Nov 13

Pop Science

FT36 comments • 1,846 views


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.


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  1. 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!

  2. 27
    Tom on 7 Nov 2013 #

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

  3. 28
    hardtogethits on 7 Nov 2013 #

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

  4. 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.

  5. 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.

  6. 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.

  7. 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?

  8. 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.

  9. 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.

  10. 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.”

  11. 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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