Don’t Cross the Streams

In Commentary, HOME, MUSIC by Nick Cordingly

I can count the number of physical CDs I’ve actually bought on one hand. If you asked me to show you my music library, I’d point to my laptop, which doesn’t even have a CD drive any more. I, and much of my generation, live in a post CD world. No longer is a wall of CDs a way to show off your music tastes. While I can understand the pleasure gained of holding a physical copy of something you’ve bought in your hands and admiring the artwork (I get that pleasure with books, no Kindles for Nick no thank you) I feel like that is something people care about less and less these days, and where it does exist I think it’s now being directed more at vinyl, hence the upturn in recent years in vinyl sales.

But to many, if not most under-25s who still basically determine the top 40, at least in terms of singles, the CD is a thing of the past (for albums the story is slightly different, physical album sales are higher than those for singles and the album chart is generally reflective of an older album buying public).

Spotify_logo_horizontal_black-001The announcement that streaming from sites such as Spotify and Deezer would be included in the official UK charts for the first time from July is a recognition of this reality. This is the biggest shakeup of the charts since downloads were first counted a decade ago, and to me it is entirely sensible adaptation to the way people listen to music these days.

The transition to an online-based music experience where the actual purchase of music is often an afterthought has caused the entire music industry to have a massive identity crisis over the last few years. Suddenly everything seemed up in the air and intangible. You couldn’t just look at what people were willing to part cash for to know what people liked any more. Radio stations no longer had the monopoly over who listened to what. The marketplace appeared to have splintered and vanished into thin air.

2013-03-26 13.48.41But it had not. What it had done is take power into its own hands. No longer is the music consumer subject to the whim of the record label boss or the radio controller to listen to their favourite music. I’ve written before of how amazing it is that now all music ever is available for free at our fingertips. Never again will there a be a single music ‘scene’ like punk or acid house, everyone can listen to exactly what they want whenever they want. It does make the job of record labels and radio stations more difficult in attempting to assess what’s popular, but it isn’t impossible, you simply have to look in more places, which they have been. The stats from music streaming sites have already been watched keenly by industry figures for a few years so it makes perfect sense that, like in America, they should count towards chart positions.

We have yet to adopt the US Billboard chart’s position of also including YouTube views in chart positions, which has created a new warfare among artists looking for American success to produce the most viral-worthy content, and which explains the recent works of artists such as Miley Cyrus and Robin Thicke. I remain unconvinced about this move, and would rather wait to see how streaming affects our charts first.

And what will that effect be? Probably not a huge amount, at least at the top end of the charts. 100 streams will only equal one physical download, and the most streamed artists of the last few months all happen to be the artists with the most sales – topped obviously by Pharrell’s ‘Happy.’ Unless a chart battle is exceptionally close, the Top 10 will probably not look much different. What will be interesting will be the lower end of the charts. This has the possibility of becoming a sadly less interesting place.

Rather than interesting new artists breaking through with an exciting first single that charts at number 34, on which success they can slowly build their popularity and edge up the charts, this place will probably become the haunt of the perennially-inoffensive-populars – your Bastilles, 1975s, Ed Sheerans and the like. These artists attract huge audiences of non-devoted fans who are happy to listen to them quite a lot. These people aren’t the ones who stan hard for them and make elaborate placards declaring their love and listen to them 10 times a day. These are people who just put them on their jogging playlists because they quite like that song of theirs and will keep cycling through them quite regularly. This will change the nature of the lower end of the charts fundamentally. No longer will they necessarily reflect what is new and fresh, what everyone is talking about that week. Instead they’ll reflect the long term popularity of middle of the road artists and empower the casual listener.

Is this a bad thing? If it reflects what people are genuinely like listening to, rather than just what is being hyped and heavily sold to us by record labels, then perhaps not. But if it knocks smaller and upcoming artists into the lower reaches of the chart we must be concerned. I can’t really offer a definitive answer, annoyingly. We’ll just have to wait and see how it turns out. It won’t cause a revolution, but it may cause ripples that no one can predict.

Nick Cordingly

Nick Cordingly is the former Deputy Editor of MUSIC at PTL. Having been dragged kicking and screaming out of the Cambridge bubble, he was in the enviable position of trying to find a use for a history degree when all he wanted to do was listen to pop music and tweet. Nick has now – to our loss – been snatched from our clutches by the working world, however, as this article proves, he is still happy to drop by every now and then to share his wisdom.

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