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Mar 17

Datapanik In The Year Sheero

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sheerageddon Ed Sheeran’s absurd dominance of the singles chart is great news for him, his fans, Asylum records, and Paul Gambaccini’s agent, but it’s hard to argue it’s good news for the chart itself. It demonstrates the utter weakness of the post-streaming Top 40 as a separate entity from the Album chart (since the release of any big new LP can swamp it) and frankly as a separate entity from the Spotify UK Top 50 playlist, which at least has the decency to update a few times a day.

If the problem were just “too many Ed Sheeran songs in the Top 40” then it’s easily fixable – just cap the number of tracks which can chart from any individual LP. But that’s not really the problem. (If you like Ed, it’s not even *a* problem). It’s of a piece with the sclerosis of the chart, that deathly slow turnover of new hits which started in the download era and has been accelerated by the dominance of streaming. And Ed or no Ed, there’s no real sense that the singles chart has a role to play any more.

Or to be more exact, it used to play two roles. It had a role as a neutral record of consumer activity, and it had a role as a bundle of songs which existed as a cultural artefact in its own right, a snapshot of “pop” that was entertaining and diverse enough to get people interested. There’s no reason these two roles have to converge. In fact they often don’t: there are lots of neutral records of consumer activity which don’t achieve ‘cultural artefact’ status as a bundle. The list of Top 10 UK leisure attractions, for instance, is of immense interest to the leisure industry but has no salience in its own right – it’s just a bunch of places which doesn’t change very much. Meanwhile, the Turner Prize shortlist is a bundle with a strong claim to cultural artefact-hood but clearly it’s got sod all to do with consumer activity.

Still, the consumer record and cultural artefact roles did in fact converge in the UK Top 40 singles chart, to a degree I don’t think was matched anywhere or anywhen else. But the nexus points where it could most fully play the artefact role – like Top Of The Pops – gradually vanished, and technology meant the things the record role needed to measure changed. And so the two aspects diverged.

But the format of the chart itself – a weekly bundle of 40 songs – didn’t change. It became a ghost form, no longer fit for purpose as a cultural artefact but haunted by the memory and expectation of being one, and the Sheerageddon is one weird result of this: the chart is in fact only newsworthy now when it looks broken.

Growing up my cultural life was full of these kind of bundles – the charts, Top Of The Pops, the music press, and then further afield newspapers, terrestrial TV channels, commercial breaks, even libraries. Packages where you would come for one thing and be exposed to plenty of others, because that’s how they worked. The attraction of the bundle – the feeling that this unasked-for exposure is productive, that it creates unexpected encounters and serendipitous outcomes – is sunk very deeply into me as a lover of pop culture. It’s the feeling that made me take on a project like Popular in the first place.

But of course, the last decade or so has been tough on these old bundles. Their operating logic was the idea of serving different audiences – “You lot like this, and you other lot like that, so let’s have some of both.” Of course the NME knew that most of its audience wanted to read about Morrissey. But some of its audience wanted to read about De La Soul. The most effective and successful bundles resolved disputes between different audiences by appealing to some higher arbitration – sales, in the case of the charts; an ideal of newsworthiness, in the case of a newspaper. Even if this arbitration was, well, arbitrary, it served its purpose of creating a patchwork, a more diverse bundle.

What has killed those bundles? Porosity. As soon as the individual components became easier to access than the package – and just as important, as soon as you could SEE which individual components were being accessed more, and by whom – the old-school heterogenous bundle that I grew up on was screwed, a victim of the corrosive implications of attention metrics. One of the early evangelical texts of the web, The Cluetrain Manifesto, argued for a more human, customer-centric approach to business by proclaiming that “markets are conversations”. Lurking unstated beneath that hopeful statement was its brutal inverse – cultural conversations turned out to be markets.

The old bundle was a necessary way of keeping up with something in an age of limited distribution, and the happy price you paid was that you might discover more than you wanted to. But bundles per se have not gone away – they still have one enormous advantage, which is that they’re so convenient. The bundles which have arisen in the 2010s operate on a different principle, though. It’s that of the Amazon recommendation list or the Spotify algorithm – “People who like THIS also like THAT”. Spotify editorial playlists, indeed, are a great example – those things on the homepage like “Rap Caviar” or “Grime Shutdown” or “Future Pop” are bundles like the Top 40 once was, but their mission is subtly different: discovery within a pre-defined range.

The bundles my kids will grow up with are things like Lootcrate, the service by which ‘geeks’ who subscribe to it get a monthly box of assorted tat – sorry, cool merch – from whichever geek-friendly IP has product it wants to shift. Lootcrate amps up the ritual of discovery and surprise – it’s a service built around the idea of “unboxing”, the delighted revelation of new stuff – while strictly regulating the possibility of a truly serendipitous encounter for its 600,000 and rising subscribers. It’s a monthly box of delights which only contains a single trick.

Lootcrate got $18m in venture capital funding last year, so it’s a model with muscle behind it, which investors (including Robert Downey Jr, who knows a thing or two about what gets geeks going) see as the future. For me, these new bundles make me feel old and uselessly nostalgic, ready to take up cudgels against the modern on behalf of my own adolescence: a mug’s game however you package it. But Lootcrate and playlists have one major advantage over the bundles I knew: they are functional. A glance at the Top 40 tells you that my old haunts can no longer make that claim.

Comments

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  1. 1
    flahr on 8 Mar 2017 #

    I personally prefer to reserve the suffix for Biebergeddon, and refer to this ongoing period as the Edpocalypse.

    Yes, difficult to argue that the shape of you the charts is really healthy for the role we’d like to imagine it has; the problem is it has moved so far towards an accurate barometer of listening habits (and it turns out listeners are, on the whole, rather boring people with rather undiverse tastes who listen to the same thing over and over and over – I’ve listened to the first T*ng T*ngs album about sixteen times in the past two weeks so I hardly escape judgement on this front) that it’s difficult to imagine any change (like: restricting number of tracks from an album that could chart; some sort of decay function) which wouldn’t feel like a lie.

    At some basic level it feels difficult to argue that this isn’t all a good thing. For wider culture, maybe, because it discourages the sort of mixing and diversity and crossovers that vitalise art; but we wouldn’t be in this situation if it wasn’t one that made individuals happier (“Give people the chance to opt out of the stuff they don’t care about and – surprise! – they take it” as Tom writes in his earlier piece on the subject), and it’s not exactly a winning manoeuvre to suggest everyone should be forced to listen to bollocks to save music when the fact that Ed Sheeran has just released a new album is clearly proof to a vast number of people that music is exactly right just the way it is.

    Of course we have plenty of other examples of the death of the idea of the collective good and its replacement with hyperindividual preference maximisation in recent history – depressingly rather more impactful ones.

    EDIT: It occurs to me that, though, modern pop music DOES have another answer to the loss of bundling: the ‘featuring’ credit! Ed Sheeran & Stormzy performing together is, in its own way, a bundle as much as a chart featuring both Ed Sheeran and Stormzy – perhaps the future playground ends up being awards shows and industry dos where some higher-level chart (the biggest selling artists of the year) determines who mingle and intertwine and end up bundling their content according to strict financial incentives.

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    Tom on 8 Mar 2017 #

    Yes what I’m clumsily trying to say in my closing paragraph is that you can’t turn the clock back – specialised bundling clearly works better for many people (most people!) and the things it loses were actually very vague: there was a lot more bad serendipity than good. It’s a bit like nostalgia for crate-digging, where the regret over losing the moment of finding becomes all muddled up with the hours of tedium and filthy fingers.

    What I’m getting at is if we want more space for serendipity we won’t get there by tinkering with exhausted formats (like the charts). And yes all this is playing out on a much wider political canvas which a little piece like this can’t (or chooses not to) touch on.

  3. 3
    Tom on 8 Mar 2017 #

    One obvious answer to the question – where is there a vector for the unexpected in pop culture? – is YouTube. When you subscribe to a YouTuber you’re making an implicit bargain that the YouTuber controls the choice of topic and in return gets your attention. This is an obvious place where the serendipitous encounter might happen – i.e. a YouTuber talks about a game you’d never ordinarily play, or interrupts their channel about cosmetics to talk about politics, or mixes those topics up together.

    Obviously this can also be disastrous – viz the PewDiePie scandal a couple of weeks ago.

    And also this is concentrating a lot of power in the individual presenter/curator, and can end up a bit like saying, well, Ed Sheeran is a vector for a serendipitous encounter because he’s introducing people to Irish music with “Galway Girl”.

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    flahr on 8 Mar 2017 #

    Being part of the Twitter crowd that follows the Top of the Pops repeats makes me wonder if one attempt at an answer to the ‘filter bubble’ trend is leveraging communal experience – trying to make ‘did-you-see-THAT’ work both ways, so that people are willing to be exposed to the genuinely unexpected and unknown* because even if they hate it or are uninterested in it they can still enjoy participating in a community of people reacting to it**. This is presumably the sort of thing Apple were hoping for with Beats One – a worldwide radio station which might be able to achieve a critical mass of reach by default, which then becomes so talked-about as to sustain itself.

    This feels like a missed opportunity re the actual Chart Show itself – I feel like they could try and push the social media/discussion angle a lot harder than they do. (Given the way they muck around with the timeslot this might be euthanasia more than lack of planning)

    *not that TOTP was uncurated, of course
    **thought the flipside of this might be a tendency to squash opinion – if the crowd immediately decides it dislikes a record you’re pretty heftily encouraged to agree with it, especially when you’re finding out what other people think immediately instead of having a night and a school run to firm up your own opinion

    xpost: #3 makes me think of things like the @sweden Twitter feed (which is controlled by a different randomly chosen Swede every week) – isn’t there a Popular comment somewhere which talks about having a lottery-chosen ‘musical dictator’?

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    Tom on 8 Mar 2017 #

    The thing with TOTP reactions is that they’re happening in a kind of historical space which is safe for play, reaction, etc. There’s very little at stake in the question “who was any good in 1983?” unless you can find a way editorially to make something be at stake, which TOTP, bless it, is not at all trying to do. ie. The revelation that the JoBoxers were shit (or shit-hot) is not going to tie into any broader cultural or social fights. Doing that with current culture is harder because it does feel there’s something at stake in (say) Moonlight winning Best Picture. The communal current moment works for big climactic events like the Oscars but is harder to replicate on a regular basis I think.

    (Also it leads you into the hot take/instant reaction zone which works to concentrate attention communally but isn’t really a vector to discover anything beyond the limits of your own annoyance.)

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    Cumbrian on 8 Mar 2017 #

    Perhaps an unwelcome and invidious set of questions, Tom: does this make you consider whether there is an end date on Popular (besides you being unwilling or unable to continue)? Are we too close to the point at which the charts cease to be “functional” for such a date to be identifiable? Or is the chance to explore the lack of “functionality” of the charts via the records that top them something you’d be looking forward to doing?

    I keep meaning to chip in on your monthly Spotify listening thing but can never find a) something to recommend that you haven’t already tried and b) slightly related to your post, I’m too deep into a set of algorithmically selected bundles for me to be confident that I am not on my own little island listening to this stuff in the first place and that you consequently wouldn’t at all be interested.

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    Matthew on 8 Mar 2017 #

    Some things this makes me think about:

    Is there also the possibility that the composition of the charts doesn’t necessarily suggest that they are broken, but that they more accurately represent the impact of seismic albums? The temptation, after all, is to say something is broken because it’s doing something we dislike. And Sheerageddon is definitely an unlikable event. But it is happening.

    For instance, according to the chart update, only 6% of Sheeran’s album sales come from streaming-equivalent units, and he is expected to have the biggest sales week of physical and digital units since Adele. This is gigantic, and not a common event. People are crazy for Sheero to an Adele-level of nuttiness. Perhaps the charts should look nuts when something like this is happening.

    And also, what if this is just a feature of current listening habits? We are assuming that it will only get worse as streaming gets more dominant. But what if listening to spotify’s top streaming hits is only a trend that new users of spotify engage in? Perhaps this need to listen to the same songs over and over again from the top hits is a fad or trend? Maybe the new kids will eventually be appalled about how boring the old kids could be.

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    flahr on 8 Mar 2017 #

    Well, there was the Stormzyclysm last week as well (if obviously less pronounced).

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    katherine on 8 Mar 2017 #

    surely Lootcrate is more the geek-swag version of the endless ______-of-the-month clubs dredged up and Web 2.0ified from the ’80s? I mean, everything else is being dredged up from the ’80s (see also: synthpop, real estate moguls)

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    Turn on 8 Mar 2017 #

    The main problem unless I’m missing something is surely that we’re looking at a most-played tracks list, not a singles chart as such. The streamability of album tracks seems to have eliminated the category of “single”, although interestingly the two released as “singles” are still ahead of the album tracks in that list, unless there’s some other brake on their climbing that I’m not aware of, it seems “singles” still exist as a thing. Making the chart only a chart of songs released that way would make it more interesting.

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    Dean on 8 Mar 2017 #

    Ah that’s helped me put my finger on something. Some gigs I’ve gone to recently have felt like bundles- the headliner picking acts to complement the night but necessarily be the exact same sort of thing. Others just still throw any local support act on or offer buy-ones and it’s just a disconnected set of nothing.

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    Tom on 8 Mar 2017 #

    #9 What I think Lootcrate does that’s clever is get round the porosity problem, which is (broadly) that any given bundle will contain some desirable and some undesirable items, and as soon as you let people pick and choose any model based on that breaks down. Lootcrate gets round this by a) offering exclusivity (everything in it is a Lootcrate variant), b) making the ritual of receipt and opening what you’re “buying”, and c) if we’re being cynical, making sure the stuff in the box is all equally crappy. I don’t know if that’s quite the equivalent of the X-of-the-month club, because I don’t know how that worked – my understanding of the scam there is that you paid almost nothing for your first package then through the nose for all your others….

  13. 13
    Tom on 8 Mar 2017 #

    #7 Yes, this is what I should have been clearer about – it’s certainly the case that the Sheerageddon represents real behaviour, and reflects it accurately on the terms the chart sets out. On the ‘neutral record’ criteria, it’s doing absolutely fine, perhaps better than ever. On the ‘cultural’ side of things, I’m not so sure. For a start this is the biggest manifestation of a general slowing down. But also the actual cultural event being reflected is an enormously popular album, and there is already a chart which can (and will!) take that into account. Besides, Ed Sheeran already had the Number 1 single, so the singles chart was already reflecting his extreme popularity. (Ironically, should Popular ever reach this point, this will just be the nth week at #1 for Shape Of You, so I’ve found a metric by which the whole event goes unnoticed.)

    But for Sheeran’s LP release to take 8 of the Top 10 or 17 of the Top 20 suggests either redundancy or broken-ness on the part of the singles chart. As Turn suggests at #10, that’s quite easily solved. But the underlying problem I’m talking about isn’t.

  14. 14
    Turn on 8 Mar 2017 #

    #13 – Sorry, what *is* the underlying problem?

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    Tom on 8 Mar 2017 #

    Underlying singles chart problem: increased accuracy means it moves astonishingly slowly.

    Underlying cultural problem = formats like the chart don’t work as cultural markers any more because people are resistant to the idea of formats that bundle lots of different tastes together.

    (“That’s not actually a problem” is a reasonable response to either of those, of course.)

  16. 16
    Shiny Dave on 8 Mar 2017 #

    I was wondering why we didn’t see anything like this with Taylor Swift and Adele albums that were deliberately kept off at least Spotify, but at that point streaming was already in the singles charts – and even in the download charts, despite the advantage that one other route to listening to 1989 was gone, she didn’t tear it up at all, let alone like this. (Maybe Swift never was quite that big, though it’s still stunning to learn that she has no bunnies yet. I observed this with Bieber a few months before Biebergeddon, so consider yourselves warned.)

    The other thing is that Adele didn’t produce anything like this kind of wave, either. Her top spots on the download charts the week her last album came out: 1 (with the proven lead single), 9, 23, 31, 42, 44. And #31 was bloody Skyfall!

    And yet 25 sold 800k in its first week and ÷ is on track for less than two-thirds of that – and apparently only 6% of its sales are streaming-equivalent units! So I’m very, very interested to see the download-only chart this week.

  17. 17
    Tom on 8 Mar 2017 #

    Does a track purchased as part of an album also count towards its singles chart performance? I thought it didn’t.

  18. 18
    Tom on 8 Mar 2017 #

    I think the no Spotify thing stopped Adele doing this – though whether anyone will bother with that again given how nicely Ed’s doing sales wise I don’t know.

    But also I think Sheeran has a rather unique fanbase. In the streaming era the way to big sales seems to be to sell to people who don’t listen to much music and still buy CDs (ie older listeners) and the way to big streaming totals seems to be to appeal to people with a lot of time on their hands to stream music (ie teenagers and students). Sheeran appeals to both those groups, in a way I don’t think even Adele does.

  19. 19
    muppet on 9 Mar 2017 #

    I’m almost afraid to listen to Galway Girl which until a few hours ago I thought was a cover of the Steve Earle song which had already been assaulted by Mundy. Obviously whats happening with Sheeran would have happened with albums like Bad or Be Here Now if it had been possible but also songs like Stan by Eminem which was huge for months before being released as a single but now would be able to chart immediately.

    Looking at that chart I have an image in my head of an early 80’s style TOTP Yellow Pearl countdown with a different picture of Sheeran for each position. “at 15 is Ed Sheeran with Nancy Mulligan, or is it the other way round”

  20. 20
    Matthew on 9 Mar 2017 #

    Re: 15 and Chart aren’t cultural markers anymore.

    What’s odd about the charts is that it’s their popularity that is making them move so slowly: people on spotify literally must start listening at the beginning of the top 50 hits in x country, and stop when they are bored. If people couldn’t easily and immediately listen to the charts, they wouldn’t be making the individual songs on them more popular, and therefore slowing them down.

    What I suspect is happening is that people on Spotify et al are interested in a “radio” like experience, but most of the curated playlists on Spotify are much too diverse in taste. Faced with an impossibly diverse array of music, listening to the charts gives people reassurance that what they are listening to is worth their time. If Spotify became more radio-like in its playlist curation, it might help push people away from the top 50s and bring movement to the charts.

    Or the fix could be as simple as making the charts more like the US charts: add radio to them. Rihanna’s “Love On the Brain” is currently 6 on the Hot 100, and that is almost entirely driven by radio.

  21. 21
    Tom on 9 Mar 2017 #

    #20 Spotify don’t tell you how many subscribers its “Top 50” charts have so it’s not easy to work out how many listen to them vs the playlists. I expect a lot of people do put the Top 50 on as a default now and then but I also suspect big hits propagate across an awful lot of different curated playlists. (I think you’re overestimating the diversity of the playlists – the chart is a lot less diverse now but it’s still more diverse than any given playlist.)

    What the Top 50 playlist offers now – because it’s so slow – is familiarity: in that sense I think you’re spot on that the service works like a radio. (And creates a feedback loop that extends the life of hits). So maybe it’s not that the charts are no longer a cultural artefact, but that the Spotify charts at least still ARE, but they’re a different kind of one.

  22. 22
    Steve Mannion on 9 Mar 2017 #

    When it comes to streams I wonder how accurately they are able to identify different versions of the same track based on how they’re titled e.g. if there is both a ‘Shape Of You’ and a ‘Shape Of You – Edit’ on Spotify are their plays combined? Presumably yes and the label has some control of which tracks should be linked as ‘the single’ in that way (but this would not extend to remixes or versions of the song markedly different from the original that might’ve been bundled with it on physical format in the past).

  23. 23

    One element of my semi-shelved* history of music&technology project that seems pertinent here is a phenom you can actually see manifesting through most of the 20th century, where two different formats (sometimes of recording/documentation, sometimes of broadcast/reception) operate to serve two kinds of sensibility, which might be termed disruptive/challenging vs comforting/preservative?

    (The canonic format war is 45 vs 33 in the 1950s, the rock/teen format vs the classical/grown-up format — but it’s absolutely never this custos-style simpleton cut-and-dried, bcz in different eras and contexts the same apparent format takes on both roles: viz pre-1967 in the UK pirate radio vs the BBC; LPs in the late 60s were briefly the “experimental” youth format, the 45 becoming the mode-of-the-future c.1967… and so on, with a path-determined drag often operating at the symbolic level. viz (to use a dead word) rockism’s kneejerk that pop and the 45 are reliably the vector for the merely trivial and ignorable. Other ways to map the simpleton dichotomy being: kids (daring and noise-loving) vs adults (slippers, just want a bit of peace); boys vs girls (this is perennial), pop vs art AND (haha) art vs pop.

    Anyway, my contention is that all of us contain both sensibilities simultaenously, so that in any given context/moment we are drawn to both sides in different ways.

    I’m not sure I’ve ever seen this studied in these terms (it’s maybe implicit in the Meltzer-Kogan-Eddy approach). It’s right in front of you in — for example — Simon Reynolds’s term the “Hardcore Continuum” (and such Wire-ish phrases as the “tradition of the avant garde”), with the first and second terms landing on a different side of divide. But I don’t think this aspect has ever really been explored as such in the blissblogosphere (which has I think only fairly recently woken up to the tensions immanent to the study of history, by journalists especially) (this may be unfair, apologies if so).

    Anyway, this is less of a digression than it may seem to be! I think!

    *It is and yet it isn’t :\

  24. 24

    ^^^incomprehensible and yet not nonsense!! mainly i needed to write it down to expand what *I* mean by “bundling”, as serendipity and (which is subtly different) as editorial ethos…

  25. 25
    Steve Mannion on 9 Mar 2017 #

    This is all Sheeran’s bundling revenge for being bundled on at school. BUNDLLLE!

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