Staring at my shelves of CDs and vinyl (recently culled – It was vicious and I do feel a bit reborn, thanks for asking) I was wondering if the shiny new world of always available, always on, always there and almost always free music that has been unleashed in recent times via illegal (file sharing) and legal (Spotify) means has fundamentally changed they way we get “into” music. I was looking at certain CDs and picked out a couple that I hadn’t heard in a while (probably a number of years) and got an urge to give them a spin (the albums, incidentally, were REM’s Reveal and New Order’s Technique).
Nothing strange in this, but it set of a chain of thought that reminded me of a term that I haven’t heard of for a while – “it’s a grower”. This term was given to albums that might take a bit of time to get under your skin and become an essential part of your collection. I think this new landscape has changed this concept forever.
I guess it is all down to a couple of things – what we invest in music (i.e. our money) and the mindset to repeat play something. The former has certainly reduced for the vast majority of people as access to new music has exploded – no longer do you need to wait for a track that your mate has raved about to advantageously appear on the radio or (naughty) be given to you on a cassette or by other means. You can pretty much find anything on the web for free now – Spotify and MySpace has made this the way ahead. But this mass availability may have eroded the latter of my points. In the old days, if you spent the equivalent of around £20 on an album/CD, you probably gave it a while to impress you. This is where tracks/albums/artists that were “growers” had a chance. If the album/CD in question really didn’t do it for you, it was off to Record and Tape Exchange to try to get some cash back for it.
But what of the new Warholesque world? Will time-poor people with almost immediate access to millions of songs give something a chance? I’m not so sure. I think that they will probably move on to the next thing. Maybe it fits with the modern world – I, for one, love the new landscape – I was never really an albums person and used to make loads of mix tapes. Today the best way of getting “in someone’s head” is more than likely to be included in an advertising campaign, be on MTV/radio loads and even aligned to a brand. Maybe it is a good thing; I personally have loads of albums that have maybe two or three good tracks and seven fillers – people going forward are just not going to put up with this. Will it push quality up? maybe, maybe not.
But the cream will always rise – it just might not grow in future.
It seems we are a bit closer to a time when we don’t buy music to keep anymore, but rent it to listen to when we want. Apparently the record charts/pop charts/hit parade/toppermost of the poppermost will soon recognise data from streaming services such as Spotify. This is a HUGE and seismic change. The charts were so central to music sales a few years ago and reflected recent releases. Now things could get a lot more volatile. Let’s delve a bit deeper into why this is such a big deal.
One of the main reasons for this blog is to look back at how we bought music and cast the view forward to guess how things will be. I firmly believe that we are quickly heading towards a future when the majority of music will be consumed via streaming services of one form or the other. There may be ways to buy music “for keeps” but for the vast majority of people, the days of having racks in the living room with LPs/CDs in are pretty much yesterday’s news.
Why? well, behind every romantic notion of collecting music, the impact on society of singles and LPs/CDs etc is a business of selling music. For most products and services the way of selling more is by advertising/marketing/PR (I’m a particular fan of the latter 😉 ) But the music industry has always had another method of promotion.
The pop charts.
Since the fifties, getting a record on the pop charts meant the domino effect of free publicity. Records on the charts receive more plays on the radio and on TV. This leads to more sales etc… you know the story. As someone who used to work in record shops and market stalls, I have heard all sorts of stories about how records were “hyped” up the charts. You see, back in the day (I mean before mass communication/broadband/the internet) certain record shops earned a status known as “chart return”. This meant that these chosen shops had a system installed that meant that when they sold a record/CD that data was logged with the official chart company of the day (people of a certain age will remember “Gallup”). Now, not every record shop had this chart return system and to prevent “corruption” the charts were made up of data from a random sample of what these chart return shops scanned in. Still, I recall hearing tales of all sorts of “interesting” and downright dodgy practices employed to try to rig the charts. I’ve heard of record sales reps offering boxes of free product to chart return shops for a few extra “sales” being put through chart return systems randomly during the week (it couldn’t be done all at once – it would have been picked up – a bit like dodgy betting patterns). I’ve also heard stories of record companies/managers of bands paying people to go and buy 5-10 copies of a single from each chart return shop in the area. And ever wondered why certain shops used to sell singles for 99p? Did you really think that they were profitable at that price? No, not really… they were given boxes of the things for free, because the record company knew that if a single made the charts, sales of the associated album would increase…. and since the 1970s, albums are where money has been made.
This isn’t the first overhaul of the charts – a few years ago paid downloads were (rightly) added to chart figures. And I’m not sure what became of the chart return shop. I assume that today pretty much every sale of a single/album could be logged via the web and the hyping of records up the charts has probably become trickier. Who knows? I certainly don’t. But this idea that songs streamed from a site like Spotify will be counted on the charts seems to mark the end for them in my eyes. I realise that the charts have become less important in recent years, but they still told us something about what the masses were listening to.
But adding streaming to the count….? Surely this opens a whole new can of worms. Will the track have to be played all the way through to count? won’t we start getting “song spam” where records are “hyped” by people opening accounts and then continuously repeating the same track? And thinking about it, as everyone is getting linked up, why not create a chart that reports on when you play a song at home? Having “always on” internet should mean that in the future every track you play on any device could be logged for a chart…. actually, thinking about it, it sounds pretty obvious.
And this gives record companies even less reason to release physical formats….