Why don’t the charts make sense any more?
These are exceedingly strange times in the music business. This week’s number one UK album is What’s Rock and Roll? self-released by The Reytons, a cheeky indie rock band from South Yorkshire who sound like a rough-and-ready Arctic Monkeys tribute act. I would tell you more, but I don’t know much more, and neither does anyone else. They’ve never had a hit single, have a minimal social media presence, and just over 70,000 followers on Spotify, where they are ranked the 24,225th most listened-to artists in the world. They recently completed a tour of 1,000- to 1,500-capacity venues around the country.
The number two album is Midnights by Taylor Swift, which charted for the 14th week in a row. The American singer-songwriter has over 67 million followers on Spotify and is currently ranked the second most popular artist in the world. When her forthcoming stadium tour went on sale, she crashed the Ticketmaster website.
Swift’s chart position was tabulated by a complex formula rating millions of streams. To knock the US superstar off the number one spot, The Reytons sold 10,000 albums in multiple formats to a dedicated local fanbase, cannily exploiting chart rules that favour physical sales over streaming.
How can we measure success in modern music? It is a question that obsesses me, as a critic trying to make sense of a scattered marketplace, where there is more music available to be heard than ever before, yet fewer household-name stars creating songs that we can all share together.
Last year’s top 10 UK singles featured barely a handful of big names, notably Harry Styles and Ed Sheeran, alongside the return of Kate Bush with a 37-year-old viral hit. But I wonder how many casual music fans could identify any of the rest: Cat Burns, Glass Animals, Lost Frequencies, Calum Scott and LF System? The third most popular song in Britain last year was Peru, a basic downbeat dance loop by Nigerian singer Fireboy DML. It spent 41 weeks in the charts (boosted by an Ed Sheeran remix), but Fireboy DML’s album vanished without a trace.
Such anomalies hardly scratch the surface of how topsy-turvy the music business feels right now. While singles charts display a superfast turnover of multi-artist collaborations who barely register among anyone older than 24, album charts are dominated by vintage artists, with over 60 per cent of last year’s top 40 bestsellers coming from so called “catalogue”.
“In the old days, charts were based on what was sold in stores,” points out Chaz Jenkins, the UK-based chief commercial officer at Chartmetric, a music analytics service. “Today, we’re measuring listening, not sales.”
But what if nobody is listening to the same things? Music tastes used to be effectively mediated by everyone listening to the same radio shows. In the age of streaming, there is too much music for anyone to keep tabs on. “The 75-year dominance of broadcast is over,” says Will Page, former chief economist at Spotify and author of Pivot, a fascinating book about digital disruption.
Roughly 100,000 new tracks are uploaded to streaming services every day. More music came out today than in the whole of 1970 (which would have been around 5,000 albums, and roughly as many singles). And tomorrow, guess what? There’s another 100,000 coming to expand the infinite digital shelf space.
“In the past, unsigned artists didn’t release music,” notes Jenkins. “Maybe they scraped together enough money to make a demo. Today, kids in their bedrooms, who’ve never played live, can release music globally in 200 countries within 24 hours. We’re monitoring over eight million artists at the moment. Don’t bother trying to scroll to the bottom (of the chart), because you’ll never get there.”
“It’s a taboo topic in this business,” adds Page. “Some choice is better than none, but it doesn’t necessarily follow that more choice is better than some.”
Launched in 2015, Spotify’s Discover Weekly offered a breakthrough in algorithmically curated playlists geared to individual taste. “These playlists treat each listener as unique, so we have nothing to share. I can’t say to you, ‘Wasn’t that a fantastic song that opened the playlist this morning?’ because my soundtrack is different to yours,” Page says.
Yet clearly many artists are flourishing, so what does it take to stand out from the noise? “You don’t have to be big everywhere, you just need to be big in your own lane,” according to Sophie Jones from talent agency Huxley.
Huxley represent an interesting array of artists who all might be considered at the top of their own niches, such as Icelandic experimentalist Björk, glitchy pop maverick Charli XCX, otherworldly soul maverick Frank Ocean and British art pop band The 1975. “The way artists make money has shifted from hit records and live shows to include brand deals and commercial appearances,” says Jones. To attract such partners, “you need a very strong sense of your own brand and cultivate the world around it”.
She offers as an example US neo soul artist SZA (not one of Huxley’s clients) who headlined Wireless Festival in London last year playing to 50,000 fans despite never having registered a UK top 40 album or major hit single. With a fluidly modern sound and strong female energy, SZA enjoyed a particularly strong resonance with young Gen Z women (aged 16-24). She grew her profile through collaborations with significant stars including Rihanna, Kendrick Lamar and The Weeknd and campaigns for fashion brands including Gap and Crocs. This year, she reaped the benefits when her latest album, SOS, hit number 2 in the UK. She is currently rated 23rd most popular in the world by Chartmetric, in the midst of a period of “explosive growth”.
The hard part, however, is to remain relevant. “On the internet everything can happen so fast,” says Jones. “It can spread like wildfire, and the danger is it can burn out just as quickly.” There is a huge focus on anything that goes viral, as tunes spread from funny TikTok videos to other social media platforms, effectively taking on a life of their own. But that is not the same as building an audience.
The Reytons’ reign at number one will last only until 6pm today, when a new chart is announced, putting Sam Smith at the top, with the local boys falling out of the top 30 altogether. They’ve run a clever campaign but haven’t reached beyond core fans. “To reach the next level of mass success is harder than ever before, because there’s so much competition,” says Jones. “Artists need to worry less about virality and focus on veracity.”
For Page, we are entering an era of “Big Niche”: “Because algorithms connect you with music from all over the world that you didn’t even know you’d like, a lot of niche genres are getting popular at scale.” Lo-fi Hip Hop, Metalcore and Vaporwave, for instance, are musical genres attracting huge streaming numbers without producing mainstream stars.
What does all this mean from an everyday listener’s point of view? Page points to our ageing headliners: “It used to be the case that bands in their twenties headlined festivals, as Radiohead did at Glastonbury in 1997. Now the average headliner is in their 40s, with many in their upper 50s and 60s. Elton John will be 76 when he headlines Glastonbury this year.
“So where do the next headliners come from? You can be number one in the charts, but if a wide enough community of people don’t know who you are, why would 70,000 people want to gather in a muddy field to sing along?”
It may be a problem for another day, but “too much choice” is pushing popular music into uncharted waters. “This is completely out of my comfort zone as an economist, but it matters to me as a music fan,” says Page. “What happens when we can’t sing the same songs together any more?”