessing these audiences download a lot that in the old days they’d never have purchased in physical form, and that there’s been a change in e.g. the way people listen on the job from, in days of yore, hearing a radio station piped into an entire office to, nowadays, individuals hearing their iPads and such. I emphasize that these are guesses.

  34. 34
    koganbot on 9 Nov 2013 #

    As for groups, in the modern era they tend to fall into two not-that-related categories (though note that the early Beatles and the early Wailers were in both):

    (1) Rock bands.

    (2) Vocal groups (male R&B groups like the Temptations, girl groups, boybands), who not only put emphasis on group singing but on dancing and dress.

    I assume the first category is in commercial decline in Britain while I’m guessing that the second tends to fluctuate (and that Brit boybands unlike those in the rest of the world still combine the rock band and the vocal group). Boybands seem to have been wiped out in the U.S., at least for the time being; girl groups not quite as much. C&W has been supportive of duos and trios.

    Korea, which I’ve been paying attention to recently, still has lots of boybands and girl groups. One reason may be that hip-hop was integrated early into the standard idol group sound, so the Bell Biv DeVoe/Backsteet Boys model never faded. (Seo Taiji & Boys were hitting in South Korea at the same time as Bell Biv Devoe and Boyz II Men in the U.S., and enjoyed Michael Jackson size popularity in Seoul.) Also, TV performance shows are a big way of promoting the groups, hence the emphasis on dancing and on costumes (or alternately — I presume it’s a feedback loop rather than simple cause and effect — the popularity of dancing and costumes means groups are popular and therefore that the TV performance shows are popular). Hip-hop “per se” in Korea tends to be individuals and duos with lots of guesting, just as in the recent U.S. But idol groups have their own rappers, or members who both sing and rap, even if idol rappers aren’t considered as “real,” usually. Sometimes an established rapper will become a member of a new idol group, e.g. Miryo in Brown Eyed Girls and Zico in Block B.

  35. 35
    koganbot on 10 Nov 2013 #

    it’s interesting – if not surprising – that the steady rise to prominence of women acts over this period coincides with the rise of a desire to dismiss the charts as in decline, less relevant, ‘unrepresentative’, etc.

    “the rise of a desire” – How do you track such a thing? Desire among whom? I’m not saying your impression is wrong. I’m just wondering where it comes from, and how one would test it.

    My own impressions (which I emphasize are based on no statistics but on vague memories of articles I read who knows when that cited statistics that may or may not have been any good):

    –Prior to the mid-to-late ’60s the market for recorded music is relatively small, and Top 40 hardly dominates what market there is. For both reasons, the percentage of the population on whom the music in the Top 40 has an impact is fairly small. (“Fairly small.” Ha ha. I have no idea what this means. 2%? 40%? I do believe that back then barely anyone over the age of 25 bought singles or listened to Top 40 radio, though of course I’m not sure what the words “Top 40 radio” even mean in Britain, or might have meant then. Again, this is based on my vague recollection of I don’t know what.)

    –The Beatles and rock in general really change the game in the mid Sixties, but then Cream changes it again a few years late by becoming a humongous album act. So the really popular of the popular music has a much greater impact on the population – more people notice it, care – but there’s soon a shift to albums as the industry’s cash cow, and something of a difference between the type of music that sells big on albums versus that which sells on singles.

    –The market never wasn’t “fragmented” (a not very useful word) as, especially in the U.S., there are a whole lot of specialty markets, genre markets, whatever (in the U.S. there’s R&B, country, various different radio formats, audiences; the rise of rock ‘n’ roll is in part caused or at least marked by some of these specialty markets creating music that crosses over big to the “pop” market). But in the mid ’70s or so the size of the popular and/or rock market (it never cleanly divides between “rock” and “pop” or is all that clear what those words mean) allows it to develop related quasi-submarkets, e.g. for oldies, for FM rock, for disco, for punk and indie, and onwards.

    –The charts could be and were gamed, presumably overall to the benefit of the major labels, but independents also tried to play. When Nielson and Billboard started using SoundScan in the U.S. in 1991 the results were stunning: some genres (e.g., country) selling way more than had generally been known, and the arc of sales (esp. albums) turning out to have much more of a blockbuster pattern (open strong and then mostly fade) than had previously been shown. Not that SoundScan itself didn’t have built-in biases (a lot of shops didn’t have the machines so the major retailers were overcounted) and couldn’t be manipulated, but I assume it did produce more accuracy.

    –Emphasis on the top of the charts overemphasizes audiences that buy quickly and in concentration.

    So, the importance of the Top 40 isn’t the same at different times, whom and what it represents isn’t always the same, and the numbers can’t always be trusted anyway. Also, as we become more connected the world’s music overall gets less diverse, but locally, at the level of a village or a country, this connectedness results in individuals seeing more diverse music and noticing and getting attracted to more markets and submarkets, hence the feeling of “fragmentation” and the decline in relevance of any general overall pop chart.

    It’s always good to question the relevance, representativeness, and accuracy of the Top 40, whatever music happens to be big on it – though “question” doesn’t mean “dismiss.”

  36. 36
    koganbot on 10 Nov 2013 #

    Especially starting in the Sixties, the trend among the intelligentsia and the lumpen intelligentsia (e.g., rock critics and the sort of people who show up at ilX, Freaky Trigger, etc.) and bohemians has been to take popular culture more and more seriously and to dismiss teen and preteen girls and marginal audiences less and less, though there’s also a countertendency to valorize what we care about at the expense of the stuff we don’t – but to muddle this, the valorization often takes the role of our valorizing said teen girls and marginal audiences in a facile way; and the phrase “takes popular culture more and more seriously” is loaded since a whole hunk of the appeal and even potency of what’s loosely called “pop” is that many people imagine we can have fun with it rather than study it, and what gets called “pop” isn’t necessarily all that representative of what the populace listens to but veers towards the “fun” side, “fun” being a word that beats down the more penetrating questions. And the attempt to appear feminist via the “pop” one likes ends up being contorted and implausible.

    But the intelligentsia and the lumpen-intelligentsia and the freaks aren’t the only locuses (“loci”?) of “quality” and “respectability”: there are journalists with their professionally jaundiced eyes, there are showbiz types like Simon Cowell, there are audiences who want their music to be quality in this way or that (rock, reggae, singer-songwriter), the teen idol fans often care quite a lot about whether music is authentic, whether the performers are sincere, whether the songs are original or have been plagiarized, and so on. So, again, my question “who’s dismissing the charts” could more precisely be “which of these various potential dismissers do you have in mind?”

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