Never Go Out Of Style

Gone For A Leak

For a couple of days at the start of this week, it appeared to be all anyone with even the remotest connection to the radio industry could talk about. The “leaked” (ie, a single photograph posted on Twitter) excerpt from a new presenter style guide issued by Bauer to the presenters on its Big City stations in the wake of some brand new positioning. It prompted a great deal of brow-clutching and reaching for the smelling salts of those who determined it to be the final proof that radio had lost its spirit and soul.

The document also inspired some creative responses, such as the quickly knocked together parody by Jack FM, emphasising their own differences, and a near 15-minute rant by talkRADIO’s Iain Lee, himself a believer and a master at the art of more freewheeling uninhibited radio, who had hammered together his own version.

Bauer themselves felt compelled to issue their own statement shortly afterwards, musing on the “hyperbole” their presenter guidance appeared to have stirred up. And the funny thing is I’m inclined to agree with them. Because nothing that was in this document was particularly startling, surprising, unusual or even for the most part wrong. It was simply good common sense radio coaching.

Note that I don’t work for Bauer, never have, nor am I likely to any time soon it seems. What follows is simply my own damn opinion based on what I’ve learned over the course of my own 25-year radio career.

Let’s take the leaked snippet line by line.

Designated speed links are the way to keep the music flowing in daytime radio shows, playing songs more or less back to back without resorting to segueing songs with or without a station sweeper or ident. Instead, the presenter plays the role of link man, identifying the station and its slogan and bringing in the next track. They are used sparingly – once or maybe even twice an hour – but they have to be regimented. All too often a presenter’s idea of a “quick link” is to be diverted into reading out a tweet or commenting that it is raining. So the instructions make it clear. You sell the positioning, you remind people what they are listening to (important for anyone with a RAJAR diary) and you introduce the next song. Keep it simple, make it slick and far from sounding mechanical or forced, it makes you and the radio station sound bright and dynamic.

The final bullet point here is also true. Streaming technology has shown to the world what radio programmers and music researchers have known for years: the general public (ie non-music fans) takes time to grow to love a song and even longer to tire of it. That’s why these days the biggest hits hang around the charts for weeks on end and maintain their streaming numbers long after sales have died away. They are just following the way the ordinary Joe – the commercial radio listener – engages with the songs. Even if you have played the same song once a show for the past 10 weeks, there are still plenty amongst your audience who shout with joy the moment you cue it up. So nothing on your music log should ever be undersold.

What a radio presenter does into a commercial break is vitally important. It is the one moment when there is a genuine risk of tune-out from the dial-surfing listener. You can be as creative with your content as you like, take as much care over the programming of the music as you can, but if people really hate listening to adverts and would rather press a button to avoid them then they will do just that. All you can do to mitigate this is to give people a reason not to move. To stay right here because there is something they don’t want to miss. That’s basic stuff – Radio Presenter 101. The first line here is also perfectly sensible. It makes utterly no sense to tell people you play the biggest hits right before you play something that is neither hit nor music. Given you have to say it every time you open your mouth say it after the record.

This line is the only one I’d disagree with. Yes OK, this is a brand new format, the stations having been repositioned recently and the need to keep everyone on message is strong. Yet making all presenters script their “teases” beforehand and having someone senior authorise them just on the off chance they might be “wrong” smacks slightly of excessive micromanagement. If you have no confidence in the people you employ to do their jobs properly, then why are you employing them in the first place? Your presenters are trained professionals, so let them work and present to the best of their ability. And if they get it wrong, tell them so afterwards and watch to see if they do it again tomorrow.

Back to the sensible stuff again, and once more this isn’t outrageous or insulting. Just basic common sense for making good radio. All presenters know now they should throw forward into the break and encourage people to keep listening, but the bad ones can be very lazy at this. It is not enough just to list the next song on the log or lean on the “Rihanna plays next” presentation crutch. So this document reminds them that the ‘tease’ can be creative and fun. Far from being corralled into a closet of blandness as some critics would have it, this encourages and frees them to make the links into a break work hard.

All radio is about selling. Selling the radio station you are hosting. Selling the breakfast show to make people tune in tomorrow. Selling the Italian leather furniture that you have an S&P read for ready for a competition running next week. And here you are selling the reason to stay listening through three minutes of ads for motor dealers and double glazing. So to make it good, don’t just list the next songs, why not say “and on the way shortly on Viaduct FM, one of those songs which if you are in the car will make you want to nudge the volume up a little, just so you can appreciate it properly”. Because that’s the perfect tease. You’ve sold the listener on staying tuned. Because they now want to know just what the song is that is so good you will turn the volume up.

I remember once covering the afternoon show for an absent presenter. Our music database was cleverly structured so that just once in a while a random oldie from out of nowhere would appear to spice things up. So it was that at 3.15 on a Wednesday afternoon I was able to tell people “next on The Pulse I’ll play you one of the greatest songs ever recorded. I won’t cut it short either, you’ll hear all 7 minutes and 11 seconds of it, just to make today even better”. What was the song? I’ll tell you at the end. Call it a tease.

Another anecdote from personal experience. Many years ago at the start of my career, I’d routinely follow the late night phone in with an overnight show. At the suggestion of the Programme Director, I’d go sit with Alex Hall ten minutes from the end of her programme and have a conversation with her about what people could hear next. One night she asked me “What songs are you playing after 2am James?”. I confessed:”I don’t know, I’ve not looked at my printout yet”.

During the news, she admonished me for that line. The listeners neither knew nor cared to know that the songs I was playing were as ordered by a printed piece of paper. I needed to take ownership of the music I was playing and make each one my personal choice, I was told. I didn’t make the same mistake again. The next night I confidently listed three sample songs from the first half hour of the show and told West Yorkshire I couldn’t wait to share one song with them because I knew it was one of everyone’s favourites of the moment.

That’s a basic radio lesson. And the teaching hasn’t changed in 20 years because it remains correct.

Setting Them Up To Fail

Some of the rantings I read in the aftermath of the leaked document suggested this was evidence of how big corporations were “killing radio”, turning stations into jukeboxes filled with bland automatons. Some of it doubtless from people who were convinced their own careers could have flown further if only they had been set free and not confined to “style guides”. Yes, there is much to be said for hearing a true radio talent at work, someone able to work freely with the medium and for whom any kind of barriers or constraints would be too much of a burden to bear. I do that every time I get paid to listen to Iain Lee. But these people are rare and it is often a talent that has to be carefully coached, just as footballers have to be trained and managed to bring them up to the level of the once in a generation prodigy. A good manager should hopefully be always able to spot that potential and direct it accordingly.

The problem is if you give everyone space to spread their wings then many will fall short. They won’t just make poor radio, they will make bad radio. I should know, I’ve done enough of that in my time. Just as bad as hearing a creative talent stifled by a narrow format is hearing someone with little talent dying on their arse on air because someone believes telling them what to do is a bad thing. There are multitudes of bedroom stations on the internet demonstrating that in spades.

So the managers of these Big City stations don’t want their presenters to all sound equally bland and dull. Far from it. They want them all sounding as drilled, confident and enthusiastic as each other. Which is why they have a style guide, which is why they are shown what to do, and which is why crucially they are all successful in their markets.

Only Natural

I was in one sense lucky to spend much of my on-air career at a radio station which wasn’t too tightly formatted. For sure there were rules we had to follow, clocks to stick to and were carefully coached and trained by a man who was a master of the radio art. But it was more about how we said things rather than what we had to say. Nonetheless, all of us on air actually found ourselves opening most links with the radio strapline anyway. To say “West Yorkshire’s Radio – You’re On The Pulse” was easy to do, told everyone what we were about in a second and cleared the way for whatever else we had to impart. Even when free we all instinctively knew the correct way to go.

A few years later I worked briefly for a temporary radio station run by a major group as a test for a licence they wished to bid for. On the wall of the studio was a strict notice: “106.6 The Edge must be the FIRST and LAST thing you say in each link. 30 seconds max”. That might sound intimidating but it was actually a fun challenge. Because it meant every time I prepared to open my mouth on air I had to prepare mentally exactly what I was going to say, how I was going to say it and then get out of the way of the music as quickly as possible. Far from being stifled I found that liberating, exciting and dare I say it inspired to better links than I’d broadcast for years.

So hand me a style guide any time you like. Because it gives me the tools to be a better broadcaster and to make a better radio station. Every single time.

Oh yes, the “7 minutes 11 seconds greatest song of all time”? Hey Jude by The Beatles.

Always Will

The final weekend before Christmas always reminds me of a song. It isn’t even a Christmas song, although it was released at that time and was in the charts for the holiday.

I’m reminded every time I hear it of one particular occasion when I played it on the radio. Saturday December 19th 1998, just after the start of the regular sports updates show I presented on local radio at that time. Not long after it had finished the studio phone rang. On the end was a lady who informed me she had just parked up to do her last Christmas shopping and wanted to thank me for the song I’d played because it had made her feel so happy.

It made me happy to hear that too. And so every time I hear the song (far less often than I should) I think back to the day it just happened to catch someone in the moment, made them feel their life was worthwhile and inspired them to share that with the local radio disc jockey who helped. Even if all he did was line up the CD that his computer printout had told him to.

So when I hear this song I always think of the final weekend before Christmas. Always have, always will.

 

Christmas Number One – Liveblog

Friday December 23rd – 7pm: What are you still doing here? The race is over. Read all about it on Chart Watch UK – it is worth it.


Thursday December 22nd – 1pm: I had in my head today to write a long and detailed account of the way the numbers are working and in the absence of any solid information how we can infer that the gap between the Number 1 and Number 2 in the singles chart race this week is not narrowing in any way at all.

But truly there is no need. There’s another sales flash circulating behind the scenes, Music Week will publish the details later. But all you need to know is this: Clean Bandit lead Rag’N’Bone Man by 7,000 sales as of the close of play Wednesday. And that’s without certain streaming data to take into account as well.

Bookmakers, grab some headlines and settle the markets now. Clean Bandit will land the Christmas Number One 2016 with their seventh week at the top of the charts – something that is totally without precedent in the modern era. If any media outlet is tempted to write a story of how this has been “disappointing” and something of a damp squib of a festive battle, send them to me and I’ll put them straight with a few home truths.

I’ll tell you the full story of a truly great triumph for a truly great British band and the outright victory for “real music” we’ve been told has been urgently needed for years, this Friday night on the Chart Watch UK site. Link at the top of the page.


Wednesday December 21st – 2pm: We here’s me half expecting no further progress updates as the week draws on when one lands in my lap mid-morning. It features the state of the singles market as of the end of Tuesday with the caveat that it is (as you might expect for that time of day) missing streaming data for Apple and Spotify for Tuesday.

Despite all appearances to the contrary, we do actually have something of a race, even if the prospect of the lead changing hands before the end of the week remains slim. According to the latest numbers Rockabye and Human are separated by the small matter of 6,000 sales and it is a gap which it seems will remain just as tight for the rest of this week. What stymies the prospects of Rag’N’Bone Man taking over at the top of the charts at least for this week are his still sluggish streams. Tuesday’s Spotify numbers bear this out – 362,000 for Rockabye versus 184,000 for Human. That’s approximately 3,600 chart sales compared to 1,840 just from Spotify alone. To wipe out that deficit, Rag’N’Bone Man would have to be similarly besting Clean Bandit by more than 1,800 sales a day at downloads. Which he may well be, but that information is something only the Official Charts Company themselves are privy to for now.

Note that if we add this Spotify data to the streaming-free sales flash the gap between first and second increases to 7,800 – and that’s without knowing what the Apple Music numbers were.

They are naturally well out of the Christmas Number One race, but for the record none of the other ante-post contenders are in the Top 20 flash I was handed. The Dave Clark Five track suddenly bounced into the sales race by Glasgow Rangers fans ends up at Number 64 as of the end of Tuesday. Don’t be fooled by any talk that it will be anywhere near the top of the charts this weekend. It is a total red (blue?) herring. The fact that it is trading at 47-1 on Betfair at the time of writing should be enough to clue you in on how the armchair gamblers view it too.


Tuesday December 20th – 5pm: Today began pretty much as expected, Rag’N’Bone man edging ahead of Clean Bandit on iTunes, enough to suggest that his destiny to top the full singles chart will indeed be fulfilled early in the new year. The time could thus be passed browsing the increasingly disgruntled Facebook groups backing certain other Christmas Number One contenders. One managed to anger me sufficiently to tweet it out: Now let’s leave aside the fact that a “real band with real musicians [bearing] the fruits of hard work and persistence” is an exact description of Clean Bandit who have been working towards their success since the very start of the decade and whose creative and musical talents are utterly beyond doubt. This is merely proof that some people are battling musical or chart demons that are entirely of their own invention and are content to display an almost wilful ignorance of modern popular culture in pursuit of their own imaginary point.

No, this is another example of “the new shit will never be anywhere near as good as the old shit I’m into and you youngsters are blind to this” thinking of which you stumble across far too often in musical conversations online. This chap is presumably old enough to remember when the “old shit” was itself the “new shit” and was indeed being sneered at and dismissed by the ignorant from the previous generation who were sure that their “old shit” was actually far superior to the whining noise merchants of the 1990s. But he still falls into the same trap of becoming the kind of old fart he would have rejected back in his teenage years. Isn’t it funny how every generation imagines their era of music to be the greatest one ever with nothing else standing a chance of comparing?

Then something weird happened, and a golden oldie started rocketing up the live sales tables out of nowhere. The single in question is Glad All Over by the Dave Clark Five, a Number One hit from the 1960s and, I was actually rather surprised to learn, absent from the UK singles chart since May 1993 when a re-release saw it poke its nose into the Top 40. The foot stomping track has retained a place in popular culture ever since thanks to its adoption from time to time as anthems for football teams, be it as pre-match crowd rousing or with suitably modified lyrics to celebrate a new hero. Well, this time around it is Glasgow Rangers supporters who have taken to using it as a terrace anthem. And out of nowhere, they have hit on the wheeze of buying it for Christmas just to see what happens.

Well fair play, if any group of people can be motivated to behave in an identical manner in a short time it is football supporters. They achieved enough volume to give the track a startling presence at the top of the iTunes table by mid afternoon. Few expect it to stay there, let alone represent any kind of chart challenge. For a start there are just over two days left in the survey period, nowhere near enough time for any single, no matter how intensively bought, to recover from a standing start and catch up to those who have been selling all week long. 70,000 copies (which is what it will take to overhaul Clean Bandit now) in two days just isn’t possible in this day and age. Even if you do have 50% of Glasgow’s largest city buying into the idea. Oh, and it isn’t on Spotify either which makes getting any kind of streaming momentum kind of tricky.

Still, it is a fun distraction and at least provides material for me to muse over for a couple of days. Late week sales updates tend to come via Music Week’s website and they have pretty much all knocked off for the holidays. We’ve got an interesting 48 hours of watching and waiting ahead of us.


Monday December 19th – 9pm: Well, the secret (such as it was for people reading these pages) is out. The official midweek chart update was unveiled earlier this evening and naturally enough caused a shock for anyone expecting a mass festive invasion. Instead, the general public learned that Clean Bandit were out in front in the race to be Christmas Number One, hotly followed by Rag’n’Bone Man with Human and surprise bronze medal contenders Little Mix with new single Touch. All the songs the press and social media expected to be in contention were nowhere. Or to be precise: Inspiral Carpets at 20, London Hospices Choir at 33, one time favourite Friends Of Jo Cox at 59 and the Everly Pregnant Brothers at 73. To name but a few. It is almost as if the general public have become bored of buying music that they have no intention of listening to. At long last. Needless to say, this has caused convulsions on some of the Facebook groups, with some folks becoming frustrated because their assumptions about the way something works turn out not to be true: There are those who have literally no idea who the current leading contenders are: Along with those who are already falling into the trap of presuming that because their attempt to “fix” the charts and propel a track to an artificially high position bearing no relation to its true level of popularity is failing it must be because of some kind of well, fix: The only final point I’d note is that the infamous “Bieber Tweet” of 2015 which stood that year’s race on its head when he urged his sheep-like followers not to purchase his single but go buy a charity record instead was issued on the Tuesday of the chart week. But the NHS Choir single he directed people towards was at that point a struggling but still close second in the sales flashes. History won’t repeat itself this year.


Sunday December 18th – 7pm: Updates? No, I got nothing, at least officially. Which is kind of understandable as right now there is no story to tell, at least not in the way everyone was expecting. Literally none of the “special” releases for the Christmas market are anywhere near contending in the real market as it stands. Whilst the story of the most consistent British music act of the moment making a herculean effort to be Christmas Number One with a single which was never released on that basis is actually one which will go down as a famous pop moment, a mass media weaned on a decade of X Factor-inspired mega sales or feel-good stories of charitable causes really has nothing to bite on. Meanwhile the singles market rumbles on. Matt Terry surrendered his iTunes lead mid-morning on Sunday, replace naturally enough by Clean Bandit. Their return to the top was however to be brief, the ding-dong battle between them and Rag’N’Bone Man resuming, the hotly tipped new star making his first appearance in the lead of the live sales tables shortly after lunchtime. This does however change nothing, Saturday’s Spotify numbers confirmed Rockabye as the most streamed track of the day. Only All I Want For Christmas Is You is showing any sign of deposing it from that particular pile. It all means the late November 66-1 shot is now almost an unbackable cert to be Christmas Number One 2016. Unless an earthquake happens on Monday morning. But with both London Hospices and Friends Of Jo Cox so far back in the running there is little point attempting even the kind of PR coup the NHS Choir achieved in 2015. All that is left for us to do is amuse ourselves with the shrill belief of people on Facebook that Saturn 5 is still in “we can totally do this people” contention. More on that tomorrow, along with the official midweek update. The reaction to which will be enormous fun to watch.


Saturday December 17th – 7pm: Bang on cue Spotify’s listening data for Friday has arrived online, and whilst it contains nothing revolutionary it is as expected revelatory. Clean Bandit remain the most streamed track on the platform. Now whilst the following makes a large number of presumptions, their total of 391,941 Spotify  streams extrapolates to a seven day total of 2.74m which itself scales up to an expected universal (i.e. all services added together) total of just over 4.1m. So still enormous, still enough to pretty much guarantee Number One under any normal circumstances and even if these are not normal circumstances giving any other single hoping to nick a win on purchases alone a huge mountain to climb. But as I’m fond of repeating, that is what happened last year. Of the other potential contenders, the Steve Aoki single, flagging at download is at least making streaming progress, doing 235K on Friday, up from 200K the day before. Sales leader Matt Terry continues to have lacklustre streams – less than 200K once more. Even by the most generous of guesstimates he can only be presumed to do 2 million by Thursday. That’s essentially 20,000 chart sales to Clean Bandit’s expected 41,000 chart sales. And trust me, he isn’t on track to be 20,000 purchases ahead of them by next Thursday. Meanwhile Rag’N’Bone Man – still ahead of Clean Bandit on iTunes – languishes way down the streaming rankings with just 170K plays on Friday. The London Hospices Choir single isn’t on Spotify, whilst the Friends Of Jo Cox track is reported by the app to have been streamed just over 1,000 times since being added to the database. That’s worth 10 chart sales if anyone is counting. The Inspiral Carpets oldie, in third place according to the lunchtime flash, does not appear in the reported Top 200. That means it has been streamed less than 41,000 times so far. The next update should come via the OCC tomorrow lunchtime, featuring more realistic sales data plus the Friday streaming tables just mentioned. That will give the wider world a clearer picture, particularly as it will feature any extreme skews from retailers we cannot easily track ourselves, but right at this moment the Christmas Number One race is still Clean Bandit’s to lose.


Saturday December 17th – 2pm: “The first glimpse of how the race is shaping up will be issued to the media around lunchtime this Sunday” announced the Official Charts Company on Friday afternoon. Well just like a child on Christmas Eve it turns out they could not wait and unwrapped the presents early, presenting a unique Saturday lunchtime sales flash. This is risky, and the OCC themselves admit that it contains no streaming data at present and is based solely on pre-orders and purchased sales. Even then the update it still startling, suggesting that the London Hospices Choir is in the lead, followed by Rag’N’Bone Man at 2 and Inspiral Carpets at 3. But that has to be a nonsense, bearing no relation at all to even the live iTunes data we can see via their published live charts which presently list the LHC as the 36th most popular download of the moment. So I suspect this update doesn’t include iTunes information at all, which would not be unusual. What it appears to reflect is early purchasing on Amazon, which tends to be the destination of choice for people who have jumped on board a social media promotion and entered the music market for the only time this year. Because in their minds, you buy everything else online from Amazon so why not a digital track? Yes, you can do that. But nobody else normally does and so Amazon’s market share is insignificant compared to other players for whom music is their core product. Except when it happens to be the only major retailer which has reported data by Saturday lunchtime. At which point it becomes the basis for wild speculation. So I’m reading nothing into this absurdity, and indeed significantly neither are the betting markets. At the time of updating Betfair remain unmoved and have Clean Bandit locked in place as a now strong favourite with the Jo Cox tribute single in second place (based it must be said little more than gut instinct than anything else). Of far more interest will be tonight’s expected data dump from Spotify which will allow us to see just how the race between Clean Bandit and Rag’n’bone Man is developing – and whether Matt Terry’s narrow iTunes lead is being bolstered at all by an improvement in his streams.


Friday December 16th – 9pm: So Clean Bandit are Number One for the final week before Christmas. Which in itself means nothing – being top of the charts for one seven day period has utterly no bearing on whether another record will sell more than you in the next seven day period after all. What is significant is that the Clean Bandit single did so in the teeth of some strong competition, both from new releases and a current chart rival, resulting in its slipping 1-4 in the sales table. Details are in the Chart Watch UK column which is linked at the right hand side of this page. No, Rockabye is Number One still because its streams were far in excess of any sales rivals. And that matters when it comes to deposing it. Any chart-invading single which wants to reach the top has no choice but to ratchet up such a commanding sales lead that the effectively 40,000 copies head start Clean Bandit has becomes irrelevant. Not that this cannot happen – remember Justin Bieber and his 5.5m streams last year which were ultimately irrelevant? But at least for now, not one of the ‘other’ Xmas No.1 rivals. Be they charity hits or Facebook campaigns have anything approaching a strong sales momentum. And every hour they do not have one, the existing hits build up a lead which becomes ever harder to overcome. Right now we still have a race. But it is between Clean Bandit, Rag’N’Bone Man and theoretically Matt Terry (at least until we see Spotify data). Which is not what anyone expected. On Betfair, Clean Bandit are trading at 3’s, making them favourites above the Jo Cox record. Mind you the Betfair market here is all kinds of wacky. If I’ve read this correctly, just about every other non-runner is showing over £1000 waiting to be matched by backing them at minimal (1.1) odds. This suggests some chancer has laid every record he could name at the same price and is waiting to clean up when none of them top the charts. But that’s what happens when you run a market with a large number of contenders and it is quickly becoming apparent that only one or two can actually win.


Friday December 16th – 1pm: I now know who is Number One this week, and although I can’t tell you until later this evening this does put an interesting spin on the first part of this particular sales and streams race – particularly as the early shape of the overall market indicates that the incumbent hits are those with the early advantage. But all will become clear later. For now we’ve no streaming information to go on, Spotify data doesn’t hit the public domain until late the following day meaning it won’t be until 6pm Saturday until we know what is being streamed right now. But that’s largely irrelevant anyway given that the incoming contenders, the singles released specifically with the aim of being Xmas Number One, won’t be in a position to grab many streams anyway. If anything comes from nowhere to top the charts it will be on sales alone – just as the NHS Choir did last year. And in truth they have all started slowly at sales. Charity single The Living Years is languishing at 14 on iTunes, the Friends Of Jo Cox single (which isn’t actually in aid of a registered charity) down at 16 with a handful of other novelties lower down. As we’d half suspected, the sheer number of “causes” lobbying for your 59p or 99p have only served to dilute focus. Campaign tracks are thin on the ground. Attempts to fire Saturn 5 by The Inspiral Carpets to the top have propelled it to 13 on iTunes thus far. With a following wind it may well end up Top 40 for Christmas which will be nice to see (it’s a great song after all) but in no circumstances Christmas Number One. Meanwhile the Betfair market comes alive at this point in proceedings and shows where the clever money is going. The Jo Cox single is a bizarre favourite at just over 2.1 (or even money in old-fashioned terms). So that’s an easy lay for me. As far as that market is concerned it is between that single and Clean Bandit with nobody else in with a chance.


Friday December 16th – 9am: Yes, it is that time of the year again. However much we hardened chart watchers or music fans may lament the circus which has grown over the years to become a frenzy, it is hard to escape the fact that the annual “race” to become the Christmas Number One has become one of the most high profile popular music events of the year. There comes a point when you can do little more than embrace that. So here then is my contribution, a week-long blog of the events that take place to shape the market and just how the runners and riders (and indeed whichever of your favourites you have backed) are doing. There’s a strange irony that this comes hard on the heels of a ‘regular’ chart week which actually played host to one of the tensest and most intriguing chart races of the year, but all we can do is sit and wait to see how this one plays out. As I have noted on Chart Watch UK over the past few weeks, you can divide the contenders into one of four categories:

  • ‘Normal’ hit singles from mainstream acts. Including the incumbent Number One record (the identity of even that we won’t know until this evening) and other current hit singles. In a sense, this is the ideal scenario. The Christmas Number One being a “proper” hit single for the first time in decades.
  • A charity single as has been the case on a number of occasions over the past few years. I have a low opinion of these, the quality of the music now secondary to the need to virtue signal and buy a record just to show how much you are pretending to care about cause x (or even cause y). Culturally they are an irrelevance and indeed undermine any remaining argument as to why it is “important” to be Christmas Number One. Last year’s winners The Lewisham And Greenwich NHS Choir set a record the week after Christmas – for the greatest fall from the top of the charts ever. Because one week later everyone stopped caring so much it seems, and they weren’t all that bothered about the music.
  • An online campaign, from those taking inspiration from past efforts and using the power of social media to encourage mass buy-ins of random old singles. Whereas once the motivation appeared to be to “stop X Factor from getting to the top” this has taken on rather less urgency. Few if any can manage the kind of momentum needed to obliterate the competition.
  • A festive classic. This was a possibility floated by friends a few weeks ago and for a time it appeared the concept had legs. Seasonal perennials may have reached a saturation point as downloads, but as streaming hits they remain as potent as ever, perhaps more so as the market for streaming services grows. Already Mariah Carey’s All I Want For Christmas Is You has landed its highest chart placing for a decade. However for all the talk of streaming accounting for 86% of chart ‘sales’ these days, at the top end of the market things are closer to a 50/50 split. One day circumstances may mean than an oldie becomes the most played track in the week up to Christmas and thus the Christmas Number One. But that won’t happen this year.

Me? I’m truly ruling nothing out and nothing in. All I will do is note that this is a week when normal expectations and the normal rules of consumer engagement do not apply. Last Christmas Justin Bieber enjoyed 5.5 million streams of Love Yourself but still finished as runner-up. The sell-through market may have contracted still further in 2016, but Christmas week and indeed the chance to contribute to the Christmas Number One race will inspire people to dust off their iTunes logins and buy some music for the first and only time this year. And we have no idea how these people will behave. Keep checking back later in the week. Let’s just hope this turns into a fun and indeed close race rather than one which is all over bar the shouting by Tuesday.

Quiz-Mania

To the Royal Garden Hotel in Kensington on Monday night, the occasion being the annual staging of the Nordoff-Robbins Music Industry pop quiz, an event which has achieved near legendary status over the years for those who work in or around the music business. And for the first time I was able to be there too, invited to be (hopefully) a key member of the team fielded by the Official Charts Company. Double the personal thrill in so many ways I would struggle to articulate here.

There is nothing duller than hearing an after the fact account of someone else’s night out, so I’ll gloss over most of the details. Suffice to say our team came third, trailing behind eventual winners Warner Music who had a ringer of their own in the shape of Andy Healing from Sainsbury’s who has been in equal measure a quizzing rival and collaborator since we were both at university together in the early 1990s. And I hope he choked on the champagne.

So what did I take away from this evening more than anything else? It wasn’t simply the belated realisation that relying on a Circle Line train to convey you in a stress-free and timely manner both to your destination and away from it in time to land the last train home for the night is inadvisable. Neither was it that you should never sneer at the people who pre-fetch their coats from the cloakroom just before the close of proceedings. They are the ones out the door and making their train home while the rest of you are queueing 20 deep at the booth wishing the solitary man in charge had more hands to retrieve more than four coats at a time from their hangers.

No, it was that there is nothing more fun, more soul-affirming than making music a shared experience. And we simply do not do enough of this in the modern world. Music has become something we do while retreated in a cocoon. Our music is on our personal devices, ones into which we plug headphones of ever more lovingly crafted fidelity. Ones to which the finest minds have focused their attention on filtering out the sound of the outside world as much as humanly possible. Music is all to often wired directly to our brains, but that stops it entering our hearts.

On Monday night most of the rounds involved identifying a piece of music and then answering a question related to it. Once done you could sit back and enjoy it, or just sing along with the similarly drunk people on your table. An Ibiza-themed round saw the room turn into a mini-rave as Cafe Del Mar blared out over the speakers. And a hotel ballroom full of people all as one threw Big Fish Little Fish shapes and smiled.

Because enjoying music together is fun.

Works In Progress

Hello friends, it isn’t often these days that I use this platform for a random update of this or that, but it seemed appropriate to talk about the progress of the various projects I’m current juggling in between real life. In no particular order they are:

The Next Book

It seems like ages since I published the last book in the Top 40 Annual series. April 2015 to be precise, which just so happened to be the date I began work on the next volume. The fact that it has taken so long is a testament to my own lack of organisational skills and the sheer awkward way life has a habit of throwing up obstacles that mean no sooner have I got into a groove of writing then the opportunities slip away. But be assured the 1989 volume is coming, it is nearing completion and there should be something on the shelves in early 2017.

Chart Watch UK

That is naturally subject to other distractions, one of which happens to be the new Chart Watch UK site  of which I am inordinately proud and continually excited to spend time on. Its primary purpose is to be the home of the latest chart updates and commentaries and indeed it is these articles which represent the bulk of the weekly traffic. My only frustration there is the fact that my regular Friday routine means it is sometimes late in the evening when I finally get the full text uploaded rather than swiftly after chart publication. But if that means something for people to devour over breakfast on Saturday then so be it.

I’m also racing forward on the surprisingly involved process in uploading the archives, the near complete set of columns that date back to the end of 1992. Although there are times when I grow tired of the sound of my own voice on the page, it is nonetheless a fascinating exercise, both in relearning trivia which I’d drawn attention to at the time but had all but forgotten about in the years since. Working my way through chronologically it is also fascinating to note the way I grew and developed as a writer and spotting the exact moment when I truly found my ‘voice’ as an author and when the pieces grew from a dry revelation of facts and figures into proper analysis and discourse.

I’m frequently in two minds as to what to focus on first, whether to concentrate on the more contemporary commentaries to hook in the casual reader, or to treat it as a history lesson and do it all in order, leaving people waiting for the 21st century when the columns grew really good and were arguably at the peak of their popularity and influence. Your own thoughts are naturally welcome. For now at the time of writing I’ve put 1992, 1993, 1994, 2010 and 2011 up in full and am working my way through 1995.

The Podcast

Alas that is the one project which for now is on indefinite hold. Whilst I’d been producing it with the same enthusiasm and love for the medium I always had, the truth is that every week it was becoming harder and harder to find the time to prepare, record and edit it. When two weeks went by in which I’d scripted the broadcast but not actually found time to sit and do the recording, I had to ask myself how viable it was. The truth is as well that despite the loyal and enthusiastic audience the podcasts had, they were small in number and just not growing in any way at all. They are fun to do and an essential part of the multimedia age in which we live, but as a core part of my own brand they served little purpose in the long run.

I’ve not ruled out restarting or tweaking the format in the future, but for now that is one project which is on hiatus until I’m less time poor.

Back Catalogue

Zack Evans is one of my oldest friends, a man I have known for almost 25 years now – back in the days of university bulletin boards when he was RAVE CHILD and thus in the best position to pull me up on my ignorance of dance music. To this day he will still pull me up on things, just like he did on Twitter last week when upon reading my last post he noted:

Yes, strong words, although in truth probably more a case of both lazy writing on my part or at very best use of some dramatic hyperbole to emphasise the point I was trying to make. Nonetheless for any long time music fan, the availability of vast catalogues of recorded music all of which can be heard at the press of a screen or the click of a mouse can be a rollercoaster experience. For every moment of joy at discovering the presence of songs you had long thought were confined only to your memory (hence the Elaine Paige piece last week) there are indeed some glaring omissions which make you go scuttling back to your physical collections for reassurance.

The most notable digital absentees remain Def Leppard. At one point legitimately the biggest rock group on the planet, you will search the Spotify or indeed iTunes catalogues in vain for albums such as HysteriaAdrenalize or indeed most of their lesser starred recording released either side. The reason for this is apparently because the group long ago inked a deal which means all rights to their music revert to them 20 years after release. They choose to exploit this ownership of their catalogue by crafting deluxe editions of the old records, making them physical collectors items. They appear to have no interest in moving into the digital age and in the process perhaps facilitating discovery of their work by new generations. Super-serving the long term fans is their aim, and in truth they are rich enough not to care about losing out on any other revenue streams. All they have on Spotify then is a live album and the handful of reworked tracks they did for the Rock Of Ages musical soundtrack. However the presence there of their most recent deluxe repackaging, 1996s Slang suggests that possibly all it takes is time and remastered versions of their most famous albums will eventually appear.

Some artists are just wilfully unavailable in all forms. The chances of Spotify and the like ever containing “every last bit of popular music ever recorded” are minimal when there are acts such as the KLF whose entire catalogue has been deleted for over two decades. Virtually everything Bill Drummond and Jimmy Cauty have ever done can be interpreted as a carefully thought out piece of performance art. Their refusal to allow anyone to buy or legitimately listen to any of the work which made them famous in the early 1990s is probably best viewed in those terms rather than being a case of the pair being miserable bastards.

For my part I remain continually annoyed at the gaps in the catalogue which means I cannot revisit my appreciation of the second album from Material Issue. The power pop trio’s 1991 debut International Pop Overthrow is present and correct on Spotify, but the follow-up Destination Universe is missing, this despite being released by the same label and under the terms of the same record deal. Until someone chooses to throw up a dodgy rip on YouTube it means I can’t hear What Girls Want or forgotten classic single When I Get This Way (Over You) and either appreciate it anew or discover that my memory of it is playing tricks.

But that said, for all the above frustrations, Spotify contains the kind of gems which I never dreamed I’d either hear again or be able to get my hands on easily. Elaine Paige’s 1991 comeback attempt we’ve already covered, but there is other stuff as well. For many years the Michael Jackson oddity Farewell My Summer Love was something of a holy grail for collectors. The cash-in 1984 release featured ten year old Motown material newly reworked with overdubs to make the songs sound halfway relevant in the post-Thriller era. It had fallen off the catalogue shortly after release. When the singer died in 2009 his entire musical output poured back onto the charts. Yet Farewell My Summer Love remained missing, despite its title track becoming a Top 10 hit in the UK in the summer of 1984. A cassette of the album was presented to me on my 11th birthday to accompany my first ever walkman. I must have played it a hundred times before donating it to my sister (busily building up her own Michael Jackson collection) who promptly lost it.

Yet not only is the album now online in its entirety but there are complete sets of Motown recordings featuring the original untouched 1970s tracks allowing side by side comparison. That’s utterly phenomenal.

I also love the esoterica you can stumble across. Many years ago my friend Louis played for me an old Bernard Cribbins LP of novelty songs he had uncovered from one of the many second hand record shops he would spend his weekends wallowing in. It was the kind of collectable which made searching racks of records such a joy, an all but forgotten gem from the past. Only now his entire recorded catalogue is up on Spotify. And I can play it any time I want.

Every “last bit of popular music ever recorded”? No not quite. But there is more than enough to satisfy for now.

Dumb Enough

Elaine Paige had never truly been a pop star.

For sure, during the 1980s she had made more than her fair share of forays into the pop singles charts, but these were by and large as an adjunct to her primary career as a star of musical theatre. It just so happened she was for a while the favourite muse of the composers of some of the most famous theatrical productions of the decade and was therefore gifted the chance to sing on some of their most iconic works.

Thus when we think of Memory it is not in terms of the show-stopping first act closer in Andrew Lloyd-Webber and Tim Rice’s Cats but more as Elaine Paige’s signature rendition of the song, and one which she took to Number 6 in the charts in the summer of 1981. The same goes for the musical Chess which is not defined by Murray Head’s One Night In Bangkok (although that would be no bad thing) but instead by I Know Him So Well which as performed by Elaine Paige and Barbara Dickson was a memorable Number One hit single in early 1985 and was appreciated on its own level by people who were ignorant of its true context in the libretto of the musical.

This interplay between stage show and chart success had however resulted in the singer recording a handful of albums, although her most successful ones had been TV-advertised collections of songs from stage and screen: 1983 release Stages and its 1984 follow-up Cinema both released through K-Tel records, the former reaching the dizzy heights of Number 2 upon release. Then in 1988 came the rather notorious Queen Album which saw Elaine Paige croon her way through selected highlights of the Queen back catalogue accompanied by a Philharmonic Orchestra. It is as extraordinary as it sounds and in truth deserves an entire blog devoted to it. But that is for another time.

However in 1991 she signed a new deal with RCA records, the label convinced that they had the secret to turning the then 43 year old star into a mainstream pop performer in her own right. To that end she travelled to California to record with renowned producer Dennis Lambert. The result was Love Can Do That, an album crammed with contemporary songs from some very big names indeed. Diane Warren was in there, as were Steinberg and Kelly (via a cover of Cyndi Lauper’s True Colours). The album was hailed as a very big deal indeed and was promoted as a huge priority – including extensive coverage for what was hoped would be its major hit single.

Well Almost had a pedigree all of its own, composed by one man hit factory Mike Chapman alongside his favourite protege Holly Knight. It was also very Diane Warren-like, a made for FM radio mid-tempo soft rock anthem which in truth barely stretched the powerful talents of its appointed singer but whose highly polished vocal tones somehow made it exude a classiness which made it stand out from the crowd. The song had a huge fan in the shape of Radio One mid-morning host Simon Bates who played it virtually every day for a fortnight in March 1991, proclaiming “this is the single which will send Elaine Paige back to the top of the charts”.

 

History records that didn’t quite go as plan. Well Almost failed to chart at all as stockists and indeed purchasers appeared singularly uninterested in Elaine Paige’s pop star reinvention. It is a shame because the song is at the end of the day a rather classy and well constructed pop record. It was just that it was possibly a record out of time, a production steeped in the musical shorthand of the late-80s with its chiming synths and squealing guitar figures. It wasn’t that the charts of the time weren’t host to such soft-rock balladry. The One And Only by Chesney Hawkes was at Number One at around the same time after all, but by and large such records were outliers. Novelties harking back to what was by then a bygone musical era. If it had been backed by being the soundtrack to a hit film or the theme to a TV series then Well Almost might have stood a chance. As a major pop hit it never truly stood a chance.

The Love Can Do That album fared slightly better, limping to Number 36 in the charts and spending a month with respectable levels of sales. It would turn out to be her final dalliance with pop music. Her stage career would hit new heights with her acclaimed portrayal of Edith Piaf in 1993 and she would spend the rest of the decade in her comfort zone, releasing albums of songs from stage musicals – heralding in a way her later career as a radio presenter dealing with the very same material.

Yet despite its failure I’ve still a soft spot for Well Almost. For years it was for me one of the great lost pop records and indeed a track which for a long time I had a yearning to hear again, having never picked up a copy when it was released. I genuinely hadn’t heard it since that ill-starred release until I started working in full time radio three years later and spent one Saturday evening browsing the hidden depths of the record library at The Pulse in Bradford. There to my delight on the shelf I found a copy of the Love Can Do That CD and so was thrilled to be able to play Well Almost to myself. Then the song became a long buried memory once more, that was until 2001 and the heyday of the fantastic (and illegal) Audiogalaxy file sharing app which miraculously seemed to contain a copy of every song ever recorded. I spent one long evening queuing up a download of all manner of hard to find tracks – amongst them Well Almost a copy of which I was finally able to own after ten years of searching.

I note with some amusement that anecdotes such as the above will themselves one day become long buried memories. Despite sometimes annoying gaps in their coverage (still no sign of Material Issue’s second album even after all this time) services such as Spotify are close to containing every last bit of popular music ever recorded. It means that buried in their database as you can see above is indeed Elaine Paige’s long-lost “pop” album from 1991 and the song which was supposed to take her to the very summit once more but which now relies upon people like me to call attention to it a generation later.

Hang Cool Pensioner Bear

It is a terrible thing for a man to have to admit to himself, but sometimes you just have to come clean and confront the issue head on.

I’m incredibly ageist. I just don’t like hearing old people sing.

As we move into what might be termed the post-revolution era of Rock, this becomes an ever growing issue. It is becoming clearer by the year that old rockers never retire. Where once upon a time bands split up and musical careers lasted a blink of an eye, the modern trend is for the past to be celebrated and embraced. Groups and performers can simply return from a break, re-cast themselves as veterans and continue to make music into their dotage. Admit it, could anyone in 1962 have predicted that Paul McCartney would still be performing in 2016, or said the same about Rod Stewart in 1971?

Yet here lies the problem for at times although the spirit is willing the flesh grows ever weaker. And the human voice, the singer’s ultimate tool, is a muscle which can waste just like any other. Now don’t get me wrong, this doesn’t happen overnight. Most singers only improve with age. You cannot compare a U2 record of recent years with recordings of theirs from 1983 and deny that the Bono of today possesses a richer, deeper and more soulful set of pipes. But there comes a point where that improvement goes into sharp reverse. The range isn’t what it was, the power starts to die, the tone becomes raspier and even your vocal diction itself takes a turn for the worse.

Some singers take that on board and embrace it. Artists such as Johnny Cash and David Bowie took full advantage of their advancing years and towards the end of their lives re-cast themselves as older men in their dotage. It meant they rode the change in their vocal abilities and made no attempt to overreach. If only others could use that as a template.

So I’m unabashedly prejudiced against old men (and it is always the male stars) who fight the ravages of age and still try to howl like teenagers. And this is a prejudice I’ve been forced to confront head on this week because Meat Loaf has a new album that I really, really wanted to like.

I’ve not touched an album of his for a decade now. The failure of Bat Out Of Hell III to deliver on the promise of the title, its failure to actually be any bloody good, its inability to live up to the legacy of its title soured things for me slightly. Truth is I’ve never been a proper Meat Loaf fan – I’m only here for Jim Steinman. For the songs he writes and sometimes produces. Meat is the vessel into which that genius is primarily poured. With the honourable exception of albums such as Welcome To The Neighbourhood in 1995, I can take or leave his non-Steinman work.

But then along came brand new album Braver Than We Are, his first completely Steinman-penned album since the second Bat album in 1993. A collection of songs penned by the celebrated producer over many decades, it is clearly designed to be his final valedictory musical statement. In what is reported to be less than robust health, Steinman isn’t in the producer’s chair for the album but we are told oversaw the whole creative process. These are mostly new songs from the one modern day songwriter whose turn of phrase can evoke angels painting in primary colours, the urgency and drive of youth and the wild passions that lie beneath the surface of every romantic soul. Truly I could drink in his poetry forever.

All I can say is thank heavens for Spotify, giving me the chance to ‘audition’ the album before contemplating shelling out cash for it. Because it is bloody awful. And the problem is Meat Loaf himself. Never the most technically adept singer, his appeal came from the sheer power of his voice and his urgent need to live through every song he performed. Yet he’s now 68 years old, lurching himself from one health crisis to another, his body showing the ravages of a life lived on stage. The voice that used to tear at your soul, the one which is indelibly associated with some of the most famous rock records of modern times, is now husky and pained. Limited in range beyond anything that has gone before, his attempts to bellow out Steinman songs which require bombast and vigour to do them true justice are almost painful to listen to. Meat Loaf has lost the ability to sing in the way he could before, and it is almost as if everyone is scared to point that out to him.

It breaks my heart to even have to think this way. Because, as I noted above, really I’m here for Jim and not Meat. The songs themselves are immaculate. The soundtrack to the Broadway musical of your dreams, intense widescreen dramas of sex and emotion set in a Peter Pan world where everyone is a horny teenager forever. 11 minute epics such as Going All The Way Is Just A Start invite you to live an entire life with the characters within, running through five different melodies yet leaving you with the feeling that you’ve been singing along throughout. I can tolerate a Steinman song even when it is performed badly, his own Bad For Good album somehow all the more charming thanks to his own barely adequate yelping. But Braver Than We Are is a step too far. Meat Loaf singing songs about a fantasy life whilst sounding like his is about to expire before the end of the next line. He’s still trying to sing like he did 40 years ago. And he simply cannot.

So I’m an ageist. And I surely cannot be alone.

Keep Left, No Right

There are few aspects of the process of air travel which are anything approaching a pleasure to endure. The check-in queue, security clearance, the scrum at the gate, immigration, baggage reclaim. They all involve rather more standing around and in unpleasant surroundings than one would ordinarily be prepared to tolerate. But we are a captive market at airports and so we endure it. Or face arrest I guess.

I’d be tempted to now add “going to the car rental office” to that list, my first ever experience of paying to drive someone else’s car as part of a holiday trip began as so many of them do, standing in the queue at the Europcar offices whilst the people in front acted as if having to produce identification, documentation, licences and sign their name on insurance agreements was something that only happened in films. Meanwhile I’d planned ahead and clicked the “speedy rental” option on the website when booking, the net result being the entire process once I had finally worked my way to the front of the queue took no longer than about 6-7 minutes.

“It’s that one just over there”, stated the lady at the car park office, tossing me the key over the counter and gesturing over her shoulder to the row of gleaming vehicles lined up through the glass behind her. I climbed inside the Toyota Pulsar which detected my key, lit up in welcome and invited me to PRESS START.

The location was Toulouse-Blagnac airport and the next two hours were to be a succession of interesting firsts. I won’t lie, I was nervous. I’ve been driving for over 25 years now but the prospect of taking a rented car on unfamiliar roads through an unfamiliar country had been causing me a small number of sleepless nights. In the end I was glad of the nervous energy, for this would turn out to be a exceptionally stiff learning curve. The issues, I discovered, were threefold:

1) Left Hand Drive

We’ve all had foreign guests over who spend the first 48 hours attempting to get in the wrong side of the car to occupy the passenger seat. But nothing can prepare you for the first time you sit on the ‘wrong’ side of the car to drive. Changing gears with the ‘wrong hand’, groping fruitlessly for the handbrake which too is on a different side. Window controls, even the indicator stick, all of them not where you expect them to be. And once you exit the airport car park and are spat out onto the public highway there is no ‘training level’. You have to get it right as quickly as possible.

The hardest part for me however was repositioning myself on the road. Because when you’ve spent your entire life sat on the right hand side of a car, your spatial awareness senses assume the rest of the car is to the left of you. Only now it isn’t. I discovered that within minutes, ramming the kerb as I wound my way of of the car park exit. Because I was just too far right. Most of the first part of the journey consisted of Mrs Masterton shrieking DISTANCE every time I overtook a lorry on the autoroute, passing within inches of the wheels of the other vehicle as I occupied the middle of the adjoining lane, rather than its extreme left. Even towards the end I was self consciously checking my position on the road each time I made a turn or changed lane. Because my mind never quite dealt with the change.

2) Drive On The Right

Yeah yeah, this is an obvious one surely. Everyone who has never done it before worries about just how they will cope motoring down the roads in reverse, and everyone who has done it reassures you that it is easier than you might think. Which is correct. Once you’ve cautiously approached a few junctions and noted exactly where you are supposed to be pointing the nose it all seems to come naturally. And after all you are for the most part just following everyone else. Roundabouts take some getting used to, naturally. Driving around them clockwise and in particular overcoming the muscle memory which means you have the urge to check your left mirror just before peeling off. When naturally this time it should be the right. Over the course of the five days of driving around I became very glad that the French are not as enamoured of major multi-lane gyratories as the British authorities seem to be. Roundabouts (outside of major cities) are single lane entities. Pop on, pop out. Job done. Just go the right way round.

3) Change Up, Change Down

Oh now this was the really fun part. Because the car had a manual gearbox. And I’ve just spent the past four and a half years driving an automatic car. “Are you sure you will be OK with that” was the question asked when we first booked the transport. I assured the master of the house that all would be and in any event I noted that to hire an automatic adds about £100 to the cost. So that was out of the question. And how hard could it be really? Until I bought the current family car (it was a damn good deal) I’d never contemplated doing anything other than changing my own gears. Yet I still forgot to tell myself to do it. To drag back to the front of my mind the silky smooth clutch action I had developed ever since the age of 17. I proudly eased the car forward with the family on board, approached the junction, indicated and lurched forward in a stall. Because the “change down” muscle memory had vanished completely. In fact I spent the first hour of the journey almost totally disoriented. This wasn’t any old stick shift car, this was an ultra modern model with a flash six speed gearbox of a kind I’d never stumbled across before. I swear if engines could talk mine would have been screaming “WHAT ARE YOU DOING YOU FOOL” as I wrestled with the stick, missed gears, all but made the engine jump out the bonnet when losing track of where I was and shifting 5-2 without warning. It wasn’t until three days in that I noticed the onboard computer had a display telling me which gear to change into at the appropriate moment. Although as Mrs Masterton noted “if it is intelligent enough to know what gear it is supposed to be in, why can’t it just do it anyway”.

The really run part though? Handing the car back in immaculate condition *proud* and climbing back into the comfort zone of my own which had sat waiting at Gatwick airport for a week. Only it wasn’t such a comfort zone, as I’d now forgotten how to drive an automatic again. So I approached roundabouts groping for the invisible gear stick and doing sharper brakes than planned at traffic lights as my left foot went for a non-existent clutch pedal.

We men define ourselves by many strange things. Our ability to cook meat over fires (pass the meths), the potency of our genitalia (mustn’t brag) for example. But most of all it is our ability to handle a finely tuned piece of machinery. We’ve been back from holiday for a week and I’m still ironing out the kinks in my manhood. Never again (until next time).

I Feel It In My Fingers

Theoretically this is the stuff that we chart nerds dream of. For the first time in quite some time discussion of the UK music charts has gone properly mainstream. Except this isn’t in such a good way. The presence of the same song at the top of the singles chart week in week out, and a song which thanks to streaming hasn’t actually been the top seller of the day for a full 11 weeks at the time of writing to boot, has prompted many a furrowed brow and questions asked in some quite surprising places.

First off the blocks was a rare bit of editorialising from the always entertaining Into The Popvoid blog with a polemic about the whole nature of streaming changing the charts and naturally using the ‘R’ word in relation to it – ruining. Alas this is one of the few pieces on the site which doesn’t have comments enabled so it wasn’t possible for anyone to refute any of the points made should they desire to do so.

Then a few weeks later came an NME feature “Why Is The Singles Chart So Stagnant” which for the first time saw the Head Of Music at Radio One wondering out loud whether they might be about to do something which in the modern age was unthinkable and drop the current Number One single from their playlist. This piece will have almost certainly informed the production of a similarly themed article from the BBC themselves, this time asking “Has Streaming Broken The UK Singles Chart“. Then most extraordinarily of all came a short “and finally” feature in Newsnight on Wednesday 20th July on very much the same topic. You cannot embed iPlayer streams sadly, but if you are reading this before August 19th 2016 then you can watch the report here from the 33:41 mark in the show.

The highlight of the latter incidentally has to be the Official Charts Company’s Chief Executive Martin Talbot all but bellowing STOP LIVING IN THE PAST down the camera.

One take on the whole “are streams responsible for Drake knackering things up and are the charts broken beyond repair” debate that you may not have seen however has come from digital consultant Sammy Andrews who wrote her own well considered view on the topic on Medium. Her argument is that the pop charts have historically served two purposes. The first is to be a reflection of the popularity of a piece of recorded music, something which is still the case in the new era of streaming – more so than ever in fact given that (as I am so fond of pointing out) we are seeing in the charts for the first time ever how the public as a whole respond and interact with their favourite songs. Over and over again as it turns out.

The other role, she notes, is that the charts have historically tracked how people discovered and engaged with product rather than consumed it. After all as a general rule you only buy a piece of music once. That’s how the chart life of most records was defined, as a piece of music grew momentum and so more and more people interacted with it for the first time, so it was propelled up the sales charts. Then once saturation point had been reached and everyone who wanted to own the record did so, the track died away. To be replaced by the latest new thing. That is what is no longer happening. The charts aren’t tracking discovery as a reflection of popularity, they are now tracking engagement almost exclusively. And that’s why everything has ground to a halt.

I’ve spent weeks trying not to have an opinion. But go me, now I do:

For those hoping that “something must be done”, have faith, I’m fairly sure it will be. But it won’t be because of Drake. One Dance as I’ve repeatedly said in podcasts is a genuine freak of nature. Its chart domination isn’t confined to this country and it has been played so much online that it wouldn’t matter how you adjusted the formula or ratio of streams:sales used to compile the charts. He’d still have been Number One forever or at the very least a near permanent resident near the top of the charts. Sometimes these tracks come along and you just have to deal with them. To make knee-jerk changes or to tweak the rules to get rid of of one long-running Number One record would be foolhardy. And nobody is suggesting doing so.

I’d note that the very early years of the digital download market also had its fair share of hardy perennials. Whilst they were never in danger of clogging up the Number One position for months on end, tracks such as Gold Digger by Kanye West, Numb/Encore by Jay-Z and Linkin Park and of course Chasing Cars by Snow Patrol took up near permanent chart residency around ten years ago. For some reason everyone who opened an online account felt compelled to purchase these tracks in particular and so they set the benchmarks for the occasional long-lived chart single. But eventually people became bored of them and moved on. So too it will happen with the Drake track.

There has been much talk of the perhaps malign influence of the professionally curated playlists, both those run by the streaming services themselves and those by major labels (albeit cunningly disguised). One Dance is on all of them, so the theory goes, so it has an inbuilt advantage. Well yes and no. Being a high profile part of a much-subscribed playlist certainly gives you an opportunity to be played, but that’s no different from being stocked in an old fashioned record shop gave you the opportunity to be bought. People forget that a song you love rather than one you hate is just one press of a button or screen away. I called it the “shit-click” factor on an old podcast and the advantage One Dance seems to have had is that nobody hates it quite enough to skip past it. So it gets the plays.

Needless to say this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Fear of the shit-click could lead to an increasing blandness and homogenisation of pop music as labels are scared to push boundaries and innovate for fear of not getting the plays. But that’s an argument for another day.

No, if a change is going to come it will be because the Powers That Be in the music industry will have woken up to the fact that the streaming market has now matured and is a very different beast to what it was two years ago. Back in the summer of 2014 we all held our breath as the data was incorporated into what had hitherto been a sales only chart, only to discover that very little changed. The streaming ratio had been so carefully balanced that no great chart revolution took place. At least not immediately.

But two years ago I’d argue that online streams were still largely the preserve of the core body of music fans who were just gently transitioning from always buying to sampling online first of all. They are still around but have now been swamped by a much larger body, the casual listener, the safe as houses type. The kind of ‘music fan’ that I spent years in commercial radio being told we were catering to. Those who want the familiarity of their current favourites and little more.

That’s why the UK singles chart has all the thrill of a Heart FM playlist. Because it is being shaped by the very same people radio stations are crafted for. And if they want One Dance day in day out, that is what they get.

That’s why a rethink may well be in order. I don’t think 100 streams is equivalent to 1 sale any more, regardless of the economic argument that the revenue for each is more or less the same. As Sammy Andrews notes, they have been added to the singles chart as a blunt instrument rather than a carefully constructed accessory. Two years ago that was valid. I don’t believe it is any more.

It is not that the singles chart methodology hasn’t evolved in the recent past either. A decade ago the digital download was effectively phased in over two years, first of all in 2005 only permitted alongside a physical equivalent then from 2006 what I always called the curate’s egg era of digital sales being permitted one week ahead of physical release and then for either one year or two weeks after physical deletion depending which came first. It wasn’t until 2007 that the plunge was fully taken and digital sales of any kind could count regardless. And so it remained for the next seven years.

We are in an era of transition, both for the music business and for the average consumer in the living room. By adding streams in 2014 the Official Charts were for once ahead of the curve in reacting to this change. We are fast approaching the point when the nettle has to be grasped again. Watch this space.