Are singles dead? What sells, and who buys it?
by Flash Wilson, August 19th 2002
This is a review of the current state of the UK music charts.
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As a child, listening to the Top 40 rundown was one of the highlights of the week. Magazines like Smash Hits were amusing (natch!), and Stock Aitken and Waterman protégés stuffed the chart full of songs to which I could sing along. Music was taped from the radio and swapped well before MP3s came along.
Charts started being kept in England in 1952 and as I grew up there were a number of charts being followed - the Melody Maker charts, the BBC Top 40 and other independent charts. Now, we tend to follow two - the BBC one (compiled by the Official UK Chart Company, and promoted on Top Of The Pops) and the independent one used by CD:UK. However there are also charts in each category - the RnB chart, the dance chart, the metal chart, the "Indie" chart (so much for indie music being alternative and on independent labels, so much for RnB meaning Rhythm and Blues) which break the current charts down further.
Things have changed. Now, you only need sell 30,000 singles to hit number 1 on a quiet week, and 5,000 to enter the top 10. In the singles heyday of the 1960s and 70s, 30,000 singles was barely enough to make the top 40.
Singles buyers have always been fickle. They are mainly pre-teen girls through to late teens of both sexes, so popular songs cannot be expected to have lasting value. A telling sign of this is that Top Of The Pops magazine is aimed at teenage girls.
This fickleness can however be exploited. By releasing different formats, sometimes a week apart, one single can increase sales and extend its stay in the charts. Now that singles are available on CD (apart from some dance tracks on vinyl for the DJs), the concept of A and B sides has gone, so now singles support a variety of additional media. For example, I recently bought a single, choosing from a version with extra remixes, a version with content for your PC (in this case the music video accompanying the song) and a version with DVD content. In fact I bought the single to obtain a remix which is not available elsewhere (I already had the main "A side" song on album). The remix was present on all formats, so I chose the PC content format to obtain the video as well, and felt I had been given a bonus.
It is well known that most of the money made from music is in the album (for the record company) and touring (for the artist), so what purposes do singles fulfil?
One main purpose is to promote the current album. Toploader had huge album sales from the success of just one song, "Dancing in the Moonlight". Singles can also be released as a teaser to a hotly anticipated album, as Coldplay are currently doing with "In my Place". It entered at number two, boding well for their album release next week.
Dance is another driving force behind sales of singles - both to DJs (some of whom still prefer vinyl) and to clubbers, reminding them of a holiday (think Ibiza) or night out. Many of these are by unknown artists who remain "one hit wonders" - like Whigfield, with Saturday Night - some of whom are still seen touring universities etc. off the back of their single hit!
Maybe the increasing success of guitar bands like Coldplay, and the rise of nu-metal, illustrates that singles buyers are no longer just 9-12 year old girls, but also teenagers of both sexes.
It strikes me, too, that chart music these days fits a mould as much now as ever. Certain categories reach the charts, others (like Gordon Haskell and Vanessa Mae) are seen as novelties when they pop in - usually around Christmas to appeal to our warm-hearted side - and some genres are never seen at all.
Here is my interpretation of the ten genres that currently fill the charts.
1. Ragga Descendants
e.g. Misteeq, Miss Dynamite, Eminem
Several forms of music derived from reggae - from hip hop, through rap, to modern RnB. Although these still have their own categories, there is far more crossover now than in the days when rap meant MC Hammer. It seems that songs with an underlying R&B vibe are tending to have a spoken element, fusing to produce a more aggressive stance - even when produced by pretty girls like Misteeq. Although there is still a tendency for this category to be the domain of black artists, there is some fluidity between other styles and a range of people are taking it on.
e.g. Mariah Carey, Celine Dion
Wailing women, singing their solitary song. Other more upbeat women might enter this category - J-Lo, Shakira, Christina Aquilera et al could arguably be classified at the pop end of Diva, although their Latin sounds probably belong somewhere between synthesised pop and dance hit. There is no exclusion on men - Enrique Iglesias being an obvious example - but men are far less likely to sing this kind of song.
e.g. Alien Ant Farm, Linkin' Park, Blink 182, Bowling For Soup
This is the only really new kind of music in the charts at the moment, a more disposable and inoffensive form of heavy metal for the younger teenagers (a.k.a. Spooky Kids). A plethora of new bands with spiky hair, who seemingly write their own music with simple hooks and lyrics like "I don't wanna work in Starbucks" synthesise rebellion in a harmless way, but still intend it to be played loud and so irk the adults.
This format also has a wider appeal than many of the other types of music in the charts. Young teens will live by it, while older people find it amusing (try Bowling For Soup for size) and less tedious than other forms of music in the charts - at least it is something relatively new.
4. Synthesised Artists
e.g. Hear'Say, Steps, Gareth Gates
This covers artists which were auditioned and groomed in an artificial way like the Spice Girls and the winners of TV talent hunt shows. An established following from TV or other publicity helps, but to be successful you really need a decent songwriter, especially as the artists rarely have the talent to do it themselves (at least to begin with). "Can't Get You Out of my Head" sold by the bucketload and everyone now loves Kylie again (I bet Sophie Ellis Bextor regrets turning it down) and "Automatic High" is exactly right for the S Club Juniors - perfect for pre-teen girlie singalongs. The sampling of Gary Numan's "Are Friends Electric?" in the Sugababes' "Freak Like Me" is another example of getting it right. However, one or two flops, and the band is destined not to return as another band is quickly courted - do you remember Honeyz?
5. Singalong Pop
e.g. Robbie Williams, Oasis
These artists are replacing Britpop in our affections, in a niche that Blur and Pulp used to occupy. They are popular because you can sing along without needing a good voice, still make a reasonable noise, and all your mates know the words; it's acceptable to play in the pub. Catchy, but not quite trivial enough to appeal to the tweens.
6. Guitar Pop
e.g. Coldplay, Radiohead, Starsailor
Presumably these are being bought by angst ridden teens, but they do at least add meaning to the marketplace. These songs are also replacing Britpop to some extent. These artists would usually expect to shift album units, and their singles are released to promote the album first and foremost - the singles aren't cheery enough for the disco.
7. Old Codgers
e.g. Status Quo, Cliff Richard
Cliff pops up every Christmas without fail, but I'm not sure why Status Quo still manage to chart (especially when oldies like Michael Jackson and George Michael are no longer popular) but for some reason they are doing so. Is it a fix?
8. Covers and Remixes
e.g. Scooter (Logical Song), Atomic Kitten (Eternal Flame, The Tide is High), Madhouse (Like A Prayer), Stereophonics (Handbags and Gladrags)
Covers are still successful, even if the audience wasn't born when the originals were released. These songs usually have a "modern twist" (like a dance beat), and are pretty awful. Scooter are at least doing something different with the format.
9. Club Anthems
e.g. Whigfield (Saturday Night), DJ Pied Piper (Lovin' It)
These are bought by clubbers, who want a copy to remind them of a good night out, and of course by DJs. With little staying power, they are often by a one-hit wonder. Look back at the charts a few years ago - you might (just) remember the song, but do you know what the artist looked like?
10. Charity Releases and Novelty Records
e.g. Candle in the Wind 97, 3 Lions 98, On The Ball
These either storm into the charts and dominate, or make a pitiful showing and flop straight back out again. Charity records seem to be less popular these days, maybe because they no longer have the impact of Band Aid, but football records and music made famous by films or TV adverts are going strong. (Perhaps advert and film scores should be another category, but they still only occupy a small percentage of the charts.) However, if you've never been a regular single buyer, these songs have another purpose - the first (and possibly last) single you bought was probably a novelty record. Remember "Snooker Loopy", "Living Doll" or "Star Trekking", and cringe!
Although I have defined specific categories, there is of course some crossover - singalong pop with guitar pop, both of which are replacing britpop in our affections (Oasis being a good example of the middle ground), singalong pop with synthesised bands (which is Kylie, for example?) and synthesized bands with dance hits (for example, most of Steps' songs). Covers and remixes span the gamut, whether a dance beat is added to bring a song up to date (and into clubs) or a song is covered purely to get more money for old rope.
Potential divas like Britney, Kylie and J-Lo can be fitted into one of the other categories pretty easily too, even on a song by song basis. So although I have broken current chart music into multiple trends, we really only have a few styles; light, dance pop, guitar based pop, and heavier, nu-metal pop. Other genres just never reach the charts.
To illustrate my categories, here is the current Top 10:
|1.||Round Round||Sugababes|| [Ragga descendant - RnB]|
|2.||Colourblind||Darius||[Synthesised - Pop Idol]|
|3.||Romeo Dunn||Romeo|| [Ragga descendant - Hip Hop]|
|4.||James Dean||Daniel Bedingfield||[Club Anthem]|
|5.||Like A Prayer||Madhouse||[Cover - originally Madonna]|
|6.||Lovin' is Easy||Hear'Say|| [Synthesised - Pop Stars]|
|8.||Half a Heart||H and Claire|| [Synthesised - from PWL band Steps]|
|9.||Anyone of Us||Gareth Gates|| [Synthesised - Pop Idol]|
|10.||Black Suits Comin'||Will Smith|| [Novelty - from film - also Ragga Descendant - Hip Hop]|
The sad thing is that there is little breaking the mould, storming the chart and surprising us. When is the last time that something on a TV chart programme genuinely caught your attention? A shame, too, that there are many other forms of music out there which are less popular and just never make it into the charts.
But have the charts had their day? Surely not. As long as the nation contains teenage girls, there will always be singles buyers. Just don't be disturbed when the charts don't comprise your favourite tunes, or even music you understand. As your kids will probably tell you, you're just getting old.
This page last updated: 24 July 2004
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