Apr 16

VOX POPULAR: The Charts As Soapbox In A Digital Era

FT + Popular13 comments • 3,142 views

Slide1This is the text of my presentation to EMP 2016, in Seattle. The theme of the conference was “voice”, thankfully this proved flexible enough for me to ride my favourite hobby horse. I gave the presentation without notes, so the text here is slightly drier than attendees might remember, and lacks ad libs, embellishments, moments of desperate panic, etc. Thank you to everyone who attended and thank you especially to all those attendees who came up afterwards and said nice things. I had a wonderful time.

Hello Seattle. Make some noise.


The end of last year saw an unusual incursion into British politics by one Justin Bieber. Locked in a battle to secure the Christmas No.1 for mean-spirited smash “Love Yourself”, Bieber threw in the towel, instead endorsing the competing record – a mash up of Simon and Garfunkel and Coldplay made up of a choir of junior staff in Britain’s National Health Service.

The NHS Choir’s record is an intensely political one. It’s an intervention and an awareness raising exercise in a struggle between NHS staff, particularly Junior Doctors, and a Conservative government seeking to push through onerous new contract terms on the path (critics say) to privatising the NHS entirely. The conflict has become a proxy for the overall fate of the NHS under the Tories.

But none of this is remotely audible in the record itself, which is innocuous to a fault.


Instead, the political text is entirely in the record’s chart placing – as an opinion piece by campaign organiser Harriet Nerva makes quite clear. “Our NHS Choir was Christmas number 1. It’s time ministers listened to its message.” What message? There is absolutely no tangible ‘message’ in a mash-up of Coldplay and Simon And Garfunkel! No, in this case getting to number one is itself the political action, because buying the record is acting like signing a petition or going on a demo – a way to give voice and to be heard.

How did we get here? This presentation is the story of this secondary function of the pop charts as platform – a way to voice opinions both political and aesthetic. But in order to explain Justin Bieber and the NHS Choir in 2015, we have to go all the way back to the very origins of the charts themselves.


It begins in 1952, with the establishment of the NME and the first chart of recorded music sales in the UK – an innovation designed to sell advertising space. But immediately something was very noticeable about this sales chart. Three of the records in the first top twelve are by the same woman.


Why was Dame Vera Lynn such a hit in 1952? Her Second World War hits had made the Forces’ Sweetheart famous, but in 1952 a hundred thousand British troops were fighting in Korea. It was more than enough to make tracks like “Auf Wiedersehn Sweetheart” sell in the tens of thousands.

The fact that pop music reflected current events and concerns was hardly new, of course – such effects date back to music hall days, if not before. But right from its beginnings, the charts gave notice that it could act as a seismograph, something to quantify this effect. And also to publicise it.


Jump forward a year and we see another example – this time an artist, Dickie Valentine, cashing in on events with the unctuous “In A Golden Coach”. The event was the Queen’s Coronation – “the prettiest Queen the world has seen”, smarms Dickie – which is important to our story because of one very specific cultural effect. It kick started the television era in Britain. 18 million watched the event – and the number of households owning TVs grew by 400% in three years.

And TV became the next and most important front in turning the seismograph of the pop charts into something central to national culture beyond music.


In 1964 the BBC overhauled its music programming to debut Top Of The Pops, a weekly spotlight of high selling music with the chart at its centre. British TV at the time was very limited – two terrestrial channels, meaning that almost anything broadcast on BBC 1 could achieve a national audience. And a captive family audience – most households only had one black-and-white TV, and changing the channel (or even getting the TV switched on and warmed up!) was time consuming. So the model was households watching a channel, more than individuals watching programmes.

There were other ways things could have gone. The BBC could have decided to showcase only the best music, or concentrated on new releases. Instead, it centred its programming on the charts.


And in doing so it put in place the three factors that would allow the Top 40 to work as a platform.

First, the methodology. A sales based chart could be and was corrupted. But the influence of tastemaker DJs was subtly different in a chart based on sales, not airplay. A DJ could best prove their influence not by breaking a classic record but by championing something an awful lot of people would buy – novelties included. Weight of numbers could make a hit.

Second, the distribution. Top Of The Pops with its captive audience of tuned-in households built on existing radio chart shows to give national exposure well beyond the actual potential market for a given single.

Third, the focus. Top Of The Pops built in the idea of a mix of styles and the number one slot as a zone of conflict – the narrative climax of each week in pop.


The result was a rapid acceleration of the visual evolution of UK pop, spurred on by the fact that BBC engineers used Top Of The Pops as a test bed for new colour and visual effects. And an acceleration of the idea that one way the chart could use its captive audience was confrontation. British national pop radio – given its own station from 1967 – was based on the idea that it was the background to the working day for millions of homes, factories and offices. Consensus was the name of the game. Top Of The Pops, on the other hand, had half an hour to keep its audience tuned in. It could provide controversy and talking points in a way British radio shunned.


Punk was one culmination of these trends. Notoriously the industry were believed to have rigged the charts via procedural changes to prevent a number one for the Sex Pistols in the week of the Queens Silver Jubilee in 1977. Whether true or not, the rumour proved something new: the idea that the charts could be gamed, or subverted if you wanted to be high-minded about it. For Malcolm McLaren, getting or almost getting to No 1 was not just a commercial achievement but an artistic statement.


The next few years were glory days for the charts. In 1979 Top Of The Pops hit its viewing peak – 19 million, a third of the British population. In 1981, The Specials’ “Ghost Town” hit number one the week the country erupted in riots largely in response to racist policing. It was a coincidence, but one which cemented the sense that the charts had a kind of secret duty to act as a Greek chorus to events.


And still the Sex Pistols’ dangerous idea – that getting into the charts was a statement in its own right – thrived. It was a founding motivation for stars of 1980s New Pop, and Zang Tuum Tumb’s conceptual electro-disco act Frankie Goes To Hollywood proved masters of gaming the charts. They scored 5 weeks at number one with “Relax”, 9 with “Two Tribes”, the latter helped by six different single formats, dripfed to the public across the record’s chart life.

But the very marketing tricks that Frankie mastered would begin to change the way the charts worked. It wasn’t just ZTT’s swashbucklers and situationists that had worked out how to place records high. As the 80s continued, the business figured out how to effectively market singles to maximise and front load their sales. First week placing was critical. The shape of the charts had changed.

The best way to illustrate this is with some graphs by me.


What you’re looking at here is the shape of big and small hits over their chart lifespans. Major hits would often have a fairly swift rise up to their chart peak, then a slower tail off. Minor hits would follow the same arc – but at a smaller scale, with a lower peak.

Effective first-week marketing changed all that. Now the major hits would enter high and stick around. But the minor hits would also enter high and drop off dramatically.

This had the potential to make the charts even more of a platform.


The shape of the charts was changing just as other factors were eroding their place as a rhytmic, weekly fixture in the culture. In 1988 Rupert Murdoch launched Sky TV, one of the UK’s first satellite TV stations, beginning the erosion of terrestrial TV dominance. The audience for Top Of The Pops began to decline, partly because of more competition, partly because of multi-TV households which meant family viewing could no longer be taken for granted. And partly because a giddily creative era for pop saw a proliferation of genres which stretched the show’s pan-stylistic remit to breaking point.

But even as its weekly showcase began to wane, the idea of the charts as battleground – a territory to be conquered – became more popular than ever.


This was the era of the chart battle – once singles getting to number one in their first week became the norm, it was more viable to set up head-to-head matches. Blur v Oasis. Posh Spice vs Sophie Ellis Bextor. Most brutal of all, Eminem Vs Bob The Builder. The age when the number one was part of the weekly rhythm of British culture was coming to an end. But replacing it was a sense that the number one was still important – but interesting only inasmuch as it could hold its own on the evening news.

With these shifts the platformisation of the charts is almost complete. But one big barrier still remained preventing the use of the charts by anyone with a voice and a plan. It was very difficult to release a single.


Then suddenly it wasn’t. Across the early to mid 00s the charts made gradual, grudging accommodation with digital music. In 2004 online sales were counted for the first time. But they only counted when a physical single was released. Then they counted within a time limit around the physical release.

Tying online sales to physical release dates meant that ordinary buyers and listeners still couldn’t organise to get a song of their choice into the charts. The labels’ final say was weakening, but it held. So in the 00s it was other forces which best utilised the charts for narrative ends, making the achievement of a number one the climax of a story.


Simon Cowell wasn’t the first to realise this but with the X-Factor he mastered the trick. In his hands the charts became entirely a platform, a staging ground for the story his shows told, with a week at number one the prize for every year’s winner. Meanwhile, in 2006, with Leona Lewis in procession towards X-Factor victory, Top of the Pops was cancelled.


So let’s revisit how the charts worked. Things have changed. They are a part of the national culture, but only on special occasions, when something unusual happens in them. In other words, people only paid attention to the charts when they were being gamed. And if you had the resources, gaming them was entirely possible.

Then finally in 2007 the physical requirement for chart entry was lifted. Gaming the charts was now an option for the public, not just for Simon Cowell. The whole of pop music history was open to DJs, critics and any other influencers. How would they use their newfound freedom?


Here’s how.

The shortest single ever to chart in the UK, “The Ladies’ Bras” is a smutty novelty sewn together by library music crate digger Jonny Trunk. A particular DJ hatched the idea, the public listened, and The Ladies Bras became a top twenty hit. It doesn’t get more (gruesomely) British than this.

But this and other stunts proved a point. Chart manipulation on a whim and a download was a reality. The charts were a platform. All they needed was an API.


They soon got one. At Christmas 2009 Simon Cowell’s lock on the seasonal No 1 was decisively broken, when X Factor winner Joe McElderry was beaten to the top by Rage Against The Machine’s 1992 single, “Killing In The Name”. Long a dancefloor favourite, Rage’s splenetic blast against authoritarianism was easily co-opted as a point made in a conversation about music. The band themselves merrily played along. “This is real democracy”, obliged Tom Morello. Zach de la Rocha talked about the power of direct youth action, happily ignoring the fact that the campaign organisers were in their 30s, and a lot of their fired-up followers were older still.

Rage’s success fit almost any narrative you wanted to place it in. It was a victory for rock over pop, a return to when the charts mattered, a win for ‘real fans’, a massive snub to Simon Cowell, a sign of the bankruptcy of current alternative music, or just a bit of fun. Ideas, conversations and grudges that had simmered across a decade in which pop’s dominant forces had been reality TV, R&B and teen pop broke cover. Some of them had little to do with pantomime villain Cowell. In the inevitable Reddit thread, McElderry’s fans were predictably characterised as “a bunch of shitty music liking teenage girls”. Another site went one better – the villains were “teenage girls – AND THEIR MUMS!”

Mashable came closest to the truth. “FACEBOOK WINS” it announced. The ingredients needed for a chart campaign to go all the way were familiar ones – a groundswell on social media picked up excitedly by traditional media, creating a bubble of attention. Using the charts as a platform was a perfect articulation of this dynamic which would become the standard model for a great deal internet marketing. It helped that it had a definite goal – getting something to number one. Jon Morter, who ran the campaign with his then wife Tracy, set up a social media consultancy.


Facebook groups were a tool powerful enough for large scale chart manipulation. But the activity fitted into a wider media context, in which far smaller and more secretive channels could be equally effective at ‘platformising’ almost any form of public media. The continuum between Rage’s chart win and 4chan’s continued ridicule of the Time 100 list is clearly apparent, for instance. The trend is toward angry tails wagging hapless dogs, the fringe bum-rushing the apparent centre. From the vantage point of 2016 what I notice about the Rage campaign is its undertones of wide, gleeful anger not just at the easy targets of pop or the X Factor but at the very idea of a centre. Or at least of that centre shifting away from the people getting angry.


But using the charts as soapbox still needed a particular combination of factors. A series of failed attempts showed that.

Simple pranksterism wouldn’t work as well – a 2010 attempt (pictured here) got John Cage’s 4’33 into the top 40 but not to the summit. It remains the only one of the “chart campaigns” I’ve got on board for myself.

Rockist outrage at perceived impropriety couldn’t quite get all the way either. A campaign to prevent X-Factor winner Alexandra Burke’s cover of “Hallelujah” getting to the top fell short as not enough people bought the, ahem, “Jeff Buckley original”.

Even righting historic wrongs didn’t work. In 2012 the NME embarrassingly threw its weight behind a campaign to reverse the injustice of ’77 and put “God Save The Queen” at the top. John Lydon was not impressed. “This campaign totally undermines what The Sex Pistols stood for. It is certainly not my personal plan or aim.” The 2012 re-release reached a chart peak of number 80.

As musical interventions, the charts as soapbox seemed like a one hit wonder. But the potential still existed for something wider.


In 2013 the opportunity arrived. Margaret Thatcher had been ill for some years – plenty of time to anticipate and plan for her death. In the form of a state funeral, if you were the establishment. Or in the form of demonstrations and parties, if you were one of the millions who despised her. Facebook chart campaigns were common by this point. An anti-Thatcher one was inevitable. It settled easily on a song, inspired by placards held by demonstrators.

The right wing press were furious – both about the backlash in general and the song in particular. But they realised that calling for a ban would look like censorship. Tory MPs were even crosser. John Whittingdale, chairman of the Culture select committee, pronounced that “This is an attempt to manipulate the charts by people trying to make a political point.” Of course he was quite right. “Most people find that offensive and deeply insensitive”, he continued. But a lot just found it funny.

In any case neither Politicians’ denunciations, nor even the dredging up of two surviving munchkins to condemn the politicisation of their song, could halt the momentum. In fact the publicity almost certainly helped. Questions swirled – would the BBC fix it? Would they even play it? No need, you’d think – the title would be catharsis enough.

Pro-Thatcher groups on Facebook hunted for alternatives. Eight thousand bought punk novelty act The Notsensibles’ “I’m In Love With Margaret Thatcher”, enough to get it to No.35. Others settled on the most pragmatic course of action. Buy whatever record was selling anyway. This turned out to be Duke Dumont’s rather good “Need U (100%)”. I like to think that some of the 60,000 who bought it that week were staunch Tories doing their duty by Maggie. Perhaps some of them became steadfast deep house fans.

The day came. Could the charts spike the Establishment? “Ding Dong The Witch Is Dead” reached… Number two. The BBC moved quickly past it, playing a clip, leaving neither side happy.


And so to the NHS choir. It succeeded where “Ding Dong” failed by giving its politics a degree of plausible deniability. It was just a charity record, after all. But its success may also have been a last hurrah for the charts as a soapbox. The inclusion of streaming into the charts makes them more than ever a reflection of what people are actually playing. But what people are playing tends to be the same as what they were playing last week. Protest purchases don’t pick up too many Spotify plays. Perhaps the only tracks that can defy that effect are charity hits.


Where does that leave the charts, an erratic and reluctant barometer of the cultural weather for sixty years? The decline of the TV monoculture pushed the Top 40 out of the rhythm of British life and into a role as occasional newsmaker. But now even the memory of its significance is fading, and its weekly pace is a poor match for the quicksilver Internet news cycle.

Under streaming, the charts are sclerotic. Barely more than 300 songs became hits last year, the lowest since the Top 75 began in 1979. Twenty years ago, in the Spice Girls’ heyday, that number was almost 1200. Critics decried the absurd turnover of music. But it had a hidden consequence. The faster the chart moves, the more it can be used as a soapbox. The charts’ role as a platform was latent in them from their very beginning. But its flowering may have been a last flurry of relevance before obsolescence descends.



  1. 1
    Phil on 26 Apr 2016 #

    The 1981 riots were anti-police riots, not race riots.

    Interesting talk – and I’m particularly fascinated by the final stage, i.e. how we got here. How does it happen that removing all the barriers to entry and disempowering all the gatekeepers results in less variety? Is it something like what Paul Lamere called the Harry Potter effect – automated recommendations track previous success, so everyone gets recommendations for the same short list of things? (Looking for Neutral Milk Hotel? You might like Arcade Fire, or Coldplay!)

  2. 2
    Cumbrian on 26 Apr 2016 #

    There’s a serious risk of immediately derailing this conversation into one about the 1981 riots – but as someone who was born in 1981 and only studied the riots at 20 years distance when I was at university, the characterisation of those riots as not being about race but being anti-police is at variance with most of the literature on the subject, including The Scarman Report – which essentially advocated tackling racial disadvantage in order to quell the underlying causes of those riots. At best, they were about both those things, but I don’t think the racial component can be dismissed that easily. I would be intrigued to hear what people who were “there” actually have to say about this.

    Anyway, to keep us on track, I also enjoyed reading this and, like Phil, am interested in understanding more about recommendation engines and algorithms. My Discover Weekly playlist on Spotify fascinates me, as I experiment with trying to break it into recommending me things that are not in my comfort zone. I am having varying success and it does make me wonder about similar lists of associated artists being assigned Venn diagram prominence. I suspect money may be being exchanged for greater prominence – it’s how SEO works, so why wouldn’t similar models be pushed in streaming services to ensure that certain artists are funnelled clicks? Homogenisation of the chart is not necessarily a given with fewer tracks charting each year but it does seem to be the way that things have gone – and it does make the chart seem much less interesting, as I am wilfully trying to use these services to expand my listening, not contract it (though usage of the services is a slightly separate thing from the charts themselves, I realise).

  3. 3
    Tom on 26 Apr 2016 #

    #1 Sorry! Oddly enough I caught that in my actual talk, so apologies for the wording from an earlier draft creeping in. I’ve amended it to reflect what (from memory at least) I actually said, which reflects both the racial disadvantage and anti-police explanations. Whether it’s accurate or not I don’t know – it was a throwaway reference in a talk about pop music – but of course I’m happy to be educated.

  4. 4
    Phil on 26 Apr 2016 #

    I was born in 1960, and I’m as certain as I can be that the rioting of that summer – in Bristol, Birmingham and Manchester as well as London – was not race rioting, in the sense of Black against White or vice versa. (It wasn’t even reported as such at the time, a few right-wing columnists apart.) This is not inconsistent with racism being one of the root causes of the riots; you don’t need to hate White people to hate White racism.

    Anyway, I’m much more interested in the no gatekeeper/encroaching monoculture paradox, not least because it applies so widely. Self-publishing has given us The Martian and 50 Shades, but shouldn’t it have given us much more than that – many more different things, in particular, not a couple of unavoidable world-wide blockbusters? It’s like the quote from Tom Slee in the piece I linked to – In the Internet World the customers see further, but they are all looking out from the same tall hilltop.

  5. 5
    Andrew Farrell on 26 Apr 2016 #

    I assume that anything self-publishing based that isn’t unavoidable, I’ve simply avoided – more or less by definition by the time any culture hits me it’s gone overground. But this may be just a rationalisation of my age.

  6. 6
    Andrew Farrell on 26 Apr 2016 #

    Also I’m sad that the article robs me of one of my favourite metaphors – I’d been given to understand from somewhere that there was more than one version of Ding Dong! in the charts, and that if the sales hadn’t been split, it would have gone to #1. A quick check through the charts archive page proves that nonsense.

  7. 7
    Steve Mannion on 26 Apr 2016 #

    I’m a Ding Dong truther.

    A glance at this week’s chart and the ‘number of hits’ crisis seems like it will drop below 300 this year – just based on the highest new entry being P!nk at a lowly 32 (and just two other new entries between that and #40). But maybe it was just an unusually quiet week.

    The increase of generational big stars passing away might push the total up even if the re-entering songs by Bowie and now Prince aren’t new hits as such – though some in download form will have improved on their previous peaks in physical formats alone.

  8. 8
    weej on 26 Apr 2016 #

    IIRC there was talk of another version of Ding Dong, sung by a soul or cabaret singer, but it was never given a push chartwards by any sort of campaign.

  9. 9
    Tom on 26 Apr 2016 #

    The reason for the decline in hits and the sclerosis in the charts is very simple – with the end of physical media and the rise of streaming there is simply no external pressure for a song to exit the charts quickly. Physical media meant new releases pushed older songs off shelves. Download sales decay more slowly than physical sales but they still decay. But with streaming media even once a song is off the radio and well below the fold on iTunes it can still be on your playlists. In fact streaming has an extra inertial effect – when you go onto Spotify part of what it shows you is what you last played.

  10. 10
    Tom on 26 Apr 2016 #

    As for the big hit monoculture, some of this is down to a small number of common denominators amongst individual filter bubbles. Some of it is also to do with structural factors – big entertainment companies make small numbers of large bets instead of large numbers of small ones, because if one does come off and hit big you can extend it to death.

  11. 11
    Pink champ ale on 27 Apr 2016 #

    The upside of all this is that the terminally out of touch, such as myself, do occasionally get to actually know a song that’s in the charts.

  12. 12
    Mark G on 23 May 2016 #

    Is Popular holding comments in suspension again? There’s one in 1981 that’s not coming out, and when I reposted it said “That’s a duplicate”

  13. 13
    Mark G on 27 May 2016 #

    Tell you what: I’ll be happy when the MagThatcher pic drops off the Popular page.

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