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.