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by David Lucas & Stephen Moore
Look at the charts. Go on, have a really good read. Notice anything? I'll wager that there's a flimsy excuse for a single at the top, and it's probably a new entry. Only a few years ago if you'd wanted to bet on the No. 1 being a new entry you'd have got fantastic odds, and lost your money. Not today though, in fact now it's pretty much accepted practice for singles to top the charts after their first week.
Long gone are the days when you earned the coveted No. 1 through weeks of insistent airplay and gradually worming your way into the public's consciousness. Nowadays if you don't get to No. 1 in your first week, you can give up on ever making it.
The fact is that since the mid-90s there have been more No. 1s in the UK charts than ever before. It's not so much a chart as a conveyor belt. Singles drop in as far up the chart as they can, and then proceed to make their way down until finally passing the magic 40 mark, past which we generally stop caring. Very occasionally someone manages to claw their way up a few places, but it's the exception, not the rule.
Artists like Oasis, Britney Spears and All Saints seem to be catapulted straight to the top of the chart, forcing whoever was there to take a dive. These days to get to No. 1 all you need is a committed following, or in some cases a following that ought to be committed, and a bit of an advertising push. It's very different to the 50s, back then only one song entered the UK chart at No. 1!
The rest of the world isn't like this, so why is the UK so different when it comes to singles? Look at America for example, over there singles start low and work their way to the top of the chart. Between '97 and '98 there were 179 singles in the US Top 20, that's all, that's one and a half new singles coming in per week. Meanwhile in the UK we had 757 singles in the Top 20 over the same time, that's more than seven new ones a week. If you analyse it further, I'm pretty sure you'd find most of the changes in the UK happened in the Top Ten.
Let's look at Britney Spears' debut for example. In America "Baby One More Time" entered at seventeen, which is really quite high, and hung around the charts for weeks before finally making the No. 1. In the UK the same song was propelled to the No. 1 the same week it was released. It managed to stay there for another week, something which is unusual these days in the UK, before finally starting to make its way down and out of the chart.
These two weeks at No. 1 and the sales of the single afterwards were enough to make "Baby One More Time" the best-selling single of 1999. And of its sales across almost the whole year, a third were in the very first week it was available. Just in case I haven't laboured the point enough, let me point out again that this is used to be unusal, now it's accepted as normal.
What's the secret of chart success then? Can we bottle it and sell it to young
up-and-coming bands who want to make it big. Well, it's simple. There are three things
that really matter if you want a hit in the UK today, and they are:
Alright, that was a lame attempt to come over all Tony Blair, but really the key to success is how well the single's marketed. Let's have a quick look at what matters here.
First there's airplay. You have to get the song so ingrained in the public's consciousness that by the time it comes out they'll know it as well as they know their own name. Christina Aguilera's "What A Girl Wants" only came out in February, but it's been being played since late last year. This sort of saturation makes sure that the target audience of the track is ready for it, and waiting.
Next comes the video. A video can make or break a single. A reasonable track with an eye-catching video is much more likely to get played on TV than a great single with an appalling video. Let's look at "Baby One More Time" again, even people who hate the track enjoy the video, at least men do. This adds an extra hook to the track. Music often relies on lyrical and musical hooks to grab and hold your attention. A good video catches attention the same way.
Good doesn't necessarily mean expensive. Mel G's video for "Word Up" is a great example of this, it cost an absolute fortune to make, but it's as interesting as watching paint dry. Add to this the fact that the song wasn't up to much, and suddenly the 'sure thing' doesn't look quite so sure.
The next big hurdle for the marketing people is mindshare. That's how much the target audience is aware of the band, and how aware they are of a new single coming from them. Boyzone have great mindshare, a massive and dedicated following who devour anything and everything to do with the group. Then again, Boyzone are practically geriatric by today's chart standards. How can a new band manage to grab mindshare?
Glad you asked. The secret here is publicity. Lots of publicity. School tours, roadshows, any, and indeed every, TV appearance that's offered. It doesn't matter how small the audience, any PR event is a chance to grab mindshare. And that's good for the artists, mindshare translates into sales, and sales mean chart positions.
Our last hurdle for the marketing boys is price. The cost of singles has fallen, really fallen. In fact it costs less for you to buy a single in a shop than it cost the shop to buy it. At least for the first week.
The first week is the big sales week, and that means record companies want to push as hard as they can all week. So singles cost £1.99. The shop meanwhile is paying over £2 for it. So how do they make a profit? Easy, for the first so many singles sold there's a 'Buy One, Get One Free!' offer to the shops, so their £2 singles cost £1. This started in the mid-90s, right about when the chart went haywire, not as a way to make the first week the most important but ironically to try to give singles a lift in the second week.
The reasoning was that a cheaper single meant more sales, so for the first week there would be bigger sales. More sales equals higher chart position. Which theoretically meant more airplay the next week, and so big singles could be inflated by this trick. Gradually we've reached the point where this doesn't work anymore. Instead all singles are heavily discounted for the first week, and so that's when everyone buys them.
Where does all this marketing powerplay leave the indies? The small bands on small labels who can't compete.
I don't know. Show me an indie label and I'll show you a rarity. The big labels like EMI and Virgin went on a feeding frenzy and bought the indies. So yes, Blur are published by Food Records, but Food are owned by Parlophone, and EMI own Parlophone. It's the same across the industry. There are precious few truly independent labels, just some big fish and some mind-bogglingly huge fish.
Even taking all of this into account there's still a big question. How did we get from the Britpop highs of '95 to the point where the Top Ten is all saccharine pre-packaged ready-made pop. The final piece in the jigsaw is demographics, younger and younger people are buying records these days, and alas groups like Steps, S-Club 7 and the massed hordes of boy bands are more appealing to them than the harder edged, less accessible music of the so-called indie scene.
That and the fact that Britpop got so self-important that the bands all forgot how to write good songs.
So, the reality of the charts is that they're engineered. But you knew that really, we all know it. We're manipulated, toyed with and used by record companies. It's part of being a music fan. Sadly we either have to accept it or stop buying records. The one truly regrettable thing is that genuinely classic singles, such as the heavenly "Don't Falter" by Mint Royale and Lauren Laverne, are being passed over for Britney Spears and her clones. That hurts the music industry, it hurts creativity, and in the end it hurts the fans. But it's how it is.