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Issue 77

Rise and Fall

The state of the Pop charts

BY Kirsten Grether in Culture Digest | 10 SEP 03

At the age of 15, tempted to share my most complicated and intimate thoughts with the outside world, I wrote my first article for the school magazine. It was about the pop charts. While my fellow pupils got worked up about nuclear waste, poverty in Africa or their exam results, I was worrying about the truth of the official British, American and German hit parades.

For years I had believed that number 1 was number 1, watching with pity and profound fascination as a song so full of promise when it went in at number 5 dropped 12 places to number 17 the next week. (What will the poor song do now, after its evident loss of value?) I welcomed each new entry to the top 30 like a new roommate. Like it or not, it was going to be sharing the breakfast table, the bathroom and the innermost recesses of my mind for the next few weeks. I jumped for joy every time my favourite band leapt into the top five of the German singles chart. Here was incontestable proof that they, or rather I, had good taste. My truth was a shared truth; knowing that I was not alone was a good feeling. I sat in my teenage bedroom in front of the radio and tracked the climbers and fallers, the new and re-entries, and the chances of chart success for third singles from fourth albums.

And now all this was supposed to have been a lie? An arbitrary system with blatant failings? My research into the chart system, which I pursued ever more doggedly the more it shortcomings came to light, shook my belief in the objective measurability of success, and in success itself. Could it really be true that cashiers at large record shops (in the pre-computerized 1980s) were less than meticulous in keeping their tallies, or were possibly even corrupted by music industry representatives? What did it mean when radio airplay was factored into sales figures? Did this still constitute an expression of the people's opinion? And how could one be sure that the hierarchical order was correct when records sold in specialist shops were not considered chart-worthy and thus not counted? Questions, questions and more questions. My scoop - 'The charts are wrong! Don't believe the hype!' - was received with remarkable equanimity by my classmates. The charts are always right, they said: after all, they're the charts.

They had a point. Nowadays sales figures are precision-logged by electronic cash register systems. What would a teenager today write in a school magazine about the charts? That in an age of overblown star systems record sales are no longer the main sales vehicle? That inaccuracies in the sales figures are nothing compared with the worthlessness of the wares on offer in the first place? Since the year 2000 the record market has shrunk by 16 per cent. And this downward trend shows no sign of slowing up. It is argued that music fans who in the past would have heard a song on the radio and then gone out to buy the single or corresponding album in a record shop now have MP3 downloads and CD burners at their disposal. 'There is no precedent for what's happening now in the music business', says Jason Flom, one of the most successful A&R men of the last 20 years: 'What would happen if groceries suddenly became free, or hotels - do you think those businesses would survive?' 1

The resulting shortfalls are felt most keenly in the statistics for the real mega-sellers. Rock Barbie doll Avril Lavigne is a teen girl idol. Her target group and media presence are comparable to those of Alanis Morissette; but with sales of four million in the first six months, Lavigne's début album Let's Go (2002) sold far fewer copies than Morissette's Jagged Little Pill (1995), with seven million. And the market for CDs continues to decline.

If it wasn't for TV casting shows such as Pop Idol, Fame Academy, or Teen Stars the record industry would be in an even worse state. One thing is certain: when winners (or often the more unruly runners-up) from the reality shows appear on the scene, number 1 is still number 1. In fact, contrived casting has actually become the key to authentic success. As the German Disco-Pop big-sellers Modern Talking used to say, 'TV makes the superstar'. Nowhere is this more true than in Spain, where a recent top ten featured seven songs of this ilk. TV stars are achieving sales reminiscent of bygone days. While between 4,000 and 5,000 units shifted in a week is now enough to make the top spot in the official German single charts, Superstar winner Alexander doubled this, selling more than 10,000 singles in seven days, the bulk of the records sold that week. (All this in Germany, a country with a population of 80 million, where a laughable 250 singles sold per day is enough to secure a place in the top 50.) So are the TV clowns the last guardians of objective success? It is conceivable that today's kids sense that, with the decline in importance of the charts, they are losing a source of shared continuity and identity. Instead, they select their superstars by tele-voting. Who it is doesn't really matter, as the voters identify themselves not with the stars themselves, but with the merry-go-round of stardom and with a community of like-minded individuals.

The Pop Idol phenomenon might be seen as the swan-song of a dwindling market in pre-recorded media, the harbinger of a not-so-distant future that has similarities to the 19th and early 20th centuries, when live performances were the hallmark of success. As a consequence, the major record companies are focusing more on stars than on songs. From now on, taking Robbie Williams as a recent example, the contracts they sign will give them the lion's share of revenue not only from record sales but also, more importantly, from everything else: concert tickets, merchandise, TV and film rights.

But even if one day the charts reflect not sales of singles but commercial downloads, the 13- to 16-year-old demographic will continue to provide most of the consumers. They don't want to be left out; they want the songs as soon as they are released. One attraction is the roller-coaster aspect: ups and downs, high-climbers and lead balloons; who charts where; who scores a flop; who goes straight in at number 1. It's about moving on up to the top, conquering and losing ground, entering and re-entering, again and again, a new chart every week with a new winner. In addition, the charts produce a sense of order, make the chaos of the colourful and confusing pop scene manageable. They create a framework for comparison and prevent success from going to people's heads: after all, even a superstar like Robbie Williams can drop 12 places in a week. But the whole process remains a self-referential game where it is never really possible to say why somebody won, or even why it matters. Which means that even in the current crisis surrounding pre-recorded music, what my classmates instinctively grasped at the time still applies: whatever is wrong with the charts, the charts are always right.

1. Quoted in John Seabrook, 'The Money Note', The New Yorker, 7 July 2003.

Translated by Nicholas Grindell