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Digital culture: Charts

Everyone loves Ed Sheeran

Published 3:43 pm on Friday 19th March 2021 by Beat Magazine

Millions of listeners wait every year for „Last Christmas“ to haunt them wherever they go. Loved dearly and hated abysmally in equal measure, this brilliantly generic schmaltzy song has been sweetening and ruining every December since 1984. For George Michael, however, who produced the song almost single-handedly and recorded every single instrument on it himself, the track represented a small blot on the otherwise almost perfect chart history of his band Wham! during his lifetime because the song never reached the top position in the UK charts. At the time, the single competed against the charity release “Do They Know It‘s Christmas?” (on which Michael also sang) and lost. Posthumously, after all, the song has now experienced a late triumph. In 2020 “Last Christmas” was the most successful song of the pre-Christmas season and thus secured pole position 36 years after its first release. Late Justice? Not from the point of view of Paul Sinclaire, editor-in-chief of the English online magazine “Super Deluxe Edition”. For him, it is clear that the success is merely due to a misguided inclusion of streaming figures in the sales charts. There‘s no comparison whatsoever between the 1984 and 2020 hit charts, he says; rather, history is being rewritten here: “The rules that currently determine the singles charts allow people who do not buy physical records or downloads and do not spend a penny for streaming, to generate a significant number of ‚sales‘“ One can share Sinclaire‘s opinion or dismiss it as a thing of the past. What is certain is that the way we count has a big impact on the charts - and thus our usual understanding of what is a hit and who is a star. The representative of the American music industry, RIAA, just changed its hit parade rules. From now on, special editions and pre-orders of an album can only be counted as official sales under certain conditions and only when the product has actually been delivered to the customer. The background to this rule is that more and more musicians are trying to boost their sales figures in the first week by luring loyal fans with special editions of the current album, but which are not produced until months later. Before the changes, Taylor Swift‘s “Folklore” had stormed to the top of the (annual) charts with almost a million copies sold, including an extremely large number of pre-orders. After the new guideline was implemented, the sales figures for her current work “Evermore” were only just over 300,000. In England, where different rules apply, the eternal youngster Paul McCartney, on the other hand, made it to the top of the UK charts in his eighth decade of life with his „Mc Cartney III“, which was recorded entirely at home in quarantine. Sir 16 Ed Sheeran songs were in the charts at the same time. Is this a problem? The songs in the most popular playlists lead to the highest access rates and thus end up in the charts. The songs that are high in the charts, in turn, end up in the most popular playlists. The brave new, democratic world looks different. Paul had come up with a campaign in which there were so many vinyl color variants and CD special editions that even fanatical fans lost track at some point and simply clicked on “buy”. Admittedly, all of this has existed since the earliest days of the music industry, and despite all the justified criticism, no one seriously considered abolishing the charts because of it. Why should it be any different this time? The answer to this shows how drastically our way of consuming music has changed in the last two decades – and how impossible it turns out to adapt new circumstances to old, sometimes dearly-loved habits.

Arbitrary conversions

If, on the other hand, Paul Sinclaire complains that the new charts cannot be compared with those of his youth, he is only partly right. It is true that in the 80s and 90s, in most countries only physical sales were actually rated for a place in the charts. But in the U.S., by far the largest recorded music market in the world, radio broadcasts have always been included in the Billboard 100 rating - an approach that partially anticipates the current streaming model. That made sense in such a huge country with a radical highway speed limit, where the radio became a companion and friend on long car journeys. But also the U.S. was also forced to rethink at the beginning of the new millennium. CD sales, already badly affected by downloads and torrents, plummeted. These data reflect the listening habits of the current generation less than ever. The charts were in the process of calcifying and becoming disconnected from real-life listening habits. All over the world, the associations were challenged to rearrange the calculations so that there was a balance between sales and streaming. The solution: A certain part of the streams was simply converted into sales. In the UK today, 100 streams from paying members or 600 streams from non-paying members result in one sale. In the USA, 1250 premium streams add up to a physical album, or 3750 non-premium streams (including Youtube). In Germany only the streams of premium members are counted for the official charts, the exact conversion rate remains under lock and key. If arbitrary or not, the approach has persisted to this day - with noticeable consequences. It was to be expected that the new methodology would result in a shift. In truth, however, the result is more like a landslide. Because while the industry was still afraid in the mid-‘00s that it would no longer be able to produce new superstars, it’s exactly the opposite now: for years, charts and media have been completely dominated by a few mega-artists. When the new Ed Sheeran album „÷“ was released in 2017, suddenly all twelve tracks were in the British Top 20. At a later date, even 16 of his tracks ended up in the charts. Justin Bieber had seventeen titles on the Billboard 100, The Weeknd and Post Malone 18. The uncrowned king of streaming, however, is Drake. 27 of his tracks were in the singles charts at the same time. In general, the Canadian rapper has been redefining the limits of what is possible for years with a list of records that is second to none. Yet his original album sales have been declining for years, as have those of nearly every other artist. Even „Scorpion“, which was presented as a magnum opus at the time, only sold 160,000 times in the USA in the first week - and thus just half as often as the aforementioned „Evermore“ by Taylor Swift. He more than makes up for all that with almost insane streaming numbers. What Drake has come to understand is that the breadth of his catalog is an artist‘s true power. Over 200 of his songs landed in the American charts, all of his albums, mix tapes and playlists are filled to the bursting with material. It is a cosmos of his own that he has created and with which, if you want, you can satisfy the musical needs of a complete day. Boi-1der, one of Drake‘s favorite producers, responded to criticism of this one-sidedness of the charts that the stars should be allowed their success: “If 16 Ed Sheeran songs are celebrating huge successes, then that‘s the way it is. Ed Sheeran is not to blame for the fact that everyone loves Ed Sheeran. ” But that misses the point. Because the way streaming is currently used, the sole reign of the superstars by no means proves that everyone loves them. On the one hand, many choose a playlist as background music for their everyday work. This runs through from beginning to end and thus generates countable streams for all the pieces it contains. Can this passive consumption really be included in the same list that includes elaborate and expensive vinyl pressings? And if millions of Ed Sheeran fans listen to the new album over and over again in the first week, are all the songs in it „singles“? And most importantly, does this listening really reflect “popularity”, that is, a true appreciation? In the 90s, radio and music television also had the unsympathetic habit of playing certain songs over and over again, with the result that they were hated rather than loved. What we do know is this: Somewhere in the world, just like in many offices in the past, these albums are playing from morning to evening when the radio is on. The emotional involvement of the listener remains completely uncertain.

Diversity suffers

Of course, the following is true: In the old system, there were many “bad purchases”: albums that soon embarrassed you, singles that you only listened to once or twice, bargains that ended up unplayed in a box. Undoubtedly, too much importance was attached to monetary value creation at the time. The problem is, as Rolling Stone magazine puts it, the charts matter whether you care about them or not. Because as long as the charts are still treated as the decisive measure of success, they have a decisive influence on the careers of the majority of artists. From this point of view, it is alarming that musical diversity in particular has suffered under modern regulations. The number of new songs in the weekly charts has been declining for years, some songs seem to stay in the upper ranges for what feels like ages, the stylistic diversity of some of the 90s hit parades has given way to a kind of monoculture. There is a method to this: musicians are rewarded whose fans almost exclusively listen to their music instead of researching exciting new music. It‘s a strange emphasis on convenience over a spirit of discovery and an open-mindedness toward the new. To make matters worse, the system constantly confirms itself with its mercilessly rational algorithms: The songs in the most popular playlists lead to the highest access rates and thus end up in the charts. The songs that are high in the charts, in turn, end up in the most popular playlists. For a newcomer to land in the most popular playlists, on the other hand, requires the budget of a powerful, financially strong label. The brave new, more democratic world looks different. When some people now demand that the charts simply be abolished completely, that sounds quite plausible. Strictly speaking, there‘s really no need to save the hit parade. The suggestion system of Amazon and Spotify, for example, can be used to find new acts that are at least as good as the traditional singles charts. What we have to say goodbye to, however, is the idea that the charts depict something from which really meaningful conclusions can be drawn about the importance of an artist. Rather, this part of our world is also splintered into a multitude of small islands of data that apply precisely to a small but very specific demographic group, but mean absolutely nothing beyond that. On some of these islands, physical CDs are still sold and vinyl LPs are celebrated. In others, “Last Christmas” is finally and undeniably the #1 song it always deserved to be.

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